The right kind of free markets

As I’m travelling, I’ve been doing a lot of frivolous reading –  by Wu Ming (fabulous),  by Rupert Thomson, John Le Carre’s  (oh dear, he’s lost the use of shades of grey in character), and in non-fiction Mary Beard’s  (very interesting and enjoyable),  by Tim Parks (funny, and all-too-plusible about Italy) and, just finished, Jesse Norman’s 

[amazon_image id=”0007489641″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Edmund Burke: The Visionary who Invented Modern Politics[/amazon_image]

I’ve found this very interesting, especially the last chapter on what light reading Burke can shed on the philosophy shaping modern political debate, namely liberal (UK sense) individualism and its counterpart in economics, the neoclassical free market model. The book argues that the assumptions of self-interest and individualism in economic models have spilled outside their proper domain of technical economic analysis: “What starts with an economist’s assumption ends up as a deep cultural pathology.” There is furthermore the loss of the basic trust uniting the generations, Burke’s famous point about the “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Those who are to be born, in particular, cannot participate in the free market,

The book concludes: “Burke offers a profound critique of the market fundamentalism now prevalent in modern society. But he does so not from the left of the political spectrum but from the right. … Understood conservatively, markets are not idolized but treated as cultural artefacts mediated by trust and tradition. Capitalism becomes, not a one size fits all ideology of consumption but a spectrum of different models to be evaluated on their own merits. Burke would note the extraordinary greed and self-dealing seen over the past decade by the modern nabobs of banking and finance in a series of cartels disguised as markets…”

I haven’t read much by Burke, and that little over 30 years ago. I rather suspect he’s an author one approaches differently with age and experience. Anyway, Jesse Norman’s book was a great (re-)introduction.


5 thoughts on “The right kind of free markets

  1. In the History of Parliament, MP’s, check out Arnold Nesbitt, 1721-1779. Burke must have known him well. It is my view that his speculations on East India stock triggered the nasty crash of 1772, the fiscal implications of which triggered the American business later that decade. His natural son, later Lt. Gen Colebrooke Nesbitt, Aide to King George III, married Elizabeth, the daughter of Jeremy Sneyd, Head of the Northern Department and Secretary to PM’s. In widowhood until 1836 she lived at Highfield Park, Heckfield, Hants, over the fields from the Duke of Wellington, an old acquaintance.

  2. the idea of self-interest and individualism spilling outside of their narrow technical domain is also a theme of Foley’s “Adam’s Fallacy”. And of course you don’t need reminding that even within that domain the theoretical conditions required for free markets to lead to good outcomes for all are so restrictive as to make the analysis of no real world relevance except as a powerful ideological rehetorical device.

  3. I would read Yuval Levin’s “The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left” for a solid introduction to these issues.

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