The Alleged Liberalism of Sir Edward Coke

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from An
Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, vol.
1, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith
. An MP3 audio file
of this article, read by Jeff Riggenbach, is available
for download

It used to
be held that the famous "antimonopoly" common-law decisions
of Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke (1552–1634), the eminent
early 17th-century jurist, were an expression of the alleged commitment
of a rising class of Puritan merchants to economic liberalism
and laissez-faire. A particularly prominent advocate of this thesis
is the prolific English Marxist historian Christopher Hill, who
needs this view to fit into the Marxian schema of the English
Civil War.

It turns
out, however, that there are many grave flaws in this thesis.
Coke himself was a moderate Anglican, and not particularly concerned
with religious issues. He was also not in any sense a merchant
or a spokesman for merchants; he was a country gentleman from
Norfolk who successively married two heiresses, and spent most
of his career as a government lawyer, successively attorney general
and chief justice. Also, Coke showed no interest whatever in the
new juristic concerns of merchants, such new branches of the law
as joint-stock ownership, insurance bankruptcy, negotiable instruments,
and commercial contracts.

More important,
Coke never displayed any sympathy for laissez-faire. As an MP,
Coke supported many mercantilist measures. Furthermore, he had
imbibed from his close associate, William Cecil, Lord Burghley,
an admiration for the elaborate Tudor structure of state controls.
His approach to foreign trade was profoundly mercantilist. Thus,
in the 1621 session of Parliament, after he had broken with the
Crown, Coke deplored the economic effects of the alleged scarcity
of coin. He attacked the unfavorable balance of trade, deplored
the fact that the East India Company was allowed to export bullion,
and attacked the import trade with France as introducing into
England immoral luxury items such as "wines and lace, and
such like trifles." Coke also called for outlawing the importation
of tobacco from Spain.

Coke also
tried his best to cripple the new practice of exporting unfinished
cloth to the Continent and then reimporting the finished cloth.
He consistently advocated prohibiting the importation of foreign
cloths, as well as the export of unfinished cloth, and also tried
to outlaw the export of raw wool to be used by foreign manufactures.

general, Sir Edward Coke had no quarrel with government regulation
and control of trade, or with the creation of monopolies; what
he objected to was the king doing the regulating or monopolizing,
rather than Parliament. Coke favored the detailed regulation and
cartelization of industry, the wage controls, and the compulsory
employment imposed by the Statute of Artificers of 1563. He supported
the laws against "forestalling and engrossing" that,
under the guise of attacks on monopoly and high prices, were actually
price-raising and cartelizing devices prohibiting speculation
in food products and prohibiting sales outside officially designated
local "markets." Laws against forestalling were lobbied
for by privileged owners of local markets trying to exclude competitors
and to raise their own prices.

Most important,
Coke’s well-known opposition to government-granted monopolies
was merely an opposition to grants by the king rather than to
grants by Parliament. Thus, in the famous Statute of Monopolies,
passed in 1623 and drafted largely by Coke, Parliament abolished
royal grants of monopoly privilege, but explicitly reserved to
itself the right to grant such privileges, which it soon proceeded
to do. The statute also specifically exempted from abolition large
categories of royal monopoly, including such industries as printing,
gunpowder, and saltpeter, and the rights of "corporations"
such as London to prevent non-Londoners from engaging in trade
within the city limits, or monopoly corporations engaged in foreign
trade. Furthermore, Coke personally favored the monopoly Russia,
Virginia, and East India Companies.

Coke’s legal-economic
philosophy might be summed up in a phrase he used in Parliament
in 1621: "That no Commodity can be banished, but by Act of


Coke did not fully break with the king and adopt the Parliament-over-all
position until 1621. In 1616, he was ousted from his post in
the Privy Council, but immediately won his way back into King
James’s favor by marrying his daughter to Sir John Villiers,
the older brother of the Duke of Buckingham. He was still a
privy councilor in 1621, and was expected to remain in the Court
Party, but the king’s bypassing him for promotion to Lord Chancellor
led to Coke’s final break with the Crown.


N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
School, founder of modern libertarianism, and academic
vice president of the Mises
. He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell —
of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his
literary executor.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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