Every year around St. Patrick’s Day, the Great Irish Famine of 1845-52 briefly reenters the public’s consciousness. Parallels to more recent political events, including the Syrian refugee crisis and the ongoing debate over immigration, have also elevated its salience as a historical precursor. In a subtle rebuke of President Donald Trump, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny recently invoked the United States’ relatively liberal immigration policy of the 1840s as a core feature of the American identity: “four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp, we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore.”
The famine’s immediate instigator was the potato blight – a disease that wiped out the island’s primary subsistence food crop and resulted in the starvation deaths of over a million people. Further investigation of its causes quickly goes astray, and in some quarters of academia and the press alike it has become common to blame the Irish famine on the ravages of “laissez-faire” capitalism.
The argument for this view is often historically simplistic. It usually casts the famine as an instance of class-discrimination arising from a market failure in which the British government allegedly shirked its duties to relieve the starving masses out of a belief that the unhindered market would sort the matter out. Some darker variants go so far as to portray the event as a capitalism-induced economic cleansing to rid Ireland of its poor and dependent classes at the behest of wealthy landowners.
The Political Origins of the Irish Famine
While it is difficult to understate the misery of the famine itself, these portrayals politicize its history beyond recognition, while conveniently sidestepping the pronounced role that illiberal economic and political institutions played in Ireland’s food crisis. Two preexisting policies were largely to blame for the famine’s severity once the potato blight struck.
The first was a legacy of England’s 16th century break with the Roman Catholic church and, more directly, Oliver Cromwell’s proto-genocidal conquest of Ireland in the wake of the English Civil War some two centuries prior. These events gave rise to a series of brutally repressive anti-Catholic penal laws in Ireland. The most far-reaching was a government-enforced land redistribution scheme that stripped Irish Catholics of their property for a variety of “offenses” against English Protestant rule – for supporting the breakaway Kilkenny Confederation in 1641, for pledging allegiance to Charles I in the Civil War, for backing the Catholic King James II after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in the Williamite War, and for recurring support for later Jacobite causes over the next half-century.
As applied in Ireland, these laws struck at the heart of the very same institutions that fueled the Industrial Revolution in neighboring Great Britain. After the landowner redistributions of 1649-1691, Catholics were severely restricted from purchasing or even leasing property for the next century. The British Parliament prohibited Catholic ownership of firearms, barred Catholics from public office and disenfranchised Catholic voters, imposed Catholic-specific taxes, established preferential inheritance laws that favored Protestant converts, restricted Catholics from specific gentry-level professions, and even barred Catholics from sending their children abroad to be educated. Edmund Burke, the liberal-turned-conservative philosopher, described their cumulative effect as a “machine…fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people.” The relief of these punitive provisions became a primary cause of late 18th and early 19th century English liberals, with major though imperfect reform bills being secured in 1791 and 1829.
The second political source of the famine’s severity was found in the economic philosophy of mercantilism, and specifically the protectionist Corn Laws that the British Parliament enacted in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. A cronyist political tool of agricultural landowners in England, these measures severely taxed the importation of foreign-grown wheat and other grains, which could be grown more efficiently and cheaply in better climates. By intentional design, these tariffs raised the price of food items in Britain and Ireland to the benefit of agricultural landowners. Consumers paid the direct price.
Though the Corn Laws were the most famous legislative products of British mercantilism, they actually built upon several decades of earlier agricultural protectionism. Ireland was particularly hard hit, as the grain tariffs came into existence in conjunction with the aforementioned penal statutes. In the 18th century, the British Parliament imposed a variety of commodity-specific laws that restricted the export of Irish commodities to non-English merchants. Food production in Ireland itself was greatly distorted by the tariff system, which incentivized comparatively less efficient uses of agricultural land. Combined with the restrictive laws on property ownership, these measures gave rise to an Irish agricultural model built around the cultivation of grains for sale to fixed buyers at tariff-protected prices to the benefit of absentee landowners in England. Adam Smith, in fact, diagnosed the economic ills of this system in the Wealth of Nations. He denounced its extremely regressive tax effects “as is the case in Ireland [where] such absentees may derive a great revenue from the protection of a government to the support of which they do not contribute a single shilling.”
When the blight arrived in 1845, it struck an Irish Catholic population had been forcibly reduced to a state of landless poverty and subsistence agriculture by 200 years of government predation and punitively protectionist trade policies on food items. Landless and still under the shadows of two centuries of economic and political repression, they were also held captive to a food market that artificially increased grain prices beyond their reach and relegated them to subsistence on a failing potato crop. Symptomatic of these government-created distortions, Ireland actually continued to export grains to England under politically preferential land and trade arrangements even after the onset of the famine.
Free Market Liberalism and the Famine Response
The conditions that made the Irish famine so catastrophic were largely created by centuries of political intrusions upon everything from the freedom of trade to the most basic abilities of Irish Catholics to own property. This created an economic system in Ireland that stood in direct antithesis to both the free trade prescriptions of Smith and David Ricardo, and to the economic doctrine of non-intervention. In fact, the most important famine-relief policies from within the United Kingdom and from abroad were rooted in the doctrines of laissez-faire. In Britain, the onset of the famine proved to be a major instigating trigger of the Corn Law system’s destruction.
In 1846 after two years of crop failures and poor agricultural conditions all around, Prime Minister Robert Peel bucked the protectionist majorities of his own party and acquiesced to the liberal Whig free trade cause of Richard Cobden and John Bright. Ireland weighed heavily on Peel’s conversion to free trade, and in late 1845 he even surreptitiously approved the importation of over £100,000 of corn from the United States in circumvention of the tariffs for distribution through the Irish workhouses. The tariff relief ultimately succeeded, though not without a price. They split Peel’s cabinet and party, costing him the government. The compromises needed to secure a majority for the Corn Law repeal also resulted in its implementation being dragged out for three years over a schedule of successive reductions. By its completion in 1849, the ravages of the famine had spread to all of Ireland.
A second source of famine relief emerged abroad in the form of immigration. Following the Jeffersonian “Revolution of 1800,” the United States adopted to a relatively liberal immigration policy (at least by 19th century standards) that permitted easy entry into its ports as well as remittances back home, which could be used in turn to pay for the transatlantic voyage of other family members. Britain also permitted relatively unimpeded migration to Canada and other overseas parts of its empire, though nativist political reactions resulted in this policy being restricted after 1847. All said, more than a million Irish refugees utilized the option of immigration to escape the famine between 1845 and its conclusion in 1854.
A Malthusian Famine Relief
We’ve established thus far that (1) the illiberal economic and political restrictions upon Ireland were a major cause of the famine’s severity and (2) the liberal policies of free trade and free migration were two of its most important means of relief. Despite these realizations, the famine itself is often blamed on capitalism. How are we to reconcile the two claims?
Simply put, those who cast the blame for the famine on free markets have largely misidentified their target through a combination of sloppy history and poor economics. They normally accuse Peel’s successor John Russell of adhering to an economic “orthodoxy” of “laissez-faire” rooted in Smith and Ricardo, and point to the British government’s reluctance to invest in famine-relief charities out of the belief that the free market would sort things out. Briefly setting aside the reality that Ireland’s punitively regulated economy in 1845 was anything but a laissez-faire paradise, another problem emerges in the historical misidentification of the intellectual inspirations of the blamed parties.
Lead among them is the political administrator whose name, perhaps more than any other, has come to be associated with the British government’s failures during the famine years: Charles Trevelyan. The scion of an aristocratic Whig family who occupied a prominent post in the British Treasury civil service, Trevelyan effectively took over the famine relief after the fall of Peel’s government in 1846. He is curiously portrayed as a free-market dogmatist and devotee of Adam Smith, as is the case in this depiction from a leftist political science professor. Seldom mentioned however is that Trevelyan’s economic beliefs are more closely linked to the teachings of Thomas Malthus.
Malthus is a perpetually controversial figure, both for competing claimants to his intellectual legacy and disparate assessments of his own intentions. The connection between Trevelyan and Malthus is undeniable though. Trevelyan’s introduction to the study of political economy occurred when he was a student of Malthus himself at the East India Company College in Hertfordshire.
Some decades prior to the famine, Malthus supported the original enactment of the Corn Laws on the grounds that they permitted a balance between manufacturer and agricultural interests. He claimed influence from Smith as well, even as this inheritance was vigorously contested by his contemporary David Ricardo. To this end, Malthus also criticized the penal laws in Ireland for their economic detriments, placing him at least at times on the classical liberal side of the issue. His connection to the famine however comes from his most famous work, an oft-revised tract on the economics of overpopulation. In its basic form, the Malthusian doctrine predicted a mathematical conundrum in which exponential population growth would eventually surpass the ability of natural resource production to sustain it.
The implications of Malthus’ theory have been hotly debated for centuries. He personally resisted one of its possible implications – coercive population control – in favor of encouraging people to restrict procreation through abstinence and late-life marriage. Many of his intellectual followers have shown more pronounced proclivities toward population control, including the forced sterilization and eugenics programs advanced by self-described “neo-Malthusians” in the early 20th century. While we cannot assign guilt to Malthus for the actions of others after his lifetime, it is not difficult to see how these positions could be arrived at from a reading of his works. In fact, one startling passage on Ireland itself appeared in an 1817 letter that Malthus wrote to Ricardo:
“Through most of this country, great marks of improvement were observable, though its progress had received a severe check during the last two years, the effect of which was peculiarly to aggravate the predominant evil of Ireland, namely population greatly in excess above the demand for labour, though in general not much in excess of the means of subsistence on account of the rapidity with which potatoes have increased under a system of cultivating them on very small properties with a view to support than sale.The land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of this population should be swept from the soil into large manufacturing and commercial Towns.”
It is not difficult to see in this passage the underpinnings of Trevelyan’s attribution of the famine to Irish breeding and overpopulation a generation later. Trevelyan’s own report on the famine relief, published in 1848, is deeply rooted in Malthusian population doctrine. It faults the forces of population strain for the situation in Ireland and, in some of the more infamous passages, suggests that the unfolding events reflected divine will upon the island’s consumptive excesses.
Consistent with portrayals that incorrectly brand the famine relief as a “laissez-faire” enterprise, Trevelyan is often portrayed as having taken a callous do-nothing approach to his task that would allow the population crisis to sort itself out by migration or, if necessary, starvation. It is difficult to reconcile this claim with the actual famine relief pursued by Russell’s government.
Keynesianism before Keynes
Here Trevelyan’s course has much more in common with a different line of economic thought that emerged from one camp of Malthus’ followers, viewing the state as a mechanism to manage the untamed “natural” forces of an economy. It is more commonly associated with the 20th century economist John Maynard Keynes, who also styled himself a neo-Malthusian on both population issues and macroeconomic management. In addition to sharing Keynes’ near-obsession with Malthusian population pressures as a putative explanation for social ills, Trevelyan believed the government’s role was to essentially oversee the crisis as if it were a countervailing force to the “nature” of an unregulated market. To accomplish this control he sought to position the the government as a jobs provider for an economy in crisis. In 1846 he launched a massive “public works” program that sought to employ the “surplus” Irish population in the construction of roads and river improvements.
Trevelyan’s report openly boasts of employing almost 100,000 people in government projects within a few months of its start. By 1847 it employed five times that number. Like many centralized economic programs however, Trevelyan’s “public works” succumbed to waste, graft, and maladministration. Borrowing from additional Malthusian doctrines about consumer demand and clinging to the notion that potato subsistence had detached the Irish from any familiarity with purchasing their own food, he indulged multiple failed experiments in price and wage manipulation. These were ostensibly designed to “teach” the workers how to properly manage their earnings without a potato crop. In reality, they ended up suppressing the public sector wages that the government offered while also, at times, inducing artificial spikes in grain prices.
The construction projects had additional unanticipated effects. They diverted laborers away from agricultural pursuits (although this objective was similarly rooted in an interventionist belief that too many Irish were wedded to agricultural pursuits and thereby flooded its labor market). This in turn suppressed potato planting once a blight-free crop could be raised and impeded the recovery. To make matters worse, the British government also attempted to finance its massive expenditures with a changing array of taxes on landowners in the affected districts. As Mark Thornton has argued, these taxes likely introduced multiple unintended consequences: their burdens were passed through onto poor tenants by absentee landowners, as land value levies they further diverted resources away from food production, and they likely squeezed out private charity relief for the famine itself.
The bureaucratic disaster of the public works program eventually drew scrutiny in parliament and the press, resulting in its cancellation followed by a succession of similarly disastrous attempts to manage the famine by different forms of government-induced “charity.” In the end, the most effective relief mechanisms proved to be free migration – owing to the relatively liberal policies of the United States in its willingness to receive Irish famine refugees – and the elimination of trade protectionism over Britain’s food sources as the Corn Law repeal’s implementation took full effect in 1849.
The government approaches to famine relief were widely derided at the time as a succession of failures though – not on account of their “laissez-faire” approach, but the exact opposite. They tried to manage Ireland out of a food crises through public spending, price controls, and make-work programs. One testimonial recorded in the House of Lords in 1852 succinctly captured the absurdity of the entire enterprise:
“We continued the Works we had selected originally, but towards the end a number of works we had excluded were commenced, merely for the purpose of employing the people, nearly in the same way as if we had dug a hole to fill it up again.”
It would appear in this evidence that Charles Trevelyan, the overpopulation-obsessed Malthusian administrator of one of the largest public works programs in Irish history, was far from a laissez-faire dogmatist. Perhaps we should enlist an alternative descriptor: Trevelyan was actually something of a proto-Keynesian.