Professor C.B. MacPherson in his short book Burke raised what he thought was a inconsistency between Edmund Burke’s political philosophy and his ideas on economics. Joseph Pappin III takes up the challenge in this paper and provides a convincing case on how the two can be reconciled in the natural law. Joseph Pappin’s book The Metaphysics of Edmund Burke is the only book devoted to the subject (metaphysics). Highly recommended.
THE PLACE OF LAISSEZ-FAIRE ECONOMICS IN EDMUND BURKE’S POLITICS OF ORDER
The Austrian Scholars Conference, March 2002
By Joseph Pappin III, University of South Carolina
President of The Edmund Burke Society of America
I wish to focus upon what until now has been a largely unanswered question: “What is the relationship between Burke’s economic theory and his political theory?” The implications of this question and the built-in assumptions are that Burke’s political economy is entirely libertarian, stressing laissez-faire principles in a free-market setting, and that his political philosophy emphasizes order, hierarchy, tradition – all of which comprise a conservative world-view, recalcitrant towards change, prizing order and virtue over economic liberalism.
Continue reading The Place of Laissez-Faire Economics in Edmund Burke’s Political Order
This was a talk I gave on the occasion of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.
Edmund Burke devoted the eighth chapter in his Abridgment of English History, to King John’s reign. He records that it was near the end of John’s reign that the barons forced him to place the royal seal on the provisions and undertakings that form the document called Magna Carta, Latin for Great Charter. The Abridgment of English History is a little known and almost entirely disregarded work of Burke’s. He began it in 1757 as a commission from publisher Robert Dodsley. It was one of the projects taken up when he abandoned the law to devote himself to a literary career. He never completed the planned series of books. Indeed, chapter eight is the final full chapter. The eight chapters plus a fragment of chapter nine, ‘An Essay Towards An History Of The Laws Of England’, appeared after his death.
The reader has to take seriously Burke’s title to his work on English history because a distinct purpose is revealed in the process of abridgment. Through the sometimes sparse historical details, the reader finds a concentration on the effect of the different settled arrangements (like custom and tradition) on the development of the law governing the English people. The contrast, though nowhere near as explicit as in his later writings, is between law as developed out of the concrete circumstances of a people being a people and law as the product of abstract speculation. The fragment of chapter nine confirms this analysis.
Continue reading Edmund Burke and Magna Carta
The publication of the Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke’s uncompromising denunciation of French Revolutionary theory as antithetical to the British Constitution, dismayed many of Burke’s supporters and admirers, and gave deadly ammunition to his long time enemies – at least what they thought was deadly ammunition. At this time, Burke and his reputation were at a low ebb. Younger members of the House had taken to calling him ‘dinner bell’ because of his long tedious speeches, especially over the Warren Hastings impeachment. Among the avenues of attack were the charges of inconsistency and contradiction of which were the following.
Continue reading The Constitution and Inconsistencies in Burke’s Defence of the Glorious Revolution 1688
One of the best-known passages from Edmund Burke’s writing is his lament over the capture of the French royal family and their being force-marched twelve miles from the Palace of Versailles into Paris ‘amidst the horrid yells, and shrilling screams, and frantic dances, and infamous contumelies, and all the unutterable abominations of the furies of hell in the abused shape of the vilest of women.’
Burke’s lament was provoked not so much by this melancholy scene and the barbarism of the revolutionaries. It was rather the Revolution Society’s glorification at the Old Jewry of the bloody revolutionary action that moved him. In particular, the raptures of radical preacher Dr Richard Price proclaiming the victory of reason and the dawn of freedom nerved Burke’s pen to write several pages of soaring prose bemoaning far more the ideological defeat of European Christian culture than the tragic predicament of the Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
Continue reading culture through reason, natural feeling and the moral imagination
The arguments for free speech in current debates are almost exclusively based on a principal of utility. Simply put, free speech will result in benefits for society. Those acquainted with the academic discourse on free speech are likely to appeal to J.S. Mill’s utilitarian arguments which he summarises in four points. In brief, to suppress all beliefs in favour of one held to be the truth, presupposes infallible judgement. No one and no group is infallible. Thus the clash of many opinions is the way to the truth. That presupposes free speech. If people reason their way to true belief, they will not hold that belief by prejudging – not as a prejudice.
If arguments from pure utility are unconvincing for some, one can also mount a Burkean defence of free speech incorporating an idea of utility, but one drawn from man’s nature rather than resting solely on a principle of utility. There are two crucial passages in Burke that provide the basis. The first is in the Reflections:
Continue reading Burke on natural rights and the right to free speech
When Edmund Burke claimed in An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs that the French Revolution ‘was a wild attempt to methodize anarchy; to perpetuate and fix disorder…that it was a foul, impious, monstrous thing, wholly out of the course of moral nature,’ he was targeting a particular theory of political organization now known as ‘social contract theory’. It is important to understand that for Burke social contract theory not only determines the form of political organization of a particular people but the accompanying social organization as well.
The early theorists of social contract were Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Hobbes being considered the first to introduce the idea. Burke was clearly familiar with the writings of these political philosophers. There are recognizable references to Hobbes (Leviathan) and Locke (The Second Treatise of Government) in his speeches and writings, although he does not mention them by name. He was scathing about Rousseau, reducing his entire philosophy (including the Social Contract) to one of vanity, claiming that ‘with this vice he was possessed to a degree little short of madness,’ and that ‘it is plain that the present rebellion [in France] was its legitimate offspring.’  In other words, he attributed the ‘wild attempt to methodize anarchy [and] to perpetuate and fix disorder’ in France to Rousseau as a major influence.
Continue reading Edmund Burke on what it means to be a ‘people’
For those of us who love Russell Kirk, T.S. Eliot, and Irving Babbitt, the extravagantly convoluted term, “the moral imagination,” rolls readily off the tongue and warms the heart like few other things. Yet, most of our closest allies on the right scratch their collective and individual heads in confusion. “What is this moral imagination,” they ask in some understandable bewilderment. The term comes from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. It only appears once in this seminal writing, but it is the cornerstone of the entire work. And, yet, even for those of us who love the term and the concept… we too easily employ it, more often than not, out of its context, thus rendering this precious Burkean-ism somewhat un-Burkean. Read on…