Scholarly Comments on Academic Economics

Thoughts and Details on Scarcity

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Abstract

In 1800, three years after Burke’s death, his executors assembled this tract from a memorial Burke wrote to Prime Minister William Pitt in 1795 and other draft material intended for the public. The material began as a timely warning against interventionist measures in the face of dearth, including a locally administered minimum-wage scheme (referred to as a “tax” by Burke, because employers pay more for labor). The markets treated are chiefly those for labor, food, and spirits. The result is Burke’s most general expression of his views in political economy, showing a sensitive appreciation of the particularism of social affairs and local, disjointed knowledge. He warns: “The moment that Government appears at market, all the principles of market will be subverted,” and he articulates the intervention dynamic. Perhaps the most important aspect of the piece is Burke’s attitude about standing firm on principles against the governmentalization of social affairs, in the face of foolish popular and political impulses and prejudices. The piece ends with the words: “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.” According to the Preface of the executors (not included here), Burke’s words had a persuasive effect on opinion and policy decisions.