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3.Economic Doctrines and Policies Before and During the Famine


When Ireland joined the Union in 1801, it became part of the most advanced economic power and the wealthiest nation in the world and Ireland could have benefited from this union. However, no positive changes materialized; on the contrary, Ireland’s industrial base was perceived as a competitor for English manufacturers and therefore its industries were systematically restricted by legislative means. Ireland was to become an economy based on agriculture and a supplier of agricultural commodities to feed the English industrial workers as well as a market for their products. In this chapter, the economic doctrines and government policies will be discussed so as to illustrate and explain why, when the food crises struck Ireland several years in a row, the English government acted as it did and alleviated the crises to a catastrophic level. Several authors will be cited and quoted, namely Christine Kinealy, who in her book, This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine 1845-52, is very critical of the actions taken by the English government. Edward J. O’Boyle, who researched the influences of political economists of the day in his paper “Classical Economics and the Great Irish Famine: A Study in Limits”, focuses on prominent notables such as Malthus, Ricardo, J.S. Mill, and Nassau Senior, whose writings and quotes will speak for themselves.

In her analyses of the state of Ireland just before the crises, Kinealy explains that Ireland was, perhaps unjustly, perceived as a “poor, backward, potato-based country” (3), yet it was precisely the fact that Irish peasants grew and consumed potatoes, which allowed massive exports of grain to England and she states that “on the eve of the Famine, an estimated two million people within Britain were, in fact, fed with food imported from Ireland, and the demand for this food was increasing” (4). There were favourable conditions for growing potatoes and the amount of labour required was relatively low, but Kinealy points out that: “The very ease with which they were grown and consumed, however, had incurred the wrath of a number of influential people. Potatoes were held responsible for the twin evils which permeated the west of Ireland: subdivision and ever-increasing population growth” (5). She says that it was believed that “the little effort required to grow them supposedly encouraged the Irish people in their alleged favourite pastimes – indolence and the production of people” (5). She points out that in the first half of the nineteenth century, extensive growing of a single crop – the potato, poverty and population growth were perceived by the British government as the worst evils and they feared that the Irish poor and labourers might emigrate to England, especially due to higher wages there (16). She notes that according to Malthus, this would “depress both wages and moral standards within Britain,” and she points out that Malthus suggested that “the population of Ireland, particularly in the poorest part of the agricultural sector, had to be reduced” and then quotes the comment he made to Ricardo where he explained that “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 the population should be swept from the soil” (16). She continues and argues that with regard to Ireland, his doctrine was flawed in one respect; until 1838 there was no Poor Law in Ireland, so he could not explain the population growth in the absence of a Poor Law, which, according to him, was supposed to cause the unrestricted multiplying of the poor (16). Not being able to account for this, she explains that Malthus “blamed the reproductive tendencies of the poor, the land tenure system, and the existence of a corrupt landlord class who perpetuated all of this.” As for the reproductive tendencies of the poor in Ireland, “he explained that they were so degraded that they were apt to ‘propagate their species like brutes’ and therefore should not be considered as human” (16-17). The leading political economists argued, contrary to their beliefs in government non-intervention, that certain measures are necessary to make the corrupt landlord class act; and as an example, Kinealy quotes a leading political economist, John Ramsay McCulloch, who declared that “in Ireland it was necessary for the government to ensure that those who have property in the country have a strong direct pecuniary interest in repressing the spread of pauperism, and in taking care that the poor are not improperly multiplied” (17). The fear that the poor in Ireland would leave and migrate to Britain in search of better living conditions prompted Malthus to warn a Parliamentary Committee on Emigration in 1826:

It is vain to hope for any permanent and extensive advantage from any system of emigration which does not primarily apply to Ireland, whose population, unless some other outlet be opened to them, must shortly fill up every vacuum created in England or Scotland, and to reduce the labouring classes to a uniform state of degradation and misery. (qtd. in Kinealy 17)

Malthus was so prominent in the shaping of the minds of those in whose hands rested the power to deal with the Famine that he deserves to be discussed more thoroughly. The Irish nationalist John Mitchel said that “the Almighty sent the potato blight but the English created the famine.” This statement reflects the two basic truths about the Famine: firstly, it was the unavoidability of the blight which ruined potato crop all over Europe and could not have been averted by any means known at the time; secondly, the failure of the potato crop and its consequences were further magnified by the English government policies of not intervening, which were grounded in the doctrines of classical economics, especially in the teachings of Malthus, whose Essay on the Principle of Population was widely accepted by government officials and influential notables of the day. Malthus argued that “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man” and these observations regarding the growth of population and subsistence led him to believe that “population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio”, while “subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.” Therefore, he concluded that there was “a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence” (71). In his opinion, this disequilibrium caused an increase in labour force and consequently a decrease in wages, whereas the cost of subsistence increased, which implied that “the lower orders of the community must gradually grow worse and worse. But the farmers and capitalists are growing rich from the real cheapness of labour” (79). For the poor, the less fortunate members of the society, he predicted a life in misery and the following quotation outlines the way the poor were supposed to be treated:

It may at first appear strange, but I believe it is true, that I cannot by means of money raise a poor man and enable him to live much better than he did before, without proportionably depressing others in the same class. If I retrench the quantity of food consumed in my house, and give him what I have cut off, I then benefit him, without depressing any but myself and family, who, perhaps, may be well able to bear it…. if I only give him money, supposing the produce of the country to remain the same, I give him a title to a larger share of that produce than formerly, which share he cannot receive without diminishing the shares of others…. Supposing the quantity of food in any country to remain the same for many years together, it is evident that this food must be divided according to the value of each man’s patent, or the sum of money he can afford to spend on this commodity so universally in request. (96)

Further on Malthus criticizes the poor laws of England, which in his opinion encourage irresponsible human reproduction of the poor at the expense of more industrious individuals, given the constant level of subsistence. He believed that “if the poor in the workhouses were to live better than they now do, this new distribution of the money of the society would tend more conspicuously to depress the condition of those out of the workhouses by occasioning a rise in the price of provisions” (97). He suggests that county workhouses can be established, but only to relieve the worst distress. “The fare should be hard, and those that were able obliged to work. It would be desirable that they should not be considered as comfortable asylums in all difficulties, but merely as places where severe distress might find some alleviation” (102). But what Malthus is most remembered for are his ideas and solutions regarding the sizable disequilibrium between the growth of population and the growth of sustenance. His work and statements can be perceived as a blueprint for the British government’s handling of the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1852:

Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array, and sweep off thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world. (118-19).

Malthus, though, was not the only social or economic theoretician who influenced the contemporary thinking of the political elite. Edward J. O’Boyle in his paper identifies the protagonists of laissez-faire whose influence in forming the British government policies is undeniable. In O’Boyle’s opinion, “the Great Famine became the ultimate 18th century test of the classical doctrine that unfettered markets sort out all conflicts and serve the common good and that government officials ought not meddle in economic affairs” (3). According to him, among those economists were David Ricardo, who in his opinion was significant because “arguments which were persuasive in English political affairs derived from his works” (11), and two contemporaries of the Famine: J.S. Mill and Nassau Senior. O’Boyle argues that Mill was important because he published his Principles during the famine and among his friends were eminent English authors and public figures, while Nassau Senior was an advisor to the English government during the Famine (11). Like Malthus, Mill was interested in the growth of population and O’Boyle quotes Mill asserting that “little improvement can be expected in morality until the producing large family is regarded with the same feelings as drunkenness or any other physical excess” (12). Furthermore, Kinealy claims that J.S. Mill was one of the advisors of the government and that his argument that the “business of life is better performed when those who have an immediate interest in it are left to take their own course” based on his conviction that “the individual agents have so much stronger and more direct an interest in the result, that the means are far more likely to be improved and perfected if left to their uncontrolled choice” (24) inspired the government to make the administering and funding of the relief a local responsibility.

As Ó Gráda points out in his overview of the Great Famine, there were many pleas directed at the government to ease the difficult conditions of the poor. As an example he cites the Cork Constitution correspondent from Skibbereen who “could not help thinking how much better it would be to afford [the poor] some temporary relief in their own homes during this severe weather, than thus sacrifice their lives to carry out a miserable project of political economy,” yet as Ó Gráda demonstrates further on, the opposition to any substantial and effective measures expressed by influential ideologues such as Nassau Senior in the Edinburgh Review and Thomas Wilson in the Economist was insurmountable and they urged ministers to err in the direction of economy. Ó Gráda cites Wilson, who believed that “it [was] no man’s business to provide for another,” and that redistribution would only shift resources from “the more meritorious to the less” (8-9).

Over time there have been many supporters of this policy and their main argument has been that the Irish agriculture of the day was ineffective and it needed to be transformed from tilling to grazing. Kevin O’Rourke in his article “Did the Great Irish Famine Matter?” attempts to refute the long held revisionist claim, which is mainly associated with Raymond Crotty, that “the Famine did not represent a demographic watershed in Irish history” (1). According to O’Rourke, namely Crotty and another revisionist historian, Louis Cullen, succeeded in the weakening of the importance of the Famine and O’Rourke quotes Cullen, who wrote that “the Famine was less a national disaster than a regional and social one … even if a famine had not interfered, a decline in population was inevitable” (2). Cullen’s arguments are in essence Malthusian:

A rise in emigration and a falling population would have been inevitable even if the Great Famine had not occurred. The rapid rise in population in pre-Famine decades had been accompanied by a disproportionate increase in the numbers with no secure stake in the land; the decline in domestic industry deprived them of the prospect of an industrial income as well. (qtd. in K. O’Rourke 3)

To prove the revisionists wrong, O’Rourke devises a no-Famine counterfactual test and compares it with what actually happened, arguing that “to say that the famine did not matter implies that in the absence of the Famine the economy would have behaved in much the same way as it actually did” (3). After arguing the case scenario, he concludes that “if the Famine had not occurred, pasture output would not have grown so quickly as it did, nor would tillage have contracted so rapidly. Most importantly, potato output would have been much higher than it actually was,” which is a convincing argument that indeed “the Famine hastened the switch from tillage to pasture and played a significant long-run role in reducing agricultural employment,” therefore it can be concluded that “the Famine emerges from these exercises as having indeed been a major watershed in Irish agricultural history” (20).

Up to this point, this chapter has delved into the doctrines and theories of political economy, but it was the British government who embraced these theories, voted on them so that they became part of the legislature, and finally, implemented them during the famine. The legislature which made it possible was the Irish Poor Law enacted in July 1838, which was modelled on the English Poor Law passed four years earlier. As O’Donnell observes in his book the Irish Famine, it was noted early on that “the Irish version withheld a vital aspect of the English, the statutory right to relief for all destitute persons,” so the effect was that “Irish people applying for admission had no automatic entitlement to charity and could be turned away if accommodation was not available” (21). He further points out that “living conditions in the workhouse were carefully engineered to ensure it was only availed of by the most desperate. Arduous and boring work was usually demanded and families divided in a prison-like institution” (22). Kinealy confirms this by quoting George Nicholls, one of the architects of the law, who declared stringent, well-managed and disciplinarian workhouses would also improve “the character, habits and social condition of the people” (22). As Kinealy also notes, the Irish Poor Law, although similar to the English version, contained provisions which indicated that for the poor in Ireland, the austerity measures would be even tougher. “In Ireland, … relief could only be provided within the confines of a workhouse, no provision being made for outdoor relief” (23). She then sums up her observations and concludes that “overall, both in principle and in underlying ethos, the Irish poor Law was intended to be more stringent than its English counterpart. Its provisions illustrated an approach to policy that underpinned the government’s response to the onset of famine in Ireland only seven years later” (23).

By introducing a poor law to Ireland, Kinealy points out, the government believed it would achieve changes in several areas: Ireland was supposed to become a more productive society, which would consequently stem emigration to Britain; the introduction of poor rates would make caring for the poor a local responsibility, which was to reduce government expenditures and at the same time force the estate owners to consolidate their property, as only land valued at less than four pounds annually was taxed under this law (23). In Kinealy’s opinion, “this burden fell most heavily on landlords, predominantly situated in the west, whose property was highly subdivided” and that “it was hoped that the Act would provide them with an incentive to consolidate their property” (23). Property-wise, the Irish Poor Law became even more stringent when it was amended. The so called Gregory, or Quarter Acre Clause ruled that anyone occupying “more than a quarter of an acre of land could not be deemed destitute and therefore was ineligible to receive relief paid for by the poor rates” (Kinealy 181). To illustrate the aims of this amendment, Donnelly quotes Trevelyan and then adds his own comment:

‘There is’, declared Trevelyan in late 1847, ‘only one way in which the relief of the destitute ever has been or ever will be conducted consistently with the general welfare, and that is by making it a local charge.’ It was on this principle that British policy rested from mid-1847 onwards, with the result that, as Trevelyan himself said (and said proudly), ‘The struggle now is to keep the poor off the rates’. (22)

As Donnelly further elaborates, “The amended poor law, . . . , encouraged and facilitated wholesale clearances of tenants from many estates and greatly raised mortality rates in those districts of the south and west where mass evictions were concentrated” (22). According to Donnelly, it was the poor law which started the string of events starting with mass evictions, which consequently led to mass death and mass emigration. Although he claims that the poor laws saved many lives, on the other hand he acknowledges that it caused excessive deaths, massive suffering and a large part of the exodus. Two eminent and involved persons confirmed his observation:

As the economist Nassau Senior was told in 1852 by his brother, himself an Irish poor commissioner, ‘The great instrument which is clearing Ireland is the poor law. It supplies both the motive and the means…’ From the vantage point of the early 1850s, then, the famine experience and the British response seemed to make accusations of genocide rather plausible among many Irish nationalists, and the next half-century was to witness the consolidation and elaboration of the Mitchelite case. (Donnelly 23)



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