Edmund Burke on Scarcity, Wage Subsidies, and the Abuse of Power

Edmund Burke

Found in Select Works of Edmund Burke, vol. 4

Thoughts and Details on Scarcity represents Burke’s most developed commentary on economics and the role of the state in the economic realm. His broad agreement with Adam Smith on such matters has often been noted, including by Burke himself. Written as a response to a proposal for wage subsidies for agricultural workers, Thoughts and Details prompted Burke to consider the broader problems that arise when the state ceases to be content with broadly managing the “truly and properly public” affairs of the nation, and inserts itself into the mundane and daily lives of the people.

“Tyranny and cruelty may make men justly wish the downfall of abused powers, but I believe that no government ever yet perished from any other direct cause than it’s [sic] own weakness. My opinion is against an over-doing of any sort of administration, and more especially against this most momentous of all meddling on the part of authority; the meddling with the subsistence of the people.”

The weakness alluded to comes from the doomed desire of the state to insert itself into areas of life it cannot control. Such “universal interference” in matters of local concern or personal discretion are typically unable to actually attain the ends they seek and end up merely as examples of “contemptible imbecility.” The more a government claims to be able to control society, the hollower its promises will ring, inevitably undermining public confidence in it. This is a practice that has become infinitely more routine in the two hundred years since Burke’s death, and the state of modern politics might indicate the prescience of his warning.