Parsimony vs. Economy

I have read of some budget proposals in Canada that call for cuts strait across the board. Edmond Burke calls this approach ‘parsimony’. I like this word – parsimony. It sounds like something Id like to have with my apple pie.


1. Unusual or excessive frugality; extreme economy or stinginess.
2. Adoption of the simplest assumption in the formulation of a theory or in the interpretation of data, especially in accordance with the rule of Ockham’s razor.

Parsimony is what every Scotsmans, Dutchman and Conservative is accused of… and what the Obama administration cannot be accused of. But according to Burke, we should seek economy and not parsimony.

Mere parsimony is not economy, it is separable in theory from it and in fact it may or may not be a apart of economy according to circumstances. Expense and great expense may be an essential part in true economy…

Economy is a distributive virtue and consists not in saving but in selection.
Parsimony requires no providence, no sagacity, no comparison, no judgement but mere instinct, and that not of the noblest kind… The other economy has larger views. It demands a discriminating judgement and a firm sagacious mind.

The longer we avoid difficult decisions, the more difficult it will be to avoid parsimony down the road. We could decide that rather than make painful budget cuts, we will inflate our way out of our problems. But this would be truly parsimonious.

Burke on Temperate vs. Hot Reform

In 1780 Edmund Burke was appointed to the lucrative position of Paymaster to the forces. At this time, paymasters were allowed to lend out excess money in their accounts at interest, thus taking risk with and profiting from public money (does this sound familiar anybody?). Burke put an end to this practice and accepted a salary that was 1/8th his predecessors! He did this despite serious financial problems that left him in perpetual debt his entire life.

Burkes most notable accomplishment during this period was the 1780 economics reform aimed at reducing Britain’s annual budget deficits of 14 million pounds. At the center of the reform was the bloated Crown Civil List. Burke sought to reform this list by:

  • Abolishing useless offices
  • Diminishing royal authority over distribution of pensions or secret service funds
  • Asserting control of parliament over civil service

In a famous speech to parliament, the Father of Conservatism, described the difference between ‘temperate’ vs. ‘hot’ reform.

Genuine reform, in order to reduce abuses, must be accomplished gradually, the reformer sounding the lead all along the way.

Early reformations are amicable reformations with a friend in power.

Late reformations are terms imposed upon a conquered enemy.

Early reformations are made in cool blood.

Late reformations are made under a state of inflammation.

In that state of things the people behold in government nothing that is respectable.They see the abuse and they will see nothing else. They fall into the temper of a furious populous provoked at the disorder of a house of ill fame. They go to work by the shortest way, they abate the nuisance, they pull down the house.

Are we too late for temperate reform? And is there another Edmund Burke out there?