Burke's Foundations of Prosperity

Gregory M. Collins

Summer 2020

Some of our most divisive political arguments today paint an unreasonably stark dividing line between economics and politics. Exhortations to renew the strength of America through free-trade agreements or economic nationalism, wealth redistribution or deregulation, implicitly assume that economics forms the structure that sustains a free and prosperous society. Calls to renew our country through the revival of civil society or religious life, on the other hand, imply that our fate is determined by cultural, social, and moral institutions that stand apart from the laws of supply and demand.

Framing our divisions this way oversimplifies the priorities of many Americans, of course. Few will argue that economic transactions do not depend on non-economic values such as honesty and trust. And few will argue that a revival of civil society does not entail, to some extent, the preservation of economic liberty. The question before us, however, is whether one is the foundation of the other, and, if so, whether this manner of thinking can sharpen our understanding of the preconditions necessary to heal the American character — a character that most Americans, regardless of political orientation, will concede is ailing — and promote public prosperity.

Edmund Burke can help answer these questions. A British philosopher-statesman of Irish origin, Burke is most famous for his attack on the French Revolution, his sympathy for the American colonists during their War of Independence, and his defense of party government. But he was also a keen student of economic matters who offered acute observations on commerce, taxation, and revenue. As a proponent of economic liberty, Burke maintained that market exchange was the most effective medium through which to distribute provisions in a steady and equitable manner. He further believed that free trade, particularly with one's allies, was a powerful instrument for the diffusion of collective affluence.

Yet Burke also offered profound insight into the broader relationship between markets and morals that can serve as an intellectual resource in diagnosing, and possibly remedying, the restless state of American society. In his judgment, commerce and trade were marks of a healthy economy, but they were not sufficient for the conservation of a political community devoted to advancing the general welfare. Instead, more stable sources of order and well-being — including religion, manners, and institutions — served as the anchors of commercial activity and of civilization more generally.

Rather than measuring the prosperity of man simply by pointing to gross domestic product or employment rates, then, Burke suggests we would do well to trace the deeper roots of a flourishing society, taken in both its economic and ethical dimensions.


On the surface of his thought, Burke must strike us as a familiar kind of defender of market liberty. He expressed firm support for commercial exchange throughout his adult life, grounding this view in an awareness of the limits of the fallible human mind and in a fluency in the laws of supply and demand.

In his primary economic text, Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, Burke — writing in 1795, when England's agricultural economy was bearing the weight of a spike in grain prices, war, and population growth, among a variety of other hardships — warned public officials against intervening in local grain markets. He argued that the natural laws of commerce distributed provisions to needy areas far more effectually than did the meddling hand of government regulation: "[A]n indiscreet tampering with the trade of provisions is the most dangerous," he wrote, "and it is always worst in the time when men are most disposed to it: — that is, in the time of scarcity." He declared that supply and demand should self-regulate wage labor: "[L]abour must be subject to all the laws and principles of trade," he argued, "and not to regulations foreign to them." Burke also displayed a fondness for the competitive price system: "The balance between consumption and production makes price. The market settles, and alone can settle, that price."

According to Burke, protecting the integrity of free-labor contracts occasioned a symmetry of interest between market participants: The farmer was compelled to treat his laborers well in order to generate a profit on his agricultural investment, while the laborers were compelled to perform their tasks with diligence and industry in order to receive wages for their toil. The "contract is of the nature of a compromise," he observed, "and compromise is founded on circumstances that suppose it the interest of the parties to be reconciled in some medium." The belief that magistrates could produce just outcomes in such private contracts reflected a pretense of wisdom that ignored the infinite varieties of the human experience. Anticipating Hayekian notions of the constraints of man's knowledge in coordinating social and economic affairs, Burke wrote that "interest, habit, and the tacit convention, that arise from a thousand nameless circumstances, produce a tact that regulates without difficulty, what laws and magistrates cannot regulate at all."

For Burke, the providential force of a "benign and wise disposer" connected the pursuit of enlightened self-interest to the public welfare. Moreover, hardened notions of rationalism, as embodied in the government regulation of employment contracts and price fixing, could not capture the complex movement of grain throughout England, nor could they accurately reflect the shifting preferences of producers and consumers in fluid markets.

Burke's sympathy for free markets extended to foreign trade, but in a more moderate and cautious manner. In his first session in the House of Commons, Burke helped engineer legislation that created six new free-trade ports in the British West Indies. (It also preserved particular protectionist measures to assuage the West Indian interest.) Most famously, Burke was a champion of reducing commercial restrictions between England and Ireland in the late 1770s, summoning a series of arguments in favor of free trade familiar to contemporary proponents of economic liberty. "[Y]ou trade very largely where you are met by the goods of all nations," he told merchants who opposed the easing of trade regulations. Generally speaking, Burke believed commercial intercourse between nations was not a zero-sum contest but an activity that gave rise to mutual economic benefits.

Nevertheless, Burke was cautious about extending free-trade relations to rivals of England, such as France — which, in his judgment, was intent on exploiting trade agreements for military and imperial advantage. Burke's opposition to the Anglo-French Commercial Treaty of 1786, which promoted free trade between the two kingdoms, and his support for the Traitorous Correspondence Bill in 1793, which discouraged economic intercourse between them, conveyed his intuition that trading with an avowed enemy, who held no genuine interest in seeking peace, should be met with a suspicious eye. Burke was also a defender of the older system of the Navigation Acts, which sought to preserve the flow of colonial goods within the British Empire, on similar grounds of national security and imperial unity.

Several lessons thus emerge from this brief overview of the basic elements of Burke's economic thought — to wit, that the limits of individual reason severely constrain public officials' ability to distribute economic resources with vigor and effect; that government restraint in domestic markets is often a more prudent course in times of uncertainty than intrusive tinkering by the state; and that the promotion of free trade is a worthy endeavor that nonetheless should be tempered when broader considerations of the national interest warrant priority.

There is, however, an even more important lesson we can draw from Burke's political economy if we comprehend the term to include wider social and moral concerns, as he and many of his contemporaries understood. It is a lesson about the limits of the economic, rooted in classical philosophy and particularly in the Aristotelian ideal of the proper aims of political and social life.

Early in the Politics, Aristotle famously writes that the purpose of a political community is not to live but to live well. Acknowledging that states emerged from the instinct to secure life, he nevertheless observes that such communities thrive when their members pursue the good life that culminates in happiness. This goal was distinct from those of non-rational animals, who lived solely for the sake of self-preservation.

Later in that same work, Aristotle notes that what constitutes a state is not simply a set of military alliances, territorial boundaries, or — and this is most important for our purposes — the collection of economic transactions among individuals and between sovereign powers. He acknowledges that military alliances, trade, and geography are necessary for a state to exist, but they are not sufficient conditions. What completes states, rather, is the "connections between relatives by marriage, brotherhoods, sacrifices to the gods, and the various civilized pursuits of a life lived together." He continues:

All these activities are the product of affection, for it is our affection for others that causes us to choose to live together; thus they all contribute towards that good life which is the purpose of the state; and a state is an association of kinships and villages which aims at a perfect and self-sufficient life — and that, we hold, means living happily and nobly.

Affection and friendship, kinship and communion — these social and civic bonds are not controlled by the forces of production or consumption; yet these are the ties that ultimately bring men and women together to form and maintain a state.

Aristotle complements this reasoning in the Nicomachean Ethics by describing three types of equal friendships, all of which have different ends: friendships for utility, friendships for pleasure, and complete friendships. Friendships for utility employ friends as a means to serve self-interested ends, while friendships for pleasure are driven by the lower passions. Both types of friendship, Aristotle writes, are transient arrangements that are "easily dissolved." Complete friendship, by contrast, is the friendship of "good people," because each person wishes for the good in the other friend for that friend's own sake and as an end in itself. Complete friendships hold an unconditional relationship bound by shared conceptions of virtue. Unlike friendships for utility or pleasure, complete friendships are "enduring" as long as people possess good character. But these friendships are not easy to forge, nor are they common: They require the gradual building up of confidence, and the gradual strengthening of love, in order to create the connective social tissue necessary to sustain the relationship.

Aristotle is thus arguing that the noblest form of friendship is not based on calculating expediency, ad hoc social arrangements, fleeting partnerships of convenience, or the satisfaction of sensual desire. Human relationships based on utility, such as economic transactions, or pleasure, based on immediate sexual fulfillment, carry no enduring basis of love and virtue. In other words, we do not love our butcher or our baker the same way we love our father and mother; or, if we do love our butcher and our baker, it is not because they cut meat and bake cakes for us, but because they are our friends outside of their businesses. Friendships of utility certainly have an important role in a community — otherwise there would be no production or distribution of goods — but a heavy reliance on them as the ballast of social order would inhibit the capacities of men and women to achieve true happiness, virtue, and justice.

Complete friendship, on the other hand, would enable members of a community to meet these ends. Here, Aristotle recognizes a paradox: Complete friendships do, in fact, generate advantages to each friend, even if such advantages were not the reason that those friends entered into a relationship in the first place. Men and women in committed relationships, for instance, enjoy collective experiences of love and affection, both of which remain impermanent in friendships of utility or pleasure.

Ultimately, the final purpose of political communities — to live well — cannot be attained simply by the exchange of goods or services; they can only be attained by strengthening this interlaced web of love and affection. "[F]riendship would seem to hold cities together," Aristotle observes in the Ethics. Though he was writing with reference to small, homogeneous city-states, it would be even more imperative for larger, heterogeneous political communities — such as the United States — to retain this element of friendship.

In other words, the economic is not the core of the political; rather, the economic is best understood as serving more fundamental sources of the common good.


That Burke accepted this Aristotelian premise is evident throughout his writing, but it appears most powerfully in the Reflections on the Revolution in France. Resisting fashionable conceptions of social-contract theory that penetrated elite circles in late-18th-century England and France, Burke refined the idea of the contract into a "fixed compact" that spanned many generations, as opposed to a short-lived arrangement that depended on mere consent. This insight is often applied to his critique of the French Revolution's attempt to break free from the traditions and customs of France's past, but it also holds eminent relevance to his notion of political economy. As he famously writes in the Reflections:

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure — but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, callico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature.

"Subordinate contracts" in the commercial economy are fleeting and contingent arrangements that spur the flow of goods, but they also can be dissolved at the discretion of the transacting parties. Here we can detect undertones of Aristotle's notion of a political community that transcends economic activity. Men and women, like non-rational animals, require food and shelter to survive. But this need for self-preservation — things of a "temporary and perishable nature" — do not distinguish people, or societies, from brutish creatures.

In Burke's judgment, rather, society is a moral pact that threads together the social attachments, ethical and institutional traditions, and religious sentiments from prior generations and weaves them into the texture of current generations, which can then pass them on to — and reform them when necessary for — future generations. Society, he famously writes, "becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." This pact is not temporary and perishable in its nature, but rather carries a lasting quality that resists the sudden and transient demands of short-term social, economic, and political arrangements.

Such comments appear at odds with Burke's endorsement of a free grain market and the competitive price system in Thoughts and Details, which was published five years after the Reflections, and in his other speeches and writings. On the one hand, Burke is praising transactional exchange, but on the other, he is denouncing it. How can we reconcile these two positions? Given Burke's steady advocacy of commercial liberty throughout his public life — before and during the French Revolution — it would make little sense to claim that Burke in the Reflections is arguing to eliminate, or drastically regulate, the flow of goods. Rather, the crucial point to recognize about Burke's economic thought is that it observed society through a wide lens, one that suppressed the temptation to isolate commercial, religious, and political activities into segregated spheres. Burke thus believed such activities could be integrated and harmonized into a delicate balance that preserves their virtues while mitigating their flaws.

Commerce is one such activity. Economic activity, and the competitive price system, can steer scarce resources to consumers with efficiency and regularity. But applying the principles of market exchange — voluntary contracts, temporary arrangements, quid pro quo deals — to all aspects of a commonwealth threatens to disrupt the wider social order and corrode the underlying social and institutional attachments that tie together men and women of all ranks.

Therefore, as J. G. A. Pocock presciently observed years ago, Burke modified, if not reversed, the argument about the causal connection between commerce and ethics that had become trendy among public intellectuals in the 18th century and that continues to hold much resonance today: Rather than commerce serving as the instrument for the growth in civility, civility (as manifested by the religious and moral traditions of Christian Europe prior to the Enlightenment) laid the foundation for the spread of exchange economies. Much like modern letters had owed their origin to "antient manners," Burke contends in the Reflections, so too had "commerce, and trade, and manufacture," which "certainly grew under the same shade in which learning flourished" prior to modern commercial activity.

This shade of learning was fostered by the nobility and the clergy, who built up a sturdy code of manners that tamed man's passions and polished his behavior. "[O]ur manners, our civilization, and all the good things which are connected with manners, and with civilization," he writes, "have, in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles; and were indeed the result of both combined; I mean the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion." Burke does not claim that manners and civilization depended on economic transactions and commercial activity, but rather on the inherited traditions of moral conduct, patronage, and religion furnished by these two orders prior to the arrival of mass commerce. That Europe was in a flourishing state on the cusp of the French Revolution suggested that ancient manners had something to do with this state: "How much of that prosperous state was owing to the spirit of our old manners and opinions is not easy to say; but as such causes cannot be indifferent in their operation, we must presume, that, on the whole, their operation was beneficial." In short, the modern commercial economy did not facilitate civilized behavior, but civilized behavior may have facilitated the modern commercial economy.

As indicated by Thoughts and Details, Burke, much like Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, was quite aware that voluntary contracts in the marketplace spawned important commercial virtues, including diligence, industry, and probity. These were not trivial effects, and Burke did not judge them as such. Indeed, Burke practiced such virtues: He was a hard-working farmer who acquired a reputation for his technological ingenuity in the practice of husbandry. And Burke recognized that the buying and selling of goods contributed, to some extent, to the promotion of happiness.

Consistent with his integrated view of human life, however, Burke suggests in the Reflections that even this set of commercial virtues, and mass-market economies in general, grew out of particular ethical, institutional, and legal preconditions. These included ecclesiastical establishments, which provided religious instruction and learning; the nobility, who served as philanthropists and patrons of high culture; the rich common-law traditions of Britain's ancient constitution; laws of inheritance; a code of chivalry; and the moral sentiments shaped by this heritage that had bound men and women together for centuries. These traits of European civilization did not rely on the competitive price system for their sustenance, as European customs and habits in many respects had become refined prior to the burst of commercial exchange.

Flourishing commerce was a crucial ingredient of a prosperous civilization, then, but it did not secure the necessary basis for a society's perpetuation. Rather, religion, morals, chivalry, and sentiment — not to mention law, landed property, and the nobility — provided the ethical cement indispensable for the growth of civilization. This inheritance was especially important for a commonwealth like England, whose economy buzzed with activity. Markets could generate public riches, but they were also vulnerable to instabilities and uncertainties. The inescapable nature of these fluctuations was another reason why Burke concluded that political communities required sturdier sources of authority to balance out the vagaries of barter.

Burke knew that one way to temper such whims in particular circumstances was to ensure the integrity of the competitive price system, as he argued in Thoughts and Details. The elimination, or fine-tuning, of specific regulations could restore the conditions for fair and consensual contracts between farmers and laborers. But in the broader scope of civilization as a whole, he maintained that the preservation of religious institutions and moral attachments was even more vital in ensuring the continuity of social union and economic activity throughout the generations.

Burke therefore believed that commerce should not only be tolerated but encouraged — as long as it was integrated into a pre-existing ethical, religious, and legal framework. This perspective explains why Burke was a firm, if not uncritical, defender of the hereditary aristocracy and its landed possessions in particular: Both provided the element of stability that could modulate the excesses of commercial exchange and calm the vicissitudes of financial and speculative activities. He did not perceive land and commerce to stand in irreconcilable tension, for one could not thrive without the other: Markets could not endure without their superfluities being checked by more stable pillars of order, and landed property without markets would produce a sluggishness detrimental to the growth of wealth.

Burke's argument about the causal relationship between commerce and civility is especially relevant to contemporary discourse over the role of wealth in measuring the extent of human flourishing. It is often noted that prior to the Enlightenment and the advent of mass-market economies, most men and women lived in extreme poverty by modern standards; some contend that this hard fact dampens whatever achievements Western civilization had produced before the early modern period. While this claim itself can be exaggerated, it nevertheless represents a powerful challenge to thinkers who seek to revive a classical or medieval conception of political and social order characterized by social classes, aristocratic elites who possess specialized knowledge, and strict limits on individual autonomy and self-expression. Framed differently, such reasoning holds that the poor of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment periods gained access to goods and services that only the higher social orders had previously enjoyed.

Burke was mindful of the empirical phenomenon of commercial activity, which is one chief reason why he endorsed market economies. But he displayed a keen awareness that material wealth should not be the singular touchstone of a flourishing people, that voluntary contracts cannot sustain themselves on their own, and that one should take into account both economic affluence and the moral and religious character of a people when calibrating the many dimensions of public prosperity.

Such beliefs are harmonious with Burke's broader, and more well-known, integration of change and stability in his political thought. The preservation of exchange economies, much like societies as a whole, requires both activity and inactivity, efficiency and leisure, ambition and patience, spirit and moderation. In the context of Burke's political and economic thought, one without the other would either diminish commercial prosperity or erode the moral and social attachments that ultimately link a people to one another.

In other words, voluntary contracts require an involuntary compact to sustain civilization — a sacred covenant that demands obedience to a code of ethics and manners, infused with natural sentiment toward our fellow man, that is not dependent on the satisfaction of temporary social or economic arrangements or the competitive price system. We did not choose to enter into this world, and, with limited exceptions, we will not choose to leave it. We thus do not have the right to enter into or abrogate our ethical obligations, even when we complete the terms of agreement in a voluntary contract. These moral commitments, and the general spirit of reciprocal affection they embody, encapsulate the friendship of Aristotle and the fixed compact of Burke that, in their judgments, are essential to promoting happiness and social order.


This interpretation of Burke's political, economic, and social thought does not add up to a contemporary public-policy agenda. There is no simple answer to any "what would Burke do?" sort of question regarding our own time. But we can draw some themes from his thought that might nonetheless illuminate some of our challenges.

Today, the most evident application of the Aristotelian and Burkean understandings of the role of friendship and manners in binding together political communities is the nourishing of that area of human association where social affection can be most lasting: civil society. Burke's broad understanding of this concept, while somewhat undefined, blended conventional conceptions of voluntary organizations with prescriptive institutions and state establishments — such as the Church of England — that hold no strict equivalent in an American context. Yet the sources of attachment Burke believed were nurtured by such corporate affiliations are similar to those we ascribe to our notion of civil society today. "We begin our public affections in our families. No cold relation is a zealous citizen," he wrote in the Reflections. "We pass on to our neighbourhoods, and our habitual provincial connections."

Civil society in the United States need not be discussed in detail here, for many shrewd commentaries have already examined it closely including, most recently, Howard Husock's Who Killed Civil Society?, Luke Sheahan's Why Associations Matter, and Yuval Levin's A Time To Build. We should only observe that the strengthening of families, religious institutions, and civic organizations would invest human associations with a resilient type of unconditional friendship that can outlast the temporary arrangements of utility encouraged by transactional relationships, which would reflect Burke's understanding of those ties of moral sentiment that forged the social connections necessary for a flourishing civilization. The decision to enter into or leave particular institutions and organizations in a liberal society like the United States is generally voluntary, but in the spirit of Burke's notion of a fixed compact, the moral imperative to care for our children, our neighbors, and our community — in whatever capacity — is mandatory.

We must not, of course, romanticize "civil society" as an elixir that will cure all ills; economic incentives can influence human behavior in civil society in significant ways as well. Consistent with Burke's suspicion of rational systems of social organization and his legislative efforts in support of market liberty, the revival of civil society could be supplemented by the gradual reduction of national regulations and administrative edicts, particularly in domestic trades. This would be consistent with his defense of market economies as the most judicious mechanism for the circulation of goods.

Indeed, one complements the other: As Burke understood, the more neighbor relies on neighbor for charitable support and voluntary exchange, the less he needs to rely on the magistrate and the state to regulate employment contracts and wages. Moreover, because Burke did not imagine a strict barrier between society and the state (as we tend to do today), he grasped that the empowerment of human association and the protection of market liberty would actually increase the attachments of people to their government, as well as to their surrounding community, by assigning to the state only those responsibilities that it can execute effectively.

Accordingly, Burke's comprehension of the proper role of economic activity in the wider social order would not necessarily lead to the expansion of the federal government in an American context. It could mean quite the opposite: Building up our collective social attachments would strengthen those intermediary institutions — and such institutions would strengthen our social attachments — that would limit the scope of national political authority over areas that should be reserved for localities.

As Richard Boyd has noted, Burke was one of the first thinkers to recognize the importance of intermediary associations in serving as a shield against the concentration of arbitrary power. These associations could water the seeds of lasting affection far more powerfully than could the cold levers of government bureaucracy.

Given the ambiguous and fragile state of social relations at the present moment, it may be said that segments of contemporary American society are influenced more by friendships of utility and pleasure than good friendships, to use the lexicon of Aristotle. Or, employing Burke's mode of thought, these social relations appear to resemble temporary and perishable contracts more so than an enduring moral compact governed by manners and affection.

Indeed, the precarious nature of civil society today — including the much-documented patterns of depression, the disintegration of two-parent households, the decline in church attendance, the increases in suicide, drug abuse, and social isolation — can in many ways be explained by the dissolving of Aristotle's and Burke's notions of friendship, manners, and moral sentiment. These latter three terms are admittedly amorphous and could mean different things to different people, but we can narrow their meanings by retaining the integrity of the two thinkers' understanding of them. Accordingly, friendship, manners, and moral sentiment involve social relations in which we seek the best for someone else, without expecting any tangible benefit in return; a firm ethical code that is not determined by voluntary consent or transactional exchange; and institutions that can serve as a durable fabric of human association for the cultivation of morals, the recovery of a sense of belonging, and the fostering of a common purpose.

These guiding principles in themselves cannot generate all the fruits of a prosperous society, for the incentive structure of market economies is far more effectual in disseminating goods to the many than the benevolent aims of the legislator, the administrator, or even the philanthropist. Burke recognized as much, which is why he maintained that more stable sources of authority, such as the nobility and the clergy, should act as supports for, rather than destroyers of, commercial exchange. But he also discerned that a commonwealth consists of more than material goods and the happiness derived from their possession.

Therefore, one fundamental lesson we can draw from Burke's conception of political economy is that in our campaigns to generate (or redistribute) wealth and to reform existing economic regulations, we should not lose sight of the broader ethical, social, and institutional foundations that permitted commercial activity to blossom in the first place. Such a lesson is meant not to discourage conversation over tax rates and gross domestic product, but to summon additional discussion of the enduring structures of human attachment and social organization that are the ultimate bedrocks of a flourishing civilization, both in body and in soul.

Gregory M. Collins is a postdoctoral associate and lecturer in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics and the Department of Political Science at Yale University. His book on Edmund Burke’s economic thought, titled Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke’s Political Economy, was published in the United States by Cambridge University Press in June 2020.


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