The Economist and the Irish Famine

The Economist has a review of two books on the Famine in the most recent issue.

Both authors describe the folly and cruelty of Victorian British policy towards its near-forsaken neighbour in detail. The British government, led by Sir Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the Treasury (dubbed the “Victorian Cromwell”), appeared far more concerned with modernising Ireland’s economy and reforming its people’s “aboriginal” nature than with saving lives. Ireland became the unfortunate test case for a new Victorian zeal for free market principles, self-help, and ideas about nation-building.

Ireland still functioned as a basic barter economy—few hands exchanged money and the peasant population relied on their potato crops, which had failed. But rather than provide aid and establish long-term goals for recovery, Trevelyan and his cohorts saw a chance to introduce radical free-market reforms. As Mr Kelly notes, Trevelyan sent his subordinates to Ireland equipped with Adam Smith’s writings, like missionaries sent to barbarian lands armed with bibles. One absurd project to introduce a money economy was part of the public works scheme.

… Trevelyan and other architects of the famine response had a direct hand in filling the newspapers with the “oft-repeated theme that the famine was the result of a flaw in the Irish character.” And Punch, a satirical magazine, regularly portrayed “‘Paddy’ as a simian in a tailcoat and a derby, engaged in plotting murder, battening on the labour of the English workingman, and generally living a life of indolent treason,” explains Mr Coogan. The result of such dehumanising propaganda was to make unreasonable policy seem more reasonable and just.

It’s genuinely good to see The Economist publishing a piece directly acknowledging how radical free market dogmatism led the British government to respond so badly to the starvation of a million of its own subjects on its back doorstep. It would have been better if the magazine had said something about its own contemporary role in public debate over the Famine, where it stood side-by-side with Punch, pushing back against the idea of helping the Irish in Black 47. My old economics professor, Cormac O’Grada, talks about how the Economist strongly supported the Whigs and Radicals who emphasized the evils of public charity and the inevitability of the outcome in his The Great Irish Famine, suggesting that the Economist’s Thomas Wilson “countenanced large-scale mortality with equanimity.” Ruth Dudley Edwards devotes a chapter to the Famine in her official history of the Economist – she puts the best face that she can on the Economist’s editorializing, but admits sotto-voce that the Economist became ever more dire as the Famine wore on. I don’t know whether the writer of the new review didn’t know about this history, or didn’t think it appropriate or useful to mention it, but it surely seems relevant to me.

I got into a discussion about this yesterday on Twitter with Robert Cottrell, a former writer for the Economist who now runs the excellent The Browser website. He did some searching in the Economist’s historical archives, and found a few relevant extracts which he very decently made available via yfrog. I think they come from the editorial of Jan 30, 1847. The key quote:

… the people, rapidly increasing, have been reduced, by acts for which they are chiefly to blame, to a sole reliance on the precarious crop of potatoes. It would be unjust to Ireland – it would be a neglect of a great duty which is imposed on us at this time – if we did not point to this calamity, assuming as it does this aggravated form, as in a great measure the natural result of that crime which has precluded the people from other available resources. That the innocent suffer with the guilty, is a melancholy truth, but it is one of the great conditions on which all society exists. Every breach of the laws of morality and social order brings its own punishment and inconvenience. Where there is not perfect security, there cannot be prosperity. This is the first law of civilization.

There’s more about the imprudence and immorality of government transfers (which would gladden the heart of Paul Ryan, if not, as the author of one of the two books notes, his great-great grandfather ). Still, the extract above is probably enough to convey the gist. Whether the simian caricatures of Punch were more offensive than the Pecksniffian platitudes of the Economist is a matter of taste (certainly, the former were cruder). What’s quite undeniable is that they both helped conduct towards the same end.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.