Sunday, November 18, 2007

Edmund Burke and Adam Smith: how conservative were they?

Frederick Dreyer (professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Western Ontario), writes a high-quality article in National Post (Canada), “Taking the full measure of Edmund Burke” (here), is in complete contrast to the flippancy of George Jonas (see below).

Frederick Dreyer discusses the ‘conservatism’ of Edmund Burke and highlights his differences with a rival politician, Richard Price:

Price was a man of great versatility, and among his many accomplishments, he had written an important book on moral philosophy, Review of the Principal Questions in Morals. (It is still in print today.) To oversimplify matters somewhat, Price's argument is that it is our faculty of reason that allows us to tell right from wrong: "Reason is the natural and authoritative guide of a rational being." Much of what Burke wrote in the Reflections is an implicit attack on Price's moral philosophy. In condemning reason, it is not Voltaire and Rousseau he had in mind, but Richard Price.

In making this attack, Burke drew heavily on another theory of moral philosophy, one that discounted the importance of reason in our moral judgements and stressed the importance of our natural passions. This is the Theory of Moral Sentiments written by his contemporary, Adam Smith. Burke was an uncritical fan of Smith's work. "I am not only pleased with the ingenuity of your theory," he wrote to Smith. "I am convinced of its solidity and truth; and I do not know that it ever cost me less trouble to admit so many things to which I had been a stranger before."

It's a fair guess that the Burke who adored the Theory of Moral Sentiments had no objections to the Wealth of Nations. There is nothing in the Reflections that might not have been written by Smith. Nor is there anything in Burke's collected writings that disagrees with Smith.

Though I think it likely that Burke read the Wealth of Nations, it is not something we can prove. But we can prove perhaps his agreement with it. This is evident from his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, in which he argues against the government's management of the food trade: "To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of government. It would be a vain presumption in statesmen to think they can do it. The people maintain them, and not they the people."

It sounds like Smith, doesn't it? If Burke is the classic conservative, then conservatives have no cause to be ashamed of capitalism

Richard price says: "Reason is the natural and authoritative guide of a rational being", which is plainly non-Smithian, and given Burke’s praise for Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ when it was published in 1759, it is not something that Burke would agree with.

Frederick Dreyer asks a question of which I had not thought about because I assumed that he had read Wealth Of Nations: did ‘Burke read the Wealth of Nations?

It is not as if he could really miss it, given his parliamentary interests and his interests in the American rebellion, of which Adam Smith had much to say about in his critique of colonialism as a mercantile project that was detrimental to British interests in its economy and in its cost (£170 millions pent in wars defending the colonies against France).

However, I would draw attention to the fact that whether Burke read Wealth of Nations is perhaps less important than whether he agreed with Adam Smith’s critique of mercantile political economy, the main purpose embedded in Smith’s work.

Certainly, Edmund Burke sought to distance himself from Adam Smith’s political economy in the years after Smith died in 1790. With his interest in the French revolution, Burke was conscious of the dangers inherent in the French Terror and his highly conservative anti-French discourse attacked many of the friends and associates of Smith.

In Emma Rothschild’s Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment (Harvard, 2001, Chapter 2, pp 52-72: “Adam Smith and Conservative Economics”) there is an excellent discussion of events around this period, during which Adam Smith’s name and his Wealth Of Nations were regarded with deep suspicion by the Establishment, and prominent individuals who were associated with ‘French’ ideas were put on trial for using language not all that much different than Adam Smith used in reference to some aspects of government policy and public finance.

I recommend that you read Frederick Dreyer’s article here and Emma Rothschild’s Economic Sentiments.


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