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Edmund Burke’s Case for Private Charity Over the Welfare State

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07/26/2019

Conservatives have recently turned to more protectionist and interventionist economic policies, calling for a bigger and more intrusive government with active social policies to prevent a further disintegration of civil society and communities. Some have even gone so far as to embrace Bernie Sanders, the openly (“democratic”) socialist democratic presidential candidate. This turn away from free-market policies, which previously dominated before at least in speech, has been rather shocking, if only because it has happened so rapidly.

As has been pointed out (by yours truly included), while this disintegration of society into individualism of the wrong sort is a major issue, the last remedy that should be turned to is government. State power, after all, is, in the words of Robert Nisbet, one essential reason why social institutions have been hit hard and why “the general weakening of the area of association that lies intermediate to man and the State” has taken place in recent decades.

Perhaps, however, conservatives would also like to listen to their own hero, the “father of conservatism,” in seeing that government interventionism can’t be the solution. Edmund Burke, an Irish-Anglo political theorist and statesman of the late 18th century, defended free trade and the market economy to the utmost throughout his lifetime, as I show in a new study.

When it comes to the role of government in society, a relatively unknown work of his can be especially illuminating. The essay Thoughts and Details on Scarcity of 1795 provides an utter rejection of any welfare services provided by the government and a hymn of praise to the market. For the most instances, the free and unhampered market would take care of crises. And if not, the people themselves should — and can — provide help for those in need through voluntary, private initiative. This is especially striking, for he wrote the essay during a famine that hit England.

Yet, in this time of crisis, Burke argued that “of all things, an indiscreet tampering with the trade of provisions is the most dangerous.” Indeed, 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.” And in no other area would government intervention be more detrimental than in providing welfare, namely an over-doing in “this most momentous of all meddling on the part of authority; the meddling with the subsistence of the people.”

These demands for government-provided help often arises, Burke argues, from mere envy against “the rich,” something which has to ring true again in the age of Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and Warren. But what these forces need to realize is that “when the poor rise to destroy the rich, they act as wisely for their own purposes as when they burn mills, and throw corn into the river, to make bread cheap.”

It is the businessman, the entrepreneur, who provides work — which is not to say that the manual laborer or worker is not important. Both sides are of importance in the production process, and because the employer has an interest in the workers working well, he will have an incentive as well that they are happy. In the example of the farmer, “it is plainly more the farmer's interest that his men should thrive, than that his horses should be well fed, sleek, plump, and fit for use, or than that his waggon and ploughs should be strong, in good repair, and fit for service.”

Trying to help the worker by meddling in the market would in the end rather hurt the worker. Take a minimum wage as an example. Though Burke did not mention this specific policy, it is clear what he means when he writes that “labour is a commodity like every other,” and “if we were wildly to attempt to force them [wages] beyond it [the market price], the stone which we had forced up the hill would only fall back upon them in a diminished demand.”

Similarly, egalitarian dreams by socialists would inevitably end in disaster. By attempting to produce “a perfect equality,” we would indeed get equality, but those of “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.”

The intentions of these benevolent wannabe-parents of the people may be good, but by becoming too intrusive, are still “ill-directed.” A “restless desire of governing too much” would be the wrong way to go. “The moment that Government appears at market, all the principles of market will be subverted.”

The right way to go, meanwhile, would be to focus especially on those very principles of the market, those — and it is here where Burke goes farther than most free-marketeers would even go, elevating it to a Divine level — “the laws of commerce, which are the laws of nature, and consequently the laws of God.” At the very least, the price mechanism for coordination of economic activities marveled him: “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.”

In those instances that the government can’t provide the help needed for those, as in the case of a famine in Burke’s case, we should not listen to “the zealots of the sect of regulation,” but those wealthy should voluntarily help those in need: “Without all doubt, charity to the poor is a direct and obligatory duty upon all Christians.” And it is precisely this that he did, according to Joseph Pappin III, when he “had bread made at his own estate and sold to the poor at a reduced price.”

Thus, Burke not only proves his points by his own example, but also provides a powerful early reply to some of the most prominent arguments among both the Right and Left today and a defense of a free society in which people voluntarily interact and trade with each other and are charitable. His is a case for a civil society, undeterred from government, which would bring a virtuous people into being. Big Government conservatives would do well to listen to Burke again.

Kai Weiss is the Research and Outreach Coordinator at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member of the Hayek Institute. Follow him on Twitter.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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