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The Politics of Property

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By:Peter J. Stanlis | December 05, 2019

[This article first appeared in the July 1996 issue of Chronicles.]

A great many scholars have dealt in considerable detail with Edmund Burke's party politics and political philosophy, and a few have examined his thoughts on economics. But Francis Canavan's latest book is the first thorough and systematic study of the interrelationship of that great thinker's political and economic beliefs. As such it is particularly valuable, since it provides an excellent answer to the knotty question of whether Burke's politics and economics are complementary, or contradictory. The answer is not a simple affirmative or negative to either alternative.

As usual with his superb scholarship on Burke, Canavan treats his subject within the specific historical context of that thinker's entire public life. Moreover, he takes into account the relevant background from earlier periods. Thus he avoids the common errors that vitiate so much scholarship on Burke and the 18th century: the use of rational abstractions, facile categories, and ideological formulations. His study should terminate, once and for all, Marxist speculations on Burke's political and economic thought, such as those of C.B. Macpherson, who perceived the Whig statesman solely as a narrow partisan defender of the British aristocracy and its privileges.

Burke's views on property and wealth were based upon legal prescription, which he regarded as a basic principle of moral natural law, and he held that their continued possession and uses were determined far more by social custom than by statutory law. Thus his proprietary norms derived from the feudal system inherited from the Middle Ages, and not from the emergent capitalist system that Marxist critics of Burke have erroneously assumed he was defending. During the 18th century, property in Britain was divided between the Crown, the nobility, the greater and lesser gentry, the yeoman freeholders, and the commercial and professional middle classes in the urban centers. At various times in his public life, Burke defended the rights of each of these proprietary entities.

Since Burke believed that every right or privilege carried with it a commensurate social duty, he never defended property rights in the abstract, apart from the obligations that accompanied its role. He was quite aware that the origins of ownership were often based upon force, fraud, and injustice, but he did not favor confiscation or reparations for past abuses and evils. He knew that British hegemony over Ireland was made possible by historic confiscations that had deprived the native population of their property. He knew that the case was much the same in India, where a commercial company had become a state in disguise of a merchant by confiscating much wealth from the indigenous people. So, too, in revolutionary France, he was aware how the seizure of property from the Church and the nobility gave the Jacobins tyrannical power over the nation at large. Burke's attitude toward such expropriations was determined by his conviction that prescriptive law applied only to long-established ownership, not to recent or current confiscations. In his view, the evils of such abuses could be mitigated or eliminated by adherence to the constitutional rights of all subjects and corporate bodies to hold property. He believed that this was a better method to redress past injuries, and that there was no way wholly to eliminate the evils of the past. During the three decades that he served in Parliament, no one did more than he to redress the wrongs suffered by Ireland under British rule, or by the people of India under the East India Company.

One of Canavan's basic themes is that Burke perceived property as perhaps the most important single control over the legal and political power of the state. This was especially true in a secular society. Both private and corporate varieties of property prevented the growth of absolute centralized authority, thereby preserving freedom within the social order. Moreover, private property ownership strengthened all of the intermediate institutions of society that acted as so many shields against the encroachments of political tyranny. Burke was aware that, whenever such a tyranny wished to extend its arbitrary power, its first objective was to destroy the institutions to which men give their allegiance, such as the family and the Church, so that all that remained were isolated individuals, helpless to resist the power of the state. By reinforcing the corporate nature of man on the local or provincial level, property preserved both freedom and good order. When any of the nobility or gentry abused their economic power, transgressions were limited in time and place; at their best, moreover, such people provided the social and economic leadership in all the counties of Britain through a benevolent, paternalistic feudal sense of local community. That kind of leadership, Burke believed, was far better than that which could be supplied by either fawning royal minions or popular political demagogues.

Burke agreed with Adam Smith that private property was an enormous incentive to industrial vigor and to economic health; it was therefore one of the chief sources of a nation's prosperity and wealth. To secure this beneficent effect in the greatest degree the state must be curbed, so that custom is allowed to prevail. Canavan notes that in Burke's Third Letter on a Regicide Peace, he summarized the few legitimate obligations of government in the economic sphere: "Let government protect and encourage industry, secure property, repress violence, and discountenance fraud, it is all they have to do. In other respects, the less they meddle in these affairs the better."

Canavan has presented lucidly and succinctly the vital role of property in the economic and social life of Britain in the time of Burke. His book is a fine contribution to our understanding of both Burke and his era.

 

[The Political Economy of Edmund Burke: The Role of Property in His Thought, by Francis Canavan (New York: Fordham University Press) 185 pp., $30.00]

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