Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Do 19th Century principles of political economy explain British policies towards the Irish during the great famine?

Front CoverThis question has arisen from my reading of ‘The Great Famine’, by Ciarán Ó Murchadha. But I have an interest in the question for two additional reasons: I have some Irish ancestors who would have been affected by the great famine; and in the course of my work as an economist I have developed a great deal of respect for 19th Century political economics.

I found Ó Muchadha’s book to be enlightening in explaining why a substantial proportion of the Irish population were heavily dependent on potatoes and highly vulnerable when crops were destroyed by a fungal disease in most of the years from 1845 to 1849. Prior to the famine, about one-third of the population was completely dependent on potatoes because no other crop could provide as much nutritional value from small plots of land. Over 600,000 households subsisted without tenure rights on small plots of land under the conacre system, which gave them access to land in exchange for their labour. A further 300, 000 cottier households had a more formal tenancy relationship which entailed working for set wages, which were offset against the rent for their plots. Many tenants on small holdings paid their rents in cash rather than by providing labour, but were also completely dependent on potatoes for subsistence. 

In the decades leading up to 1845, access to land for potato-growing was becoming more difficult, partly because of an increasing tendency for landowners to consolidate holdings for grazing purposes. In their struggle to obtain access to land it had apparently become common for poor people to offer more rent than they could possibly pay, in the hope that once possession was obtained it would be less bothersome for landlords to reduce rents than to initiate eviction proceedings. The transactions costs associated with evictions were often substantial. Tenants had a set of ‘tradition-sanctioned’ modes of proceeding under cover of darkness against people whom they believed to be perpetrators of injustice. 

Such secret society activity did not persist after 1847, however.  By that time, those who would have been likely to exact retribution for evictions were apparently ‘for the most part dead, in the workhouses, in prison or had departed overseas as emigrants or as transported felons’. The famine added impetus to the number of evictions, not just because many tenants were unable to pay rent, but also because landlords anticipated that their rates would rise dramatically to pay for relief under the Poor Law. Evictions would have substantially increased the death toll from the famine, but from a landlord’s perspective, consolidation of holdings was necessary in order to avoid bankruptcy.

The relief provided by voluntary contributions and the British government was not sufficient to prevent over a million deaths occurring during the famine period. The British Treasury spent about £8 million on famine relief in Ireland, much of which consisted of advances that were intended to be repaid. The government’s contribution was relatively small by comparison, for example, with the £69 million spent on the Crimean War of 1854-1856. The government could have done more to help the Irish without causing much hardship within Britain.

So, why didn’t the British government provide more help to the victims of the Irish famine? The explanation offered by the author is as follows:
‘Political economy … combined with ‘providentialist’ and ‘moralist’ views, provided the assumptions underlying the decision-making of the small London-based political elite whose views translated into legislation for Ireland, and none of whom ever witnessed its effects first hand’ (page 194).

However, that doesn’t line up well with what I know about the views of prominent 19th Century political economists. For example, in discussing the limits of laissez faire in his book ‘Principles of Political Economy’, published in 1948, J S Mill wrote:
‘Apart from any metaphysical considerations respecting the foundation of morals or of the social union, it will be admitted to be right that human beings should help one another; and the more so, in proportion to the urgency of the need: and none needs help so urgently as one who is starving. The claim to help, therefore, created by destitution, is one of the strongest which can exist; and there is prima facie the amplest reason for making the relief of so extreme an exigency as certain to those who require it, as by any arrangements of society it can be made.’

Ciarán Ó Murchadha implies that his view is based on research by Peter Gray, which demonstrates
 ‘that the ideological framework was part of a wider set of beliefs shared across the British political spectrum, including the conviction that the Famine had been sent by providence, and that it furnished the British state with both the opportunity and the moral authority to reform Ireland thoroughly’.

A paper by Peter Gray has explained British policies towards the Irish in terms of
‘a readiness to attribute mass famine mortality in Ireland to the wilful immorality of the Irish, and to insist on the implementation of the penal mechanism of the poor law on all social classes’.
Immediately afterwards, Gray adds:
‘This, rather than any unthinking adherence to “laissez faire” is what informed the doctrine of “natural causes” in the latter stages of the Irish famine’ (IEHC 2006 Helsinki Session 123).

It seems to me that British views relating to providence and morality might have been advanced by English people to avoid acknowledging that they did not feel much sympathy for starving people in Ireland. In his book, ‘Why Ireland Starved’ (1983) Joel Mokyr suggests:
‘It is not unreasonable to surmise that had anything like the famine occurred in England or Wales, the British government would have overcome its theoretical scruples and would have come to the rescue of the starving at a much larger scale. Ireland was not considered part of the British community. Had it been, its income per capita may not have been much higher, perhaps, but mass starvation due to a subsistence crisis would have been averted …’ (p 292).


Even though Britain and Ireland were part of a political union, there are strong historical reasons why many British and Irish people did not see each other as members of the same community. There is evidence that British political economists, including J S Mill, shared the prejudices against the Irish of many other British people. But the principles of political economy espoused by 19th Century political economists did not require the British government to allow large numbers of people to die during the Irish famine.