The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics

2018 Edition
| Editors: Macmillan Publishers Ltd

Burke, Edmund (1729–1797)

  • C. B. Macpherson
Reference work entry


Burke was born in Dublin and died at his estate at Beaconsfield. He is usually remembered as the champion of tradition, hierarchy, privilege and prejudice. His splendid defence of these in his Reflections on the Revolution in France has so overshadowed all his other writings that a different side of his thought – his unqualified embrace of the capitalist market economy – has pretty well dropped out of sight. Yet his market orientation was clear enough to his contemporaries. Adam Smith is reported to have said of Burke ‘that he was the only man who, without communication, thought on these topics exactly as he did’. The topics were the naturalness and beneficence of the capitalist market economy. That Burke the traditionalist and believer in Divine and Natural Law could praise the self-regulating capitalist market economy, and urge on the government a policy of laissez-faire, is at first sight incredible, so incompatible do the two positions appear to be. In fact, as we shall see, they are not incompatible. And certainly Burke saw no inconsistency, for he regarded the market economy as part of the natural order of the universe, and even as divinely ordained. In spite of his gibe in the Reflections, lumping together ‘oeconomists’ and ‘sophisters’, Burke was himself a skilled economist. Indeed, he boasted in a later work how much he had done ‘in the way of political oeconomy’, which he had made ‘an object of my humble studies, from my very early youth to near the end of my service in parliament…’. He was fully aware that the capitalist economy, driven by (in his words) monied men’s avarice, their desire of accumulation, their love of lucre, could be appallingly hard on the wage-labourer. Nevertheless, as he wrote in his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, it would be ‘pernicious to disturb the natural course of things, and to impede, in any degree, the great wheel of circulation which is turned by the strangely directed labour of these unhappy people…’. For ‘labour is a commodity like every other, and rises or falls according to the demand. This is in the nature of things.’ Hence ‘labour must be subject to all the laws and principles of trade, and not to regulation foreign to them…’. We should not try to escape calamity by ‘breaking the laws of commerce, which are the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God…’. Burke’s grasp of political economy becomes evident in his recognition that the laws of commerce could not operate unless the mass of the people was kept subordinate and unless they accepted that position as natural. Referring to the nation’s need for continuous capital accumulation, he wrote:

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  1. Kramnick, I. 1977. The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an ambivalent conservative. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  2. Macpherson, C.B. 1980. Burke. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Of Burke’s own works the most famous is the Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790); a modern reprint, in Pelican Classics, has an introduction by Conor Cruise O’Brien. Burke’s equally important Thoughts and Details on Scarcity (1795) is only available in scarce editions of his Collected Works. Adam Smith’s remark is reported in Robert Bisset, Life of Edmund Burke, 2nd edn, London 1800, vol. 2, p. 429.Google Scholar
  4. O’Gorman, F. 1973. Edmund Burke, his political philosophy. London: Allen & Unwin.Google Scholar
  5. Three recent studies of Burke’s thought are:Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • C. B. Macpherson
    • 1
  1. 1.