The Great Hunger

Ken writes:

I’m taking a break from studying for my brewing exams (before I explode like an over carbonated bottle of home-brew). I don’t get much time for reading just at the moment, but until recently I had been making my way through Cecil Woodham-Smith’s history of the Irish famine of 1845-1849. It’s a fascinating book and hugely readable considering its subject matter. The Westminster response to the famine must go down in history as one of the all-time greatest examples of bad government and you do wonder whether the government response would have been the same if the famine had struck the home counties. At the same time, one of the strengths of the book is the way it reveals the perverse logic of the government’s response. The government and especially high ranking civil servants seem to have been zealous believers in laissez faire free market economics, during a time when all political power was in the hands of the landed elite and prosperous urban middle classes and before the union movement. The Irish who perished or were forced to emigrate were virtually without representation and had no skills to speak of beyond culturing the potato (one of the problems that came up when the government did distribute food is that no one knew how to cook anything other than potato, nor did people have trades or skills for public works projects beyond general labouring). The Irish peasants were completely penniless at the time of the famine. They would pay their rent in kind in goods or services to the landlord and were self-sufficient for food and heating thanks to the potato and burning peat. They had very few possessions and this was encouraged because anything they did to improve their property (such as making a table and chairs) reverted to the landlord at the end of the lease and could form the ground for a rent increase. How appallingly and utterly perverse.

When the famine struck, the government did not want to intervene because it saw that as an intervention in the market. According to their laissez faire principles, deprivation in one corner of the land should generate an incentive to merchants to move food to that region. And yet landowners in Ireland chose to export oats and grain during the famine. The government wouldn’t countenance restricting personal property rights to the extent of forcing Irish landowners to sell their grain in Ireland. The government bought maize from the US because there wasn’t an existing market for that commodity so it couldn’t be accused of flooding the market and driving the price of oats and grain down. Very clearly, these were policies that served the wealthy sectors of society. The government also didn’t buy in enough maize and so it was reluctant to intervene even where it could.

Contrast that with the regime of rationing instituted to cope with scarcity during and after the second world war. Did the government learn from the failure of free market policies during the famine? I think it was probably that the rise of the labour movement meant that a completely free market approach was out of the question. Workers had political representation and it was understood that the rights of certain people to make a profit had to be subordinated to the goal of alleviating suffering on a national scale.

Another perverse but logical aspect of the government’s response concerned the public works undertaken to generate employment during the famine. The government forbid projects that would bring particular benefit to individual landowners or industries, which you can understand because it would otherwise be ripe for corruption. The scheme involved ratepayers in communities obtaining loans from the government on generous terms that would have to be paid back (although most of these were in fact forgiven entirely). If the community takes out a loan but one particular individual derives a disproportionate benefit, you can see how that could lead to trouble. But the practical consequence of the scheme was that no drainage projects were carried out, despite the fact that loads of Ireland could have benefitted from that. It also meant there were no railways built or canals. Instead they pretty much just built roads.


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