Right wing libertarian politics have never really caught on in Ireland. Part of this is due to the memory of the Great Famine of 1845-8. The Famine, though caused by blight, was made worse by the prevailing conservative doctrine of laissez faire. This was the prime example of politicians believing the free market will solve everything, that it would be unethical for the government to intervene and that helping the poor would only make them lazy and dependent. This was an experiment of a world with only minimal government, of free market principles in practice, the result was so disastrous that a million people died.
The normal market is governed by supply and demand. Goods are sold to whoever will pay the highest price. However while this works when times are good, it breaks down in times of trouble. The Famine was exacerbated by basic economics. For example say you could get a price of 3 by selling your good in Ireland but a price of 5 by selling your good in England. Obviously you will export it even if Ireland is starving and England isn’t. This was the case during the Famine because the starving peasants didn’t have money to buy food and therefore starved. As Amartya Sen described it, it is not lack of food that causes starvation but rather a lack of money to buy food.
A common tactic during a Famine is to ban exports of food. This way food is kept within the country and the increase in supply will offset some of the decrease caused by the blight. Prices will drop which will help the poor but harm merchants. This was done in the last major famine in 1781-2. However the government refused to intervene in the economy this way. They believed that the free market was sacred and would solve all problems if left alone. The government put their rigid ideology above the lives of millions. They put the interests of the merchants above those of the starving poor.
The most contentious issue in Anglo-Irish relations is the allegation that food was exported during the Famine. This was a source of hatred for generations of nationalists, who remembered English soldiers protecting food as it was brought to ships for export as the people starved. John Mitchell claimed that there was enough food in Ireland to feed its people. A common saying was that “God sent the blight, but the English sent the Famine.” Cecil Woodham-Smith (who wrote one of the definitive accounts on the Famine) wrote that “the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation.” While it is true that food was exported even at the height of the famine, it is also true that food was imported. It has not yet been determined which was larger. It would not be right for me to comment on such a controversial issue without proper evidence and I am unable to find such data (quite likely detailed records weren’t kept).
The government did take some action but it was always half hearted and limited. In 1846 100,000 pounds worth of corn was bought by the government. While this helped it was a drop in the ocean compared with the fact that the blight had wiped out 3,500,000 pounds worth of potatoes. It was also determined that the corn would not be handed out but rather sold as near to market prices as possible. The government was obsessed with fears of damaging local businesses and of creating dependency among the Irish. However most peasants paid their rent with part of their crop and survived on the remaining potatoes. This meant they did not use money and therefore could not buy food or access credit.
According to Peter Gray, the government spent £7,000,000 in famine relief between 1845 and 1850 which represented 0.5% of GDP, hardly the response needed to tackle one of the worst disasters of the 19th century. This was compared to the £20,000,000 paid in compensation to slave-holders in the West Indies in the 1830s and £76,000,000 spent on the Crimea War.
The government also set up public works schemes but these too were of an extremely limited nature. The government believed it would be an abuse of the government’s role to create anything productive or useful that might help people. It was viewed as unethical for the government to help an individual so no money was invested in productive enterprises or in improving the land. They therefore built roads that lead nowhere and had no purpose. They also insisted on paying wages below the market rate. The workers were not provided with winter clothes and were so under paid that they died in huge numbers from under nourishment. These schemes were marked by corruption, late payment of wages and a massive death toll. The government based its actions on tight-fistedness, penny-pinching, excessive obedience to laissez faire ideology and faith in the market.
These schemes too were wound down and emphasis shifted to the workhouses. These were a hated and detested place in Irish folklore. People would do literally anything, even die before going into a workhouse. For a proud people workhouses reeked of the stigma of handouts and the loss of independence. Here too the government was more concerned with saving money and avoiding the age old conservative fear of lazy dossers living off the state rather than alleviating mass starvation. To ensure only the “deserving poor” (in other words the most desperate and those closest to death) received help it was required that everyone receiving assistance must live in the workhouse. To enter the workhouse they had to give up all property and most possessions. They were separated from family and give the bare necessities to live. The workhouses were vastly overcrowded and disease was rife. For many they were a place to die. They are an example of when the focus is on saving money rather than saving lives.
The Famine is also remembered for the policy of evictions. This is remembered in folklore as a cruel and heartless policy that caused great suffering and death. From a purely laissez fare economical view it is logical. If tenants are not paying the rent then they shouldn’t be allowed to keep the land. It should be given to someone who will pay the rent. Landlords were also afraid of moral hazard, in which allowing some tenants to stay despite not paying the rent would lead to no one paying the rent. Whatever the theoretical validity of this argument, it completely failed to take account of local factors. Tenants couldn’t pay the rent but this was no fault of their own. It was not their fault their crops were struck by the blight. Eviction meant either emigration or starvation. For generations Irish people cursed the landlords for forcing tenants onto the side of the roads to die, all for the sake of making more money.
Of course there are always ideologues who will stick to their beliefs no matter what the evidence. Modern day advocates of laissez faire argue that the famine was caused by too much government interference. Like the argument that the Financial crash of 2008 and the resulting depression was caused by too much government interference, this is a position based on pre-conceived opinion rather than any evidence. Therefore there is little need or point in refuting it.
Current Republican Vice-President candidate Paul Ryan’s ancestors left Ireland during the Famine. It is ironic that his views on welfare are strikingly similar to those of Charles Trevelyan the man in charge of Famine relief. Trevelyan main priority was cost cutting and avoiding creating dependency or granting aid to undeserving people. Ryan recently declared that the welfare system “lulls able-bodied people . . . into lives of complacency and dependency, which drain them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives.” If Trevelyan was around today he would undoubtedly echo those words. Both are guided by the belief that the free market will solve all problems and that government intervention only makes things worse.
It is popular nowadays to argue for limited government and leaving it to the free market. It is argued that the government is the cause of most problems. The free market is proclaimed an untouchable sacred cow. Famines are natural disasters that cannot be helped or avoided. However the case of the Great Famine shows this is not the case. The free market will not solve our problems. When times are bad we need the government. Laissez faire in principle resulted in left to die in practice.