The Corner

More Than Nothing

In the journal Democracy, Rick Perlstein offers a spirited defense of his recent book on the rise of Reagan against a sharp critique by Jacob Weisberg. But in the process he unfairly maligns an unnamed conservative politician of the early 1960s

In defending his decision to downplay the intellectual content of mid-century conservatism, Pearlstein writes:

I first learned to distrust conservatives’ own protestations that theirs is a “movement of ideas” when I read a speech transcript from a right-wing congressman in 1962 backing his defense of laissez-faire economics by dropping the name of Edmund Burke, who had less than nothing to do with laissez-faire economics. “Ideas” in politics are often intuition in fancy dress.

I don’t know exactly what that congressman said, of course, but based on this description it sounds like he’s owed an apology. I can see why Perlstein’s intuition about Burke might lead him to think as he does: Burke was certainly not a libertarian. But if Perlstein looked at the views Burke actually expressed about economics in particular, he might change his mind about that old congressmans claim. 

For most of his career, Burke’s economic views were laid out in the course of debates about trade, and in those he comes off as an adamant free trader, even opposing mercantilist intervention in global markets on the extraordinary grounds that such intervention would violate “the laws of commerce, which are the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God.” But he gives us much more than that to work with. In the last years of his life, Burke became deeply involved in a debate about a proposal in Parliament to manage the wages of farm workers—essentially a minimum wage for agricultural laborers. Burke was a steadfast opponent of the idea, and he put his reasons in writing in the form of a kind of memo to the prime minister, which was published shortly after his death as “Thoughts and Details on Scarcity.” It is Burke’s most concerted economic argument, and the nature of his views, plainly influenced by those of his friend Adam Smith, might surprise Perlstein. 

Burke opens his case with a statement of his general outlook on the subject:

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 is in the power of Government to prevent much evil; it can do very little positive good in this, or perhaps in any thing else.

He goes on to argue that the proposed legislation is premised on the notion that a contract between an employer and an employee involves the former abusing the latter, but that in fact the nature of contracts involves finding an arrangement that reconciles different interests. “In the case of the farmer and the labourer, their interests are always the same, and it is absolutely impossible that their free contracts can be onerous to either party.”

Burke frames potential objections to this view in a most ungenerous light:

I shall be told by the zealots of the sect of regulation that this may be true, and may be safely committed to the convention of the farmer and the labourer, when the latter is in the prime of his youth, and at the time of his health and vigour, and in ordinary times of abundance. But in calamitous seasons, under accidental illness, in declining life, and with the pressure of a numerous offspring, the future nourishers of the community but the present drains and blood-suckers of those who produce them, what is to be done?

But this argument, too, he says, fails to take account of the nature of economic relationships: 

And, first, I premise that labour is, as I have already intimated, a commodity, and as such, an article of trade. If I am right in this notion, then labour must be subject to all the laws and principles of trade, and not to regulations foreign to them, and that may be totally inconsistent with those principles and those laws. When any commodity is carried to market, it is not the necessity of the vender, but the necessity of the purchaser that raises the price. The extreme want of the seller has rather (by the nature of things with which we shall in vain contend) the direct contrary operation. If the goods at market are beyond the demand, they fall in their value; if below it, they rise. The impossibility of the subsistence of a man, who carries his labour to a market, is totally beside the question in this way of viewing it. The only question is, what is it worth to the buyer? But if authority comes in and forces the buyer to a price, who is this in the case (say) of a farmer, who buys the labour of ten or twelve labouring men, and three or four handycrafts, what is it, but to make an arbitrary division of his property among them?

Such jerks of authority, Burke suggests, are generally well intentioned—driven by a desire to equalize unequal conditions—but the nature of a free economy means such egalitarianism has disastrous consequences:

A perfect equality will indeed be produced; that is to say, equal want, equal wretchedness, equal beggary, and on the part of the partitioners, a woeful, helpless, and desperate disappointment. Such is the event of all compulsory equalizations. They pull down what is above. They never raise what is below: and they depress high and low together beneath the level of what was originally the lowest.

And the notion that the agricultural economy should be treated differently than commerce in the cities is equally ignorant of basic economic principles, Burke argues:

A greater and more ruinous mistake cannot be fallen into, than that the trades of agriculture and grazing can be conducted upon any other than the common principles of commerce; namely, that the producer should be permitted, and even expected, to look to all possible profit which, without fraud or violence, he can make; to turn plenty or scarcity to the best advantage he can; to keep back or to bring forward his commodities at his pleasure; to account to no one for his stock or for his gain. On any other terms he is the slave of the consumer; and that he should be so is of no benefit to the consumer. No slave was ever so beneficial to the master as a freeman that deals with him on an equal footing by convention, formed on the rules and principles of contending interests and compromised advantages.

And the same is true of the people who stand between the farmer and the market:

What is true of the farmer is equally true of the middle man; whether the middle man acts as factor, jobber, salesman, or speculator, in the markets of grain. These traders are to be left to their free course; and the more they make, and the richer they are, and the more largely they deal, the better both for the farmer and consumer, between whom they form a natural and most useful link of connection; though, by the machinations of the old evil counsellor, Envy, they are hated and maligned by both parties.

Indeed, Burke turns out to be immensely impressed by the power of markets to apply knowledge that their would-be regulators could never possess:

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.

Burke concludes with a general statement about the proper relation between government and the economy: 

My opinion is against an over-doing of any sort of administration, and more especially against this most momentous of all meddling on the part of authority; the meddling with the subsistence of the people.

This approach to economics could be summarized in a variety of ways, but “laissez-faire” would not be an unreasonable one. 

That doesn’t necessarily tell us what Burke would think of today’s conservative economic agenda, and it doesn’t mean Burke’s views in fact influenced that congressman whom Pearlstein looks down upon, or that Burke’s views were right. But it does mean he had rather a lot more than nothing to do with laissez-faire economic ideas.

Yuval Levin — Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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