Government role in the irish potatoe famine

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Scott Dvorak


Beginning in the 1840s a potato disease commonly known as potato blight ravaged potato crops in Ireland. The nature of the problems (starvation namely) caused by the failure of the crop, required immediate solutions. However, because of reasons I will discuss in this paper, the Potato Famine lasted for six years, and killed over a million men, women and children in Ireland and caused millions to leave the country. During this time Ireland was British controlled territory and Irish farmland was owned by a few wealthy English, and rented by the Irish farmers. Irish farmers raised animals and grain for trade (rather than for their own use) because these products were valued in the market. Irish Farmers and their families depended mainly on potatoes as their main source of sustenance because potatoes are a cheap crop and yield much more food than other crops (Woodham-Smith, 1992).

The literature disagrees over whether Britain encouraged free trade practices, or intervened with protectionist trade policies. The literature produces the following outcomes; first, Britain’s support of the free market hurt the Irish, second, British government intervention hurt the Irish. However, I am convinced that there is enough evidence of the presence of state intervention (in form of laws that regulated trade) to disprove any arguments that claim Britain allowed free trade. Therefore, I believe that the main argument should discuss whether British intervention helped or hurt the Irish once the potatoes crop had failed.

As mentioned above, there is a clear divide in the literature. One side argues that government regulation of the market (the “corn”, “navigation” and “poor” laws for example) hurt the Irish who suffered from the potato famine. On the other hand, some economist argue that the free market was to blame for much of the suffering and death experienced by the Irish people during the crisis (McCaffery, 1968). This argument will be refered to as the “free market story” throughout this paper. Economists who support the free market story say that when potatoes failed, Parliament encouraged free trade (this was not the case, as the British government had laws in act that regulated trade). These economists say that Parliament encouraged free trade because they did not shut down trading routs, thus preventing outside competition. The Irish continued to starve because they were exporting their other products (such as grain) that they could have relied on for food. However, British people (especially those working in factories) relied heavily on the food exports of the Irish farmers. Thus, some economists say that the Famine could have just been transferred to the British people (who were mainly responsible for industrial products) if the Irish didn’t maintain their level of agricultural exports (O’Neill, 1968).

John Kelly says that Britain’s response to the potato famine made the disaster worse. Kelly says the British government was concerned with modernizing and reforming its people’s “aboriginal” nature. During this time, many British were under the impression that the misfortune of the potato famine was to blame for the inferiority and “laziness” of the Irish. The prejudice against the Irish can be traced back to the beliefs established after the Protestant Reformation. The Protestants believed that some people are predestined to be “good” hard working people. Kelly says that Britain was focused on the social aspects of the potato famine rather than being involved in reforming the economic institutions that lead to the prolonged suffering set in motion from potato crop failure. Kelly ultimately concludes that the Irish people were the victims of Britain’s attempt to reform Irish society. He points out that Britain could have protected the Irish agricultural industry by manipulating tariffs to favor the Irish farmers.

Some economists argue against the free trade story because historical evidence shows that Britain was responsible for substantial intervention in trade. The opposition to the free trade story argues that the British actually took a heavily protectionist approach (which I will describe in more detail) to the crisis caused by the potato famine. The opposition to the free market story instead argues that British protectionism actually helped the Irish farmers by easing some of the burden caused by the failure of the potato crop. The protectionism supporters say that Britain kept the price of grain exported from Ireland artificially high. The Irish brought in more income as a result because grain was a main export for them. The British also imposed substantial tariffs on foreign imports that were intended to promote internal trade and thus restricting competition from foreign producers.

The claim that Britain ever promoted truly free trade during this time period is easily argued and is therefore inaccurate. Government intervention in the market was clearly present during the potato famine. Direct government intervention took the form of “poor laws”, “Corn Laws”, “navigation laws” and welfare systems like government food distribution. Poor laws were designed as a way to reduce the burden of taxpayers, and provide assistance to workers who were struggling to live with their minimal incomes. Corn laws were designed to keep imported grain prices high to favor domestic (Irish) producers.

Navigation Acts were a series of laws that restricted (through taxation) the use of foreign ships for trade between the colonies and countries other than Britain. The British tried to protect their interests (territories like Ireland) from being subjected to the fees associated with foreign traders (O’Brien, 1972). Given that these laws were in act during the Potato Famine, it is unreasonable to say that British Parliaments support of the “free market” could have prolonged suffering for the Irish, because Britain did not take a hands-off approach.

Those who argue that free trade hurt the Irish during the Potato Famine should instead speculate whether free trade would have hurt. For example, the Poor laws, Corn laws, and Navigation laws were all repealed soon after the Potato famine. A more reasonable argument would bring up the fact that these laws were probably repealed because of their ineffectiveness or failures. It could be argued that the British government under went a change in economic philosophy as a result of the failure of those laws. It is evident that the British Government began to take a much more Laz-a-Fare approach to the economy after the potato famine because the Poor, Corn and Navigation laws were repealed. The supporters of the free market story could even make the argument that the Potato Famine may have been a historical event that influenced Britain to allow the market to operate more freely (but not entirely free). However, the story told by some economists that relies on the idea that a free market existed during the time period of the potato famine is inaccurate.

The Irish Potato Famine is studied because of its significance as en event where many people died because of the fall out from a crop failure. Much debate exists over the effects of the involvement (or lack of involvement) of the British Government in the market during the Potato famine. Some say Britain promoting free trade actually made conditions for the Irish worse during the potato famine. Some say that Government intervention had effects on the well being of the Irish people. The subject of free market versus Government intervention is especially important to investigate to try to predict how governments should react to disasters that effect domestic and international economies.

Johnson, T. (1987). The Irish Potato Famine. FEE Freeman Article, Foundation for Economic Education

Kelly, J. (2012). The graves are walking: The great famine and the saga of the Irish people. New York: Henry Holt.

McCaffrey, Lawrence, (1968) The Irish Question 1800-1922. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

O’Brien, George (1972). The Economic History of Ireland from the Union to the Famine, Clifton, New Jersey: Augustus M. Kelley.

O’Neill, Thomas, (1968) “The Organisation and Administration of Relief, 1845-52,” In The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History 1845-52, pp. 209-259.

Pollan, M. (2006). The omnivore's dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York: Penguin Press.

Woodham-Smith. (1992) The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-9, London: Hamish Hamilton, 962.

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