Edmund Burke: The Fraud of Economic Fairness

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), Irish Statesman

Daily Dabble in the Classics, Edmund Burke

To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of government. It would be a vain presumption in statesmen to think they can do it. The people maintain them, and not they the people. It is in the power of government to prevent much evil; it can do very little positive good in this, or perhaps in anything else. It is not only so of the state and statesman, but of all the classes and descriptions of the rich: they are the pensioners of the poor, and are maintained by their superfluity. They are under an absolute, hereditary, and indefeasible dependence on those who labor and are miscalled the poor.

The laboring people are only poor because they are numerous. Numbers in their nature imply poverty. In a fair distribution among a vast multitude none can have much. That class of dependent pensioners called the rich is so extremely small, that, if all their throats were cut, and a distribution made of all they consume in a year, it would not give a bit of bread and cheese for one night’s supper to those who labor, and who in reality feed both the pensioners and themselves.

But the throats of the rich ought not to be cut, nor their magazines plundered; because, in their persons, they are trustees for those who labor, and their hoards are the banking-houses of these latter. Whether they mean it or not, they do, in effect, execute their trust, — some with more, some with less fidelity and judgment. But, on the whole, the duty is performed, and everything returns, deducting some very trifling commission and discount, to the place from whence it arose. When the poor rise to destroy the rich, they act as wisely for their own purposes as when they burn mills and throw corn into the river to make bread cheap.

When I say that we of the people ought to be informed, inclusively I say we ought not to be flattered: flattery is the reverse of instruction. The poor in that case would be rendered as improvident as the rich, which would not be at all good for them.

Nothing can be so base and so wicked as the political canting language, ” the laboring poor.” Let compassion be shown in action, — the more, the better, — according to every man’s ability; but let there be no lamentation of their condition. It is no relief to their miserable circumstances; it is only an insult to their miserable understandings. It arises from a total want of charity or a total want of thought. Want of one kind was never relieved by want of any other kind. Patience, labor, sobriety, frugality, and religion should be recommended to them; all the rest is downright fraud. It is horrible to call them “the once happy laborer.”

Whether what may be called the moral or philosophical happiness of the laborious classes is increased or not, I cannot say. The seat of that species of happiness is in the mind; and there are few data to ascertain the comparative state of the mind at any two periods. Philosophical happiness is to want little. Civil or vulgar happiness is to want much and to enjoy much.


Source: Edmund Burke, excerpt from “Scarcity.”


Daily Dabble in the Classics is a project of Self-Educated American’s Founder and Editor In Chief, Steve Farrell. The collective project, as well as any individualized spelling modernizations, unique formatting, and introductory or explanatory notes, Copyright © 2009-2012 Steve Farrell.


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