The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Burke, Edmund (1729-1797)

Edmund Burke, an Irish-born British politician and philosopher, served in the House of Commons for almost 30 years and authored an extensive and influential body of speeches and books. Conventionally held to be the “father of conservatism,” Burke was a Whig whose influence on classical liberalism was considerable. Although his rich oeuvre spans four decades, Burke has become most famous for a series of works written in the last 7 years of his life in vehement opposition to the French Revolution, beginning with Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and followed by publications with a similar theme, such as An Appeal from the New Whigs to the Old Whigs (1791) and Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796).

Burke never wrote a theoretical treatise systematically spelling out his philosophy of government. Although his Vindication of Natural Society, published in 1756, offered a deft defense of anarchism, Burke later claimed it was solely a satire. His writings were often motivated by political crises and, therefore, were tentative and occasional. As a result, later commentators have accused Burke of inconsistency. However, it is not difficult to see that Burke adhered to a core philosophy centered on his concept of ordered liberty.

As a Whig, Burke defended the political settlement of 1688, when the English had rebelled against a king who had refused to have his power curtailed by either by Parliament or England’s “ancient constitution.” The Whigs’ belief in limited, constitutional government emerged most clearly in Burke’s position on three great political causes—his opposition to attempts by George III to limit the power of Parliament; the arbitrary power exercised by Britain over its colonies in America, Ireland, and India; and the overthrow of the old order during the French Revolution.

Burke rejected all abuse of power that resulted from ignoring the limits placed on political authority by constitutions—“the distribution by law of powers of declaring and applying the law.” Burke, moreover, acknowledged the existence of an “unalterable constitution of things,” from which one could derive a concept of natural law. In India, the corrupt governor general, Warren Hastings (who was impeached on accusation by Burke, but ultimately acquitted), may have had the letter of the law on his side, but he maintained that Hastings had violated the fundamental demands of natural justice.

In his antirevolutionary works, Burke attacked radical French Enlightenment philosophy, which he regarded as having inspired the French Revolution. Influenced by Scottish Enlightenment writers such as David Hume and Adam Smith, Burke warned that society is of an order of complexity such that no one mind, no matter how refined, could fully comprehend all its interlocking parts. Tradition, customs, and manners that form our social institutions are invaluable because they are the products of countless interacting minds, representing the past and the present, depositories of the wisdom of the ages. The French rejected this implicit knowledge as superstition and instead sought to reorder society in accordance with abstract theories, what Burke’s intellectual heir, F. A. Hayek, would later call constructivism.

Burke believed in the rights of men, but not in absolute “natural rights,” rights that antecede the institutions under which we live. In his view, the rights we possess by nature are only those that men have in the state of rude nature—the prepolitical, primitive state wherein each man is his own judge and executioner. In civil society, men have rights that are derived from actual, historical circumstances, including the right to justice between their fellows, to the fruits of their industry, and, indeed, to do whatever they can separately do without trespassing on others.

In economics, as Adam Smith contended, Burke and he thought exactly alike. Burke’s main economic work, Thoughts and Details on Scarcity (1795), was written for Prime Minister William Pitt in opposition to a proposal that the government subsidize agricultural wages. The work was published posthumously in 1800. In it Burke saw no role whatever for the state in economic life. He believed it is not prudent for the state to provide for the necessities of the people because the government can do “very little positive good in this, or perhaps in anything else.” State redistribution of wealth harms the rich without doing the poor any good. He defended freedom of contract against “the zealots of the sect of regulation” and argued for unregulated trade and commerce. The laws of commerce are the laws of nature, wrote Burke, and they are broken at man’s peril. Disturbing the balance of the market would lay the “axe to the root of production itself.”

Although he has been hailed by historians of political thought as the father of modern-day conservatism, Burke’s conclusions often reflected prevailing Whig doctrine, especially in his opposition to the policy of the government in its quarrel with the American colonies.


Further Readings

Canavan, Francis. The Political Economy of Edmund Burke: The Role of Property in His Thought. New York: Fordham University Press, 1995.

Mansfield, Harvey C. Statesmanship and Party Government. A Study of Burke and Bolingbroke. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Raeder, Linda C. “The Liberalism/Conservatism of Edmund Burke and F. A. Hayek: A Critical Comparison.” Humanitas 10 (1997).

Stanlis, Peter. Edmund Burke and the Natural Law. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1957.

Wilkins, Burleigh Taylor. The Problem of Burke’s Political Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.

Originally published .