Did laissez-faire capitalism cause the Irish potato famine?

The notion that capitalism, the free market, or anything related to freedom caused the Irish famine contradicts itself. A government controls the economy, then gets blamed for not doing anything when their actions causes terrible results.

But it’s amazing what people will actually believe.

The other day while researching Irish-American topics (my mother is a Fitzgerald) I came across this Salon article written an Irish American disgusted with neo-conservatives like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.

Although he highlights the fake enthusiasm and heritage of many Irish American, whose knowledge amounts to no more than ethnic stereotypes, one of his statements made me do a double-take to make sure I had read him correctly.

According to him, a Milton Friedman quasi-free market system was responsible for the potato famine.

A little historical context: The Irish potato famine was caused in the 1840’s due to a blight that killed much of the potato crop in Ireland, which depended on it to feed most of its population. Yet, there was still enough potatoes to feed people, but in spite of this millions starved to death and another million or so fled to America during the next decades. Meanwhile, as people starved, the potato crops continued to be exported to other countries, including England, which at the time ruled over all of Ireland.

Even in counties like County Cork, where the famine was most severe, potatoes were exported.

What baffles me and other libertarians is the notion that somehow a free market caused this. When I first read this Salon article, I felt like it wasn’t worth writing about, as this might just be confined to progressive land of economic fantasy.

Then, just today, as I was reading about the Irish Republican Brotherhood on Wikipedia, I came across this sentence referencing the potato famine:

The laissez –faire economic thinking of the government ensured that help was slow, hesitant and insufficient. Between 1845 and 1851 the population fell by almost two million.

There is no citation at the end of the statement. It is just there. No historical documents, no primary sources to support this assertion.

What’s even more amazing is that the writer put this entry into Wikipedia goes on to write the following sentence.

That the people starved while livestock and grain continued to be exported, quite often under military escort, left a legacy of bitterness and resentment among the survivors.

Wait, food is being exported under military escort? When was the last time you saw food taken in a free market economy under military escort? How exactly is this part of the free market? When do armies come into play in capitalism?

Did it ever occur to these writers that perhaps the famine was precipitated by the British government’s policies?

If you only start after the famine, you miss important dates. Like the Battle of the Boyne and the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Or, the Penal Laws that prohibited Catholics from owning land, which pretty much meant anyone in Ireland south of Belfast.

In an article for The Free Market, Mark Thorton explains how British’s policies, not its lack of action, led to the terrible starvation.

He writes:

In fact, the most glaring cause of the famine was not a plant disease, but England’s long-running political hegemony over Ireland. The English conquered Ireland, several times, and took ownership of vast agricultural territory. Large chunks of land were given to Englishmen.

These landowners in turn hired farmers to manage their holdings. The managers then rented small plots to the local population in return for labor and cash crops. Competition for land resulted in high rents and smaller plots, thereby squeezing the Irish to subsistence and providing a large financial drain on the economy.

Land tenancy can be efficient, but the Irish had no rights to the land they worked or any improvements they might make. Only in areas dominated by Protestants did tenant farmers have any rights over their capital improvements. With the landlords largely residing in England, there was no one to conduct systematic capital improvements.

The Irish suffered from many famines under English rule. Like a boxer with both arms tied behind his back, the Irish could only stand and absorb blow after blow. It took the “many circumstances” of English policy to create the knockout punch and ultimate answer to the Irish question.

As for the claim that the British did “nothing” he demolishes this as well.

Fewer Irish people had died in the numerous past famines; indeed, the potato blight did not afflict most of Europe. What was different in Ireland in the 1840s? The Irish Poor Law crowded out private charity. In previous famines, the Irish and English people had provided extensive charity. But why donate when the taxpayer was taking care of the situation? The English people were heavily taxed to pay for massive welfare programs. The Irish taxpayer was in no position to provide additional charity.

Reports concerning English policy towards genuine charity are hard to ignore. One account had the people of Massachusetts sending a ship of grain to Ireland that English authorities placed in storage claiming that it would disturb trade. Another report has the British government appealing to the Sultan of Turkey to reduce his donation from o10,000 to o1,000 in order not to embarrass Queen Victoria who had only pledged o1,000 to relief.

Other factors played a role. The Bank Act of 1844 precipitated a financial crisis created by a contraction of money as a more restrictive credit policy replaced a loose one. Taken together these factors support John Mitchel’s accusation that “the Almighty sent the potato blight but the English created the Famine.”

The setup was done in advance. The Irish population was stripped of their lands, forced to work as renters on property they had worked for centuries, and grow food for someone else at the behest of a government hundreds of miles away across a sea.

This did not occur through the free market. It was caused by foreign invasion carried out by the State.

Historical facts don’t seem to matter, but for those who are observant, they notice that when famines happen, government meddling isn’t far away. The Holodomor. Stalin’s Five Year Plan. The Great Leap Forward. Millions of people starved to death because their government’s tried to manipulate the economy and in doing so wreaked crop production in some of the most fertile areas on Earth.

The British problem wasn’t that it did nothing. It’s that it had laws, regulations and programs in place that indirectly led to the famine after the blight occurred and then applied solutions that only exacerbated the problem. Its involvement from the moment it invaded and conquered the country led to the famine.

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