The Sphinx of Political Economy: Burke, Commerce, and the Question of Virtue
Did Edmund Burke actually embrace the abstract rationalism of the French Revolution? Burke is known for being the foremost critic of the Revolution, and for articulating a conservative political philosophy in opposition to it that blended a defense of the collected wisdom of the past with an ethic of prudential amelioration. Yet he firmly defended the Enlightenment’s rationalist principles of market liberalism in his primary economic tract, Thoughts and Details on Scarcity. In this light, scholars have accused Burke of employing in his economic theory the same language of metaphysical abstractionism that he condemned Jacobins for spreading during the Revolution. The purpose of this dissertation, therefore, is to clarify the principles of Burke’s philosophy of political economy and examine how they relate to his political philosophy. It will further explore whether Burke’s economic theory locates a tension in mass commercial societies that anticipates modern critiques of market economies. The seeming contradiction arising from Burke’s defense of chivalric virtue in Reflections on the Revolution in France and his passionate endorsement of market economies in Thoughts and Details has been called the “Burke-Smith” problem, or what this dissertation describes as a sphinx. In Burke’s judgment, a mix of traditional customs, common law, and social and religious institutions furnished the stability necessary to sustain constitutional government. Yet Burke advocated the release of economic decision-making from the hand of the state. He championed vibrant free market commercial activities for, among various reasons, promoting public prosperity, circulating scarce resources in an efficient manner, and cultivating virtue. How was Burke able to preserve his own philosophical commitment to tradition while, at the same time, endorsing Adam Smith’s classical liberal economic thought? This dissertation argues that Burke’s reflections on political economy retain a consistency with his political philosophy. Burke’s endorsement of markets affirms, not undermines, his aversion to abstract reason. This skepticism of rationality in political affairs informed his awareness of the complexity of private economic activity. And Burke’s belief in the merit of gradual reform alerted him to the dangers of state intrusion into organically developing contractual arrangements. In addition, Burke did not apprehend an inherent tension between ethics and commerce that could not be reconciled. In his judgment, a careful integration of market dynamism and the moderating presences of traditional virtue and landed property was essential for commercial prosperity. Burke believed that markets generated great advantages but also contained inherent limits, and that the failure to recognize both realities posed a threat to civilizational order.
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