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Whereas Adam Smith had warned that government must intervene in the economy from time to time, Edmund Burke believed any interference in the economy on the part of government to be a violation of the natural law…

french-revolutionAs Edmund Burke understood the French Revolutionaries, they had not undone free will as much as they had attempted to limit it. They limited it, not by placing obvious restrictions on a man’s will, but by narrowing the questions he might ask and the answers he might find. In particular, Burke feared, the ideologues had re-introduced a form of the ancient and malicious heresy of Manicheanism, forcing each person to think in only “either/or” terms. A citizen must either choose the evils of the monarch united with the church on one side or the whole, unthinking mass of the citizenry on the other. There existed no via media. “Nothing can reconcile men to their proceedings and projects but the supposition that there is no third option between them, and some tyranny as odious as can be furnished by the records of history, or by the invention of poets,” he stated. The ideologues had persuaded those under their sway that nothing existed the inexcusable evil of church and state and “a pure democracy” as the “only tolerable form into which human society can be thrown.” Even the slightest doubt or hesitation in choosing the “pure democracy” might reveal any single person to be “a friend to tyranny,” and, therefore, a “foe to mankind.” In the world of the ideologues, Burke lamented, one could only choose stupidly and violently “between the despotism of the monarch and the despotism of the multitude.”

In one of the longest and densest sections of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, he offered painstaking detail as to why the French Revolutionaries had to tie the fortunes of the church (relatively innocent) with the fortunes of the king and aristocracy (relatively corrupt). Burke followed very closely the careful scholarship of his good friend, Adam Smith, on moral philosophy as well as on economics. Smith, in turn, relied on much of Burke’s work as support for his own two masterpiece works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (especially in its second, revised edition) and his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Burke, though, believed that Smith had not taken his own economic analysis far enough with respect to political economy. Whereas Smith, the supposed godfather of free-market economics, had warned that government must intervene in the economy from time to time to prevent men from being made animals, cogs, and tools, Burke believed any interference in the economy on the part of government to be a violation of the natural law. In one of his last published writings, Burke explained in a manner that would make a later Austrian economist proud: “The balance between consumption and production makes price. The market settles, and alone can settle, that price. Market is the meeting and conference of the consumer and producer, when they mutually discover each other’s wants.”

In the middle of his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke argued that the French Revolutionaries had no choice but to link the church with the king and aristocracy, as the new “democratic” government could never have sustained itself for any period without confiscating all the property and possessions of the Church, whether that of bishops, priests or nuns. “The spoil of the church was now become the only resource of all their operations in finance; the vital principle of all their politics; the sole security for the existence of their power.” Indeed, the revolutionaries could not afford to distinguish between the corrupt and the non-corrupt clergy. “It was necessary by all, even the most violent means, to put every individual on the same bottom,” Burke continued. To make this convincing and successful, the revolutionaries had to bloody the hands of every French person, thus unifying them in their collective sin. They had to “bind the nation in one guilty interest to uphold this act, and the authority of those by whom it was done.”

Knowing that the actual money confiscated from the church would only last for a brief period, Burke claimed, the revolutionaries had to water the wealth down by collecting it and then issuing paper, fiat, inflationary money to represent it. “In order to force the most reluctant into a participation of their pillage, they rendered their paper circulation compulsory in all payments.”

Perhaps most surprisingly for the modern reader who assumes that Burke loved the past of Britain with a certain, untoward blindness, the Anglo-Irish statesman admits that the revolutionaries had learned this from Henry VIII, whom Burke labeled blatantly “a tyrant.” According to Burke, the French had learned from Henry’s mistakes as well, taking the evil even further than had the English monarch:

He was not better enlightened than the Roman Marius’s and Sylla’s, and had not studied in your new schools, did not know what an effectual instrument of despotism was to be found in that grand magazine of offensive weapons, the rights of men. When he resolved to rob the abbeys, as the club of the Jacobins have robbed all the ecclesiastics, he began by setting on foot a commission to examine the crimes and abuses which prevailed in those communities.

No friend to tyranny, Burke believed that the monarchy of the collective was as bad as the monarchy of one (when corrupt). By its very nature, every tyranny “vitiate[d] and degrade[d] human nature.” Always the tyrant spoke the language of liberty as he benefited the few from the remains of the many. In doing so, every tyrant drove the poor into further poverty. “To drive men from independence to live on alms is itself great cruelty,” Burke admitted. Yet, the very essence of tyranny was just as evil as its methods, as “no man can mortgage his injustice as a pawn for his fidelity.” The tyranny of the one or the tyranny of the many always denied true principles in the name of a “cause” and by inciting a “fury.” They expertly used the language of justice to promote injustice. They were, he noted, masters of deceit.

As long as some element of shame remained, Burke finished the vast evils that lurk in the aroused passions might be restrained. “Whilst Shame keeps its watch,” he argued, “Virtue is not wholly extinguished in the heart; nor will Moderation be utterly exiled from the minds of tyrants.”

This essay is the ninth essay in a series. Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Excellent. What a shame the public, wandering in a fog, does not see how this plays out continuously today as well as in the past.

  2. There is nothing I’ve ever read of Burke without being touched or affected. And of course the watering down of a national currency, always an abomination in any society, the not so hidden tax on a populace.

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