Edmund Burke on the Free Market

In the Huffington Post, Alex Zakaras, a political theorist at the University of Vermont, levels a familiar charge at today’s GOP: they’re not real conservatives.

Over the last several decades, the party has abandoned political conservatism and embraced its opposite: an agenda of radical, experimental reform.

I’ve addressed this argument many times, including in a book now out in paperback that’s selling for $16, so there is no need for me to rehearse my position here.

What drew my attention to Zakaras’s piece is this claim:

As of the 2013 Congress, fortified by libertarian ideological purists, the Republican Party can no longer claim this [conservative] tradition as its own….The dominant faction–among the elites who fund and speak for the party–is now driven by a very different ideology. It believes that the size and scope of government should be vastly reduced, that public services should whenever possible be privatized, and that market principles should be extended into ever more areas of human life–from education to retirement savings to prisons. Whatever the merits of this ideology, it is simply a mistake to call it conservative.

Why, then, should true conservatives remain infatuated with unregulated–or minimally regulated–markets?

I thought about composing a long reply, showing how deeply rooted in conservative principles the right’s embrace of free-market capitalism truly is, but a version of that long reply is forthcoming in a piece in the Nation. So I’ll leave that for another day.

Instead, I’ll simply allow someone I trust we all consider to be a true conservative to speak for the team:

The value of money must be judged, like every thing else, from it’s rate at market. To force that market, or any market, is of all things the most dangerous.

Let Government protect and encourage industry, secure property, repress violence, and discountenance fraud, it is all that they have to do. In other respects, the less they meddle in these affairs the better.

Of all things, an indiscreet tampering with the trade of provisions is the most dangerous.

Laws prescribing, or magistrates exercising, a very stiff, and often inapplicable rule, or a blind and rash discretion, never can provide the just proportions between earning and salary on the one hand, and nutriment on the other: whereas interest, habit, and the tacit convention, that arise from a thousand nameless circumstances, produces a tact that regulates without difficulty, what laws and magistrates cannot regulate at all.

The balance between consumption and production makes price. The market settles, and alone can settle, that price. Market is the meeting and conference of the consumer and producer, when they mutually discover each other’s wants. Nobody, I believe, has observed with any reflection what market is, without being astonished at the truth, the correctness, the celerity, the general equity, with which the balance of wants is settled. They who wish the destruction of that balance, and would fain by arbitrary regulation decree, that defective production should not be compensated by encreased price, directly lay their axe to the root of production itself.

The last three of these statements are from Burke’s Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, which he wrote in response to a scheme adopted by the magistrates of Berkshire in 1795 to supplement the earnings of farm laborers with government payments so that they could earn a living wage. The supplement would depend upon a variety of factors: the price of corn, the size of the laborer’s family, the cost of bread. Readers of Karl Polanyi will recognize this plan as the Speenhamland system.

Berkshire was merely the next county over from where Burke lived, and the plan freaked him out. He saw it, among other things, as a portent of the kind of legitimation crisis twentieth-century conservatives would later espy in the welfare state: Extending its commitments to the poor, the state generated expectations and demands it could never meet. The over-extension of the pre-revolutionary French state, Burke argued, generated similar demands and expectations among the poor; that led, in part, to the French Revolution. Or, as Burke put it in his Letters on a Regicide Peace:

This affected pity only tends to dissatisfy them with their condition, and to teach them to seek resources where no resources are to be found—in something else than their own industry, and frugality, and sobriety.

So why should true conservatives remain infatuated with unregulated—or minimally regulated—markets? Because a great many of them always have been.


  1. matt March 20, 2013 at 8:25 am | #

    Can I just commend you for the linking (and the links) that you “embed” (get the Polanyi joke ? LoL) in your posts … after many of your posts, I really feel as if I’ve learned something. I may not have time to go read The Great Transformation in its entirety, but it gives me the framework for developing my understanding ..thanks 🙂

  2. Paul Rosenberg March 20, 2013 at 8:57 am | #

    I hope your Nation piece will spend some time on the deeper why of this attitude. Conservatives trust the market in the same way that they trust in God–as an ultimate form of system justification, to prove, as Maggie Thatcher put it, that There Is No Alternative, only a foolish & childish rebellion against the unalterable nature of things.

    • Mara March 20, 2013 at 3:24 pm | #

      Yes, while the what—conservatives consistently reify the market as they object to state supports for the working class—is important to distinguish, the why reinforces our understanding. I might say that different political positions entreat us to recognize the sacredness of their facsimile of a “nature” –in order to automatize the inclusion limits their preferred social relations require. That’s partially because there is a nature and there are limits to serve as a model, and that’s partially because amongst these, humans tend to use bounded rationality, communicate, consort, organize and change their environment, for which we both desire and need (renegotiable) agreements on social limits—not least because those limits and the environment will change over time due to random and internal dynamics. The conservatives’ sacred, faux natures are God the Father and market, and there’s strategic compulsion to those particular tools, as conditioned by their collective drive to recreate a very exclusive community of the free.

  3. Comrade Joe March 20, 2013 at 12:24 pm | #

    I guess Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lecture on “The Conservative” hasn’t been that influential. As a historian of political thought, do you know where this tradition of “sober” conservatism that Emerson seems to be advocating goes between his time and ours?

    • Benjamin David Steele March 20, 2013 at 6:52 pm | #

      That is a good question. For a long time, there has been those who have talked about this other “sober” conservatism. It’s not clear to me, though, if it has ever been implemented in society beyond a few isolated individuals.

  4. bevin March 20, 2013 at 7:00 pm | #

    To understand the significance of the Speenhamland system it is necessary to put it into the context of the Poor Law in the C18th. There was nothing new about what the magistrates were doing: the poor had a right to subsistence and knew it.

    Burke, even by 1795 when he had been abandoned by his lifelong Whig companions- Francis, Fox, Grey et al- and was crusading against the French revolution, had a very peculiar background for a conservative. He had, as everyone knows, sided with the rebels in the American war, he had pursued Hastings remorselessly and disburdened himself of anti-imperialist sentiments which cannot be mistaken for the conservatism of imperial Britain.

    My view is that indeed Burke was a conservative but of a very anachronistic, Victorian, kind. In Buckinghamshire Burke (who entertained the hope that, for his services to monarchy, he would be granted a peerage Disraeli later took the title Burke had chosen) was importing very radical ideas in suggesting that the poor should be allowed to starve. Conservatives, at the time, were opposed to the new fangled, radical ideas which were on the eve of becoming, via both Whigs and radicals, the new orthodoxy eventually enshrined in the 1834 Act which, and it was not without significance was resisted by, inter alia Tories such as Oastler, Sadler and Shaftesbury, (Disraeli too) the same people who also pushed for Factory Acts.

    I apologise for rambling, this is a very big topic, but I feel that you are wrong to make light of Zakaras’s claim.

    • Paul Rosenberg March 21, 2013 at 8:17 am | #

      The big problem for your argument is that Burke is widely cited as the father of MODERN conservatism. There was an older conservative tradition, rooted in the pre-modern feudal order, which is what you’re referring to. But to pretend that’s the core or norm of conservatism today–especially in the US–is simply ludicrous.

      In Germany, perhaps, it’s still relevant, given the conservatives role in founding the German welfare state–as a pre-emptive strike against the Social Democrats. But that’s why US conservatives consider German conservatives to be “socialists!” just like Barack Obama.

      • Andrew March 21, 2013 at 8:49 pm | #

        Good point Paul. At the heart of Corey’s theory is the idea that conservatism as such entails a defense (and in some cases a revolutionary destruction and creation) of social hierarchy (well of course, that’s what it means to be rightwing in general). Therefore, whether it be the free market cult of the Tea Party or the big welfare statism of the Neocons or Euro-cons, the whole point is to empower the ‘betters to rule over the lessers’.

        Meanwhile, totally off the topic, the debated legacy of American Conservatism’s liberal roots:


  5. Frank Wilhoit March 22, 2013 at 7:53 pm | #

    Conservatism has always been the same in every time and place — even those where it was the only imaginable political paradigm and therefore had no name.

    Conservatism is the proposition that there must be in-groups, whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups, whom the law binds but does not protect.

    The rest is topical window-dressing. It does not matter who the in and out groups are, or how chosen. There is no such thing as conservative economics, or sociology, or diplomacy; there is only impunity for the in groups. The King can do no wrong; in a democracy, the King is not a person, but a faction.

    The Republican Party is therefore a conservative party — no less so, possibly more so, than at any previous time. (It is also sadistic, but that is not because it is conservative; it is because it is American.)

    • Paul Rosenberg March 22, 2013 at 10:05 pm | #

      What you’re describing is actually social dominance orientation, which is certainly *correlated* with conservatism, but not the same thing. See *Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression* http://www.amazon.com/Social-Dominance-Intergroup-Hierarchy-Oppression/dp/0521805406

      • Andrew March 22, 2013 at 10:19 pm | #

        I’ve always been a fan of SDO theory. It reconcils social dominance and ‘selfishness’ with altruism, solving the riddle by positing that egalitarianism is actually a form reverse social dominance whereby the group overpowers the alphas and thens uses threat of violence and/or humiliation to keep any one member of the group from becoming more power than the other. This pairs nicely with anthropologists’ and of course, Marx and Engels’ observations on the ‘primitive communism’ of early hunter-gathering societies.

        Although many would likely cringe at the suggestion, I feel it’s an actual evolutionary explanation for the differences between leftwing and rightwing politics.

        • Benjamin David Steele January 4, 2024 at 2:44 pm | #

          I have doubts about egalitarianism as exactly reverse SDO. It might be useful to clarify. Also, in social science, there is both horizontal collectivism and horizontal individualism. The horizontal aspect is about egalitarianism, but the collectivist variety would be about conformity and the individualist variety autonomy. Both forms of egalitarianism are part of the broad left, while the individualist variety would be more liberal or anarchist. It might not so much be opposite of SDO as being at a different angle from it entirely.

          It reminds me of the meat-shaming practices of many hunter-gatherers. They don’t use force or violence but simply social pressure of putting down the individual successful hunter to suppress egotism. But in the case of dangerous or harmful psychopaths and such, an Inuit individual told someone that such people have a way of experiencing accidents that end their lives (e.g., they fall off the ice). Even so, the Inuit aren’t known as a violent people. Rather, they typically suppress anger, conflict, and aggression.

          So, I don’t know if this is common practice or not among tribal people, even among the Inuit. The Piraha, for example, are pacifists. When a Piraha killed another person, he simply banished himself because he was no longer Piraha, as Piraha don’t kill. No one had to banish him. The shared identity itself (primitive communism?) enforced social norms. My suspicion is that is more often how solidarity operates on a tribal level. Unlike SDO, it doesn’t need to be enforced. Even the meat shaming isn’t exactly humiliation. It seems more like ridicule, just to take the individual’s ego down a notch.


      • Benjamin David Steele February 6, 2022 at 12:52 pm | #

        I’m glad to see others mention SDO theory. This is the main weakness of Corey Robin’s otherwise great historical-based analysis. Without the social science background, it is much harder to get at not only what reactionaries are doing but why they are doing it.

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