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The Place of Laissez-faire Economics in Edmund Burke’s Politics of Order

The Austrian Scholars Conference, March 2002
By Joseph Pappin III, University of South Carolina
President of The Edmund Burke Society of America

I wish to focus upon what until now has been a largely unanswered question: “What is the relationship between Burke’s economic theory and his political theory?” The implications of this question and the built-in assumptions are that Burke’s political economy is entirely libertarian, stressing laissez-faire principles in a free-market setting, and that his political philosophy emphasizes order, hierarchy, tradition – all of which comprise a conservative world-view, recalcitrant towards change, prizing order and virtue over economic liberalism.

It is primarily due to the path-clearing works of Peter Stanlis on Edmund Burke and the Natural Law and Francis Canavan’s The Political Reason of Edmund Burke that the true principles of Burke’s politics were salvaged from the invariant and unyielding “Utilitarian” interpretation purveyed among virtually all Burkean expositors. The natural law foundations of Burke’s politics were retrieved from his Works in which they lay in clear light, and the natural moral law is grounded in the eternal law of God, as Burke maintains.  For Burke man is a creature of God “who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue,” and thereby “impressed an invariable law upon it.” (Tract on the Popery Laws)   But for commentators such as the English Marxist C.B. MacPherson, who claims to advance us beyond the natural law versus liberal utilitarian interpretations, both views lie incomplete: “Both fail,” MacPherson laments in his small volume Burke, “to resolve, indeed largely fail to see, the seeming incoherence between Burke the traditionalist and Burke the bourgeois liberal.” (Burke, Oxford, 1980, p.4). Here, Burke is seen to employ the language of “Natural Law” as a rhetorical device to sanction a tradition based, hierarchical society, which is already being transformed into a free market, capitalist economy. For Burke, “Utility and Natural Law were the same because capitalism and the traditional order were the same,” claims MacPherson, “because capitalism needed the sanction of tradition and habit.” The result: Burke is a bourgeois political economist who grounds the economy – and here is a dose of traditionalism coming through – not on contract but on status. And thus the rhetoric of “Christian Natural Law” is utilized to justify Burke’s own brand of economic reductionism.

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