William K. Black
At the invitation of the Steamboat Institute’s “Freedom Conference” I debated Dan Mitchell, an economist at Cato on Friday August 25, 2012. Dan suggested me as his debate opponent, a role we have played several times in Europe. Our primary topic was Paul Ryan’s budget policies. In the course of our debate Dan stressed an August 24 column he wrote entitled “For Once, I Hope Paul Krugman is Right.
Dan’s column quoted what he viewed as the key passage in Krugman’s column.
“In pushing for draconian cuts in Medicaid, food stamps and other programs that aid the needy, Mr. Ryan isn’t just looking for ways to save money. He’s also, quite explicitly, trying to make life harder for the poor — for their own good. In March, explaining his cuts in aid for the unfortunate, he declared, “‘We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.’”
Dan explained why he hoped Krugman was right about Ryan’s views about the poor.
“To be more specific, I hope Krugman is right in that Ryan wants “to make life harder for the poor” if the alternative is to have their lives stripped of meaning by government dependency. And I agree that it will be “for their own good” if they’re motivated to join the workforce.
To be sure, Krugman wants readers to reach the opposite conclusion. Even though the War on Poverty seems to have put an end to the progress we were making … Krugman equates spending money with compassion.
And I suppose I should point out that he is completely wrong (using dishonest Washington budget math) when writing about “draconian cuts” since Cong. Ryan is merely proposing to slow down how fast government spending is growing.
P.P.P.S. To get your blood boiling, read this this horrifying post about how a left-wing international bureaucracy [is?] conspiring with the Obama White House to redefine poverty in ways that make America look bad.”
At that point in our debate either Dan or the Steamboat moderator remarked that Ryan’s comments about the danger of lulling “people into lives of dependency” sounded a lot like Ronal Reagan. I responded that as an Irish-American I was struck that Ryan’s argument repeated the arguments that Britain’s leaders made when they decided to allow a million Irish to starve to death and another million to emigrate on the coffin ships. The British argued that providing free food (or even food in exchange for brutal work) was unacceptable because it would spur “dependency.” I expressed my disgust for with Ryan’s adherence to the failed theoclassical economic dogma that killed a million Irish and the dogma’s depraved indifference to human life and suffering. A former member of Congress responded in the Q&A by making a
statement condemning me for (purportedly) condemning everyone in the room. I didn’t do that because I didn’t know how many of the people present supported Ryan’s claims about the need to make the poor suffer more than they presently suffer due to the fraying safety net. The former Representative, however, felt comfortable asserting that everyone attending the meeting other than me shared Dan’s hope that Ryan intended to make the poor suffer more (for their own good, of course).
The former Representative and Dan did not disagree with my statement that Ryan’s statements sounded eerily like the English officials who insulted the “indolent” Irish while they died of hunger by the hundreds of thousands. The former Representative simply hated the fact that I pointed out the historical parallel in the statements.
An Gorta Mor (the Great Hunger)
Charles Edward Trevelyan led the English government’s response to the Irish crisis. The Irish were governed by the United Kingdom and were Britain’s first colony. Ireland was predominately Catholic and Britain was determined to convert the Irish via the extortion of “the Penal Laws.” Edmund Burke’s denunciation of those laws was that they served as: “a machine as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment, and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”
Prior to the emancipation of Irish Catholics, Lord Chancellor Bowes in Dublin ruled that “the law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic.” The English viewed the Irish as a “race” – a deeply inferior race. The Penal Laws, population increases, and the steady rise of the estates of the often absentee landlords led to ever smaller land holdings by Irish Catholic households. The only crop that could sustain a poor Irish family on such limited acreage was the potato, and potatoes are susceptible to blights. In 1845 a terrible potato blight began to spread through Europe and began to devastate the Irish crop. The blight recurred for several years.
The English elites’ claim that God wanted to teach the Irish “a lesson”
Trevelyan’s view of the prospect of mass starvation in Ireland was extreme, but common among British elites.
“The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”
The Irish, particularly Irish Catholics, viewed the claim that God was a mass murderer to be heresy. Bishop Hughes said “Let us be careful not to blaspheme Providence by calling this God’s
famine.” An American visitor to Ireland called the “providential” argument a “slander” against God.
A historian described the (delayed) reaction of the bishops to the spreading famine.
Now, finally, in their Address in the synod of Thurles, the bishops examined Trevelyan’s ideology and found it wanting. The sharpest differences emerged on the attitude to the poor. They had already, in their memorial to the viceroy in 1847, rejected any attempt to blame the Famine on “the indolence of the peasants,” laying it instead on the ‘penal laws’ which had deprived the people of both property rights and the fruits of their labour. Now again, in the Address, they insisted that those “flung upon the highway to perish” were not indolent, but “virtuous and industrious families.” Behind that failure to halt evictions and protect life they discerned an attitude which they considered alien to the Gospel–a contempt for the poor whom many of the governing class saw as a drag on the process of the United Kingdom and “the great nuisance of the moral world…” The bishops, instead, reminded Christians that the poor “were made to the image of the living God and are purchased by the blood of Calvary,” and “the special favourites and representatives of Jesus Christ
Emigration of Catholics began to spread rapidly as the Irish sought to escape starvation. British Protestant elites exulted.
“Clarendon exulted: ‘Priests and patriots howl over the ‘Exodus,’ but the departure of thousands of papist Celts must be a blessing to the country they quit…English and Scots settlers have arrived.’”
The “lesson” that “God” was supposed to be teaching the Irish was to abandon indolence. The worst response possible was for the government to prevent the Irish from starving or emigrating, for that would encourage indolence and dependency. It is remarkable that Paul Ryan, a self- professed Catholic of Irish descent whose great-great-grandfather emigrated to America late in the Great Hunger, rejects the philosophy of the Catholic Church. Ryan sides with the philosophy of the elites who violated Jesus’ command that we aid the poor and who slandered both the Irish and God. Ryan shares the philosophy of the English elites who left a million Irish to starve to death and a million to emigrate to try to escape starvation and cholera. Instead of following the commands of the Bible, Ryan is an apostle of an atheist (Ayn Rand) who exhibited and celebrated the callousness and hostility to the Irish poor of the British elites during the Great Hunger. The Society of Friends (Quakers) who provided such enthusiastic support for the Irish poor during the Great Hunger were motivated by their commands to Christian charity, altruism, and the duty “to speak truth to power.” Rand gloried in her contempt for altruism.
The British government’s response to the Irish bishops forecast the response of the audience at the Steamboat Institute who were literally incredulous that I would suggest that absent governmental aid the poor, particularly the children, would suffer terrible privation and hunger. The audience sees the poor as Ayn Rand taught: disgusting “moochers.” Indeed, the British government denounced the Catholic bishops’ criticism of their hatred towards the Irish poor in
strikingly modern terms by calling them “socialists” engaged in class warfare.
One of the worst fruits of the False Teaching of the age, has been to generate a spirit of contempt, hard heartedness, and hostility to the Poor. The Mammon of Iniquity, not the Spirit of Christianity; and…Avarice…, not the Charity of Jesus Christ, have furnished the principles and maxims by which they have been estimated and ranked in the social scale. While the Gospel everywhere breathes respect and love for the poor…the spirit of error…denounces them as the great nuisance of the moral world…
The government was furious. Clarendon complained that the bishops were setting the poor against the rich and that the Address “is worthy of Louis Blanc for its socialist doctrines.” “It was high time,” he said, to inquire whether “we shall permit a set of men under the mask of religion…to stir up different classes against each other.” “No language was omitted,” declared Russell, a few months later when bringing in the last penal law passed by parliament against Catholics, “which could excite the feelings of the peasant class against those who were owners of the land.”
It is disturbing that Paul Ryan, a Catholic of Irish descent, would embrace the policies and prejudices that led to the mass deaths and emigration of the Irish and drove his ancestor out of Ireland. An economic dogma should be conclusively discredited when it kills a million people, demonizes the victims, and honors the authors of the mass murder.
Laissez Faire: starvation is preferable to dependency
Trevelyan and his governmental colleagues were the UK’s high priests of laissez faire dogma. Historians have documented from Trevelyan’s actions and statements that he systematically valued “free markets” over even the preservation of human life.
“Treasury Head Sir Charles Trevelyan became effective dictator of the “relief” of Ireland, and already in June 1846 he was writing to Colonel Routh:
“‘The only way to prevent people from becoming habitually dependent on government, is to bring [relief] operations to a close. The uncertainty about the new crop [there were already signs of a second year of potato blight] only makes it more necessary…. These things should be stopped now, or you run the risk of paralyzing all private enterprise and having this country on you for an indefinite number of years.’”
Even when other government officials went off message, Trevelyan could be counted on to restore discipline.
“He defended the export of grain from famine-stricken Ireland on the grounds that the Government should not interfere with free trade. When his own administrators described this export of food as ‘a most serious evil’ Trevelyan refused even to consider banning it. When rioting broke out in protest against at the export of corn, he sent 2,000 troops, provisioned with beef, pork and biscuits, ‘to be directed on particular ports at short notice’.”
The proponents of laissez faire were lethal opponents of the Irish “tea party” protestors. The American tea party protestors of 1773 wished to avoid paying a tax imposed without
representation. The Irish tea party protestors of the Great Hunger sought to save their families from starvation. Exporting food during mass starvation is obviously insane and inhumane – unless you are in thrall to theoclassical economics. The irony is that while the Steamboat Institute claims to draw its inspiration from the values of the American tea party its values are those that inspired the Irish tea party movement because they proved murderous in practice.
Laissez fairy tales of the need to preserve market efficiency during famine
Trevelyan was opposed to virtually any governmental aid to prevent starvation.
“He was against railway construction as a form of relief and successfully opposed Russell’s scheme for the distribution of some £50,000 worth of seed to tenants. The failure of government relief schemes finally became clear to Trevelyan and early in 1847 soup kitchens were organised under a high-level government commission. It worked badly.
In the autumn of 1847, Trevelyan ended government-sponsored aid to the distressed Poor Law districts although there was an outbreak of cholera. He declared that the Famine was over, and that from now on Irish landlords were to be responsible for financing relief works.”
The famine was not over. While the soup kitchens worked badly they extended many lives – until Trevelyan ordered them closed. His work houses became extermination camps, with disease brought on by starvation the great killer. Trevelyan’s great fear was that some “unworthy” Irish man, woman, or child might receive aid. The work houses were vicious. Ireland’s Catholic bisphops reported on the lethal effects of Trevelyan’s inspection demands designed to exclude the merely desperate Irish from receiving food aid.
The outdoor relief is…an empty name–to our able bodied poor it is denied until brought to the last degree of exhaustion; Our distance from the workhouse is another of our grievances, this parish being in part about 26 miles from it, and yet notwithstanding the distance, some unfortunate fathers and mothers each carrying a child or two, had in the depth of winter to attend three reviews, lest they should be too heavy in flesh for outdoor relief and it not unfrequently happened, that some, after being rejected as not qualified for relief, have been found dead along the ditches in trying to reach their homes.
At Steamboat, I repeatedly urged Dan and the audience to end the waste of unemployment. If their fear really was that the poor would embrace indolence rather than work why not test that fear by offering a job guarantee program allowing the unemployed who wished to work to do so? I received no favorable responses.
Dogmas, particularly dogmas that have proved murderous, should be subjected to the most rigorous demands of proof. If Dan (and the Steamboat audience gave him thunderous applause) hopes that Ryan really does wish to make life far harder for the poor should they not be forced to test their dogma before causing such great harm to the poor? The poor are largely children. Ryan wishes to slash food stamps and remove the Earned Income Tax Credit (an exceptionally effective conservative policy initiative designed to encourage the poor to work). My colleagues
at UMKC who specialize in the study and implementation of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and jobs guarantee programs believe that if they were adopted now in America the programs would demonstrate that tens of millions of unemployed Americans were eager to work.
It is conservatives who are preventing this test of their dogmas and their willingness to toss tens of millions of Americans in the scrap heap as useless “moochers.” Conservatives’ fear is that a jobs guarantee program would succeed and falsify (again) their theoclassical dogmas. As with their British predecessors, they are hostile to providing the unemployed with the opportunity for respected employment. Their model of government employment is the gulag – a model in which the unemployed are shamed, denounced, and demeaned. The British designed their work program to be punitive and to fail. They designed it in a manner that made it a mass killer. They designed it to produce roads to nowhere rather than vitally needed infrastructure.
The British structured their minimal relief efforts to protect private businesses rather than to protect the poor from starvation. Their workhouses deliberately paid a grossly inadequate wage.
“Free trade decreed that no government surplus food–“no welfare”– be given to the starving, in order to leave the market for food undisturbed. “We do not propose,” Prime Minister Lord John Russell told the House of Commons, “to interfere with the regular mode by which Indian corn and other kinds of grain may be brought into Ireland.” Free trade insisted that the destitute work on the Public Works or in the workhouses, and that these hundreds of thousands should receive wages below the miserable levels prevailing, in order not to distort the labor market.”
“Irish members of the British Parliament in London proposed the government buy stocks of grain otherwise to be exported, and sell it in the worst famine areas, especially in Connaught where starvation deaths were growing. The answer from Lord Russell directly was no: `Purchase by government of any food in ordinary use is forbidden in order to avoid competition with private traders.’ Trevelyan and Colonel Routh agreed that ‘there must be a distinction clearly kept between the ordinary distress of the people, and that resulting from the losses of the potato crop, which alone it may be our object to relieve.’”
One would not want to “relieve” the “ordinary distress” of one’s citizens.
The religious devotion of British elites to laissez faire during the mass starvation of the Irish was extraordinary.
By the winter of 1846-47, the Irish people had begun to die of starvation in large numbers.
Lord Russell’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Charles Wood, announced that there would be no more government importation of Indian corn or any other food–private enterprise would provide it. He announced, that the problem in 1845-6 had been that “private trade had been paralyzed by government purchases,” and that “merchants
had declared they would not import food at all if the government were to do so.” Public Works were to be limited to one year, and ended by Aug. 15, 1847, and their expense was “to fall entirely on persons possessed of property in the distressed district.”
Thus, Sir Charles Wood. In autumn 1846 crops failed in many European countries. French and German governments and bidders bought large amounts of grain from America and elsewhere, while the British government “sat it out.” Food dealers in Ireland were now charging enormous prices, which Trevelyan welcomed in a letter to Colonel Routh:
“The high prices will have a regulating influence, as nothing is more calculated to attract supplies, and especially from America…. Do not encourage the idea of prohibiting exports (from Ireland): perfect Free Trade is the right course. Nothing ought to be done for the West of Ireland which might send prices, already high, still higher for people who, unlike the inhabitants of the West Coast of Ireland, have to depend on their own exertions.”
Evictions were now going on massively and it was clear that wholesale starvation would take place in 1847. Colonel Routh sent out a memo to his relief officers:
“represent to applicants for government supplies of food, the necessity for private enterprise and importations.”
In December 1846 Whitehall ordered all Commissariat officers in Ireland to cease all food sales. Colonel Routh added in a memo:
“Even if it were practicable at the moment to open our depots [he knew they were actually empty] it would be prejudicial to owners of grain, inasmuch as at present extraordinary prices can be realized.”
If this seems an egregious government endorsement of price gouging, Trevelyan repeated it himself: “If dealers were to confine themselves to what in ordinary circumstances might be considered fair profits, the scarcity would be aggravated fearfully….”
The British elites, as a matter of policy, insisted that the workhouse labor not be constructive, hence the “famine roads” to nowhere, the breaking of rocks, and the digging of holes followed by filling them back in. Once must not create useful public works lest they compete with the private sector and show that public works can be useful. Keynes never proposed that people be paid to dig holes and fill them in. He always favored constructive public works. It was the Trevelyan’s of the world, prisoners of a murderous dogma, who demanded unconstructive, brutal public works.
What Ireland desperately needed in the way of infrastructure was port facilities (particularly in the West) and transportation (cartage, not additional roads) to move food to the people to prevent starvation. The British government blocked those public works. Indeed, it virtually privatized its public works program and sought to profit from it.
Lord Russell’s government added a Public Works program which was widespread but unfunded; local committees had to propose the works and sign a contract holding their members personally responsible to repay the British government 100 percent of the cost within two years, plus interest of 3 percent per annum! At first the government sometimes added partial matching grants for local money raised, but these were very difficult to qualify for, and were completely discontinued in 1847. During all of 1846, with 3 million Irish unemployed and selling everything down to their family beds for food, a total of 5,000 pounds-Sterling was expended for piers, harbors, drainage, navigation and water power projects combined: In other words, none were carried out.
The Irish also desperately needed seeds. They had been often been forced to eat the seed crop to stave off the prospect of immediate starvation. Absent ample seeds the crop would be disastrous even if the blight ended.
“Trevelyan added that the government would also do nothing about the new problem– the disastrous fact that all seed potatoes had been eaten and there was nothing to plant in 1847: “The moment it came to be understood that the government would supply seed, the painful exertions of private initiative to preserve a stock of seed would be relaxed.”
No seed would be provided, and, as it turned out, the 1847 potato harvest was to be blight-free, but only 20 percent of normal anyway for lack of seed and the death, exhaustion, or illness of farm families. The chance was not to be repeated: The 1848 crop again was destroyed by blight.”
Sympathy for the landlord
The British elites’ sympathy, while the Irish Catholics starved to death by the thousands every day, was overwhelmingly with the largely Protestant absentee landlords. Even before the Great Hunger the situation of Irish Catholic tenants was appalling.
“The great Irish writer and leader Jonathan Swift had written already in 1730: ‘One-half of all Irish rents is spent in England … with other incidents, (it) will amount to full half of the income of the whole kingdom, all clear profit to England…. The rise of our rents is squeezed out of the very blood, and vitals, and clothes, and dwellings of the tenants, who live worse than English beggars.’”
Historians (and contemporary humans not devoid of humanity) were appalled by the mass evictions of Irish tenants during the Great Hunger that were virtual death sentences.
“Evictions. Worst of all, perhaps, were the evictions of those who could no longer pay their rent, the mindless, useless, evil evictions by landlords often living in England that thought less of their Irish tenants than they did of their dogs. Lord Brougham, Free Market supporter, in the British House of Lords in March 1846 commented that ‘undoubtedly it was the landlord’s right to do as he pleased…the tenants must be taught by the strong arm of the law that they had no power to oppose or resist…property would be valueless and capital would no longer be invested…if it were not acknowledged that it was the landlord’s undoubted, indefeasible, and most sacred right to deal with his property as he list.’” [WKB note: the (archaic) definition of “list” in this context
Property rights were “sacred,” and the 99% of the era must be broken “by the strong arm of law” so that they would realize “they had no power to oppose or resist” and would give up even asserting the right of survival of humans. Poor, Catholic humans had no rights and the elites had no responsibilities.
John Kelly wrote an article on August 12, 2012 that I discovered in researching this piece that adds another historical parallel. His title is: “Paul Ryan’s Irish Problem” and Kelly’s introductory sentence is “Mitt Romney’s running mate is making the same economic mistakes that hurt his forefathers in the Great Famine….”
“Sir Randoph Routh, the head of the Irish Relief Commission, was such a fervent crusader for the free market that not even mass starvation and mass death failed to shake his belief. When a starving delegation from famine-struck County Mayo visited Routh’s office, he presented his guests not with food— but instead with a copy of Edmund Burke’s pamphlet Details on Scarcity, in which Burke explains how market forces deliver food more efficiently than the government. In Routh’s enthusiastic gifting of Burke’s book are shades of Ryan’s fervent profferings, for years, of the works of Ayn Rand. (To be fair, Ryan didn’t give copies of Atlas Shrugged to any starving peasants.)”
To be even more fair; the reason why there are very few “starving peasants” in America today is that we rejected Ryan, Routh, and Ayn Rand’s demands that we ignore the poor’s plight. Historians cite Trevelyan’s embrace of the claim that mass death was preferable to aid.
“If the Irish once find out that there are any circumstances in which they can get free government grants, we shall have a system of mendicancy [begging] such as the world never knew”. After a million had starved to death he stated “The great evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.”
Budgetary concerns lead the government to throw the landlords and the economy under the bus
The expense of providing aid to the Irish to avoid mass starvation led to the UK privatizing the cost of providing grotesquely inadequate aid to those on the verge of death. The UK transferred the cost to Ireland’s landlords. The certain results were exactly those that were expected. The landlords rushed to evict their tenants so they landlords could minimize their tax assessments.
Landlords in Ireland now tried to evict all the tenants they could in order to reduce the number of local destitute, and therefore their rates (poor relief taxes). They began to get, not just evictions, but criminal judgments for non-payment of rent, throwing the fathers of families into jail. This–as the landlords intended–finally set off the migration across the Atlantic which became a flood of starving, dying typhus-carriers into Canada and then New England in 1848-9.
But an inspector of the Public Works in Cork in the same month wrote about the public “workfare” rolls: “The lists are useless. No one answers their name. They have gone, or are dead.”
Overall, landlords were pushed into economic crisis. The Irish economy and food production collapsed in many areas. Deaths among the expelled tenants’ families surged. Some landlords, however, lost heavily trying to avoid evicting their tenants and pockets of Irish non-potato food production remained strong. That production was not used to prevent the mass starvation of the Irish. Instead, it was often exported.
Incredibly, large exports of foodstuffs from Ireland continued right through 1848 and 1849, which were the years in which the Irish population fell rapidly from 8 million to 6 million through death and emigration (and 40 percent of the emigrants died in crossing the Atlantic alone). In November 1848, exports of food from Cork in a single day, were 147 bales of bacon, 255 barrels of pork, 5 casks of hams, 3,000 sacks and barrels of oats, 300 bags of flour, 300 head of cattle, 239 sheep, 542 boxes of eggs, 9,300 firkins [about one-fourth of a barrel] of butter, and 150 casks of miscellaneous foodstuffs.
The government opponents of preventing mass starvation used the budgetary burden on the UK as their excuse for their policies. Again, their policies were ideologically selective. The government found the way to bear a far greater budgetary burden to preserve the wealth of the elite British citizens who became rich through the enslavement of millions of Africans. The government spent far more to preserve the wealth of the most despicable of the 1 percent than it spent to reduce or delay the mass starvation of Irish Catholics.
When the Irish Poor Law Commissioner, Edward Twisleton resigned in protest over lack of relief aid from Britain, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Earl of Clarendon, wrote the following to British Prime Minister Lord John Russell:
“He (Twisleton) thinks that the destitution here [in Ireland] is so horrible, and the indifference of the House of Commons is so manifest, that he is an unfit agent for a policy that must be one of extermination.”
In 1849 Twisleton testified that “comparatively trifling sums were required for Britain to spare itself the deep disgrace of permitting its miserable fellow subjects to die of starvation.” According to Gray, the British spent 7 million Pounds for relief in Ireland between 1845 and 1850, “representing less than half of one percent of the British gross national product over five years. Contemporaries noted the sharp contrast with the 20 million Pounds compensation given to West Indian slave-owners in the 1830s.”
The government did not take well to Irish dissidents who pointed out the hypocrisy of the government’s claim that the British bore moral responsibility for the mass deaths. John Mitchel (aka Mitchell) shares the same last name as Dan, the Cato economist I was debating at Steamboat. John Mitchel protested the British policies that were producing mass starvation. The British “transported” him to silence his eloquent protests, particularly this famous one in 1861.
No sack of Magdeburg, or ravage of the Palatinate ever approached the horror and dislocation to the slaughters done in Ireland by mere official red tape and stationery, and the principles of political economy…. The Almighty sent the potato blight, but the
Bad ethics make bad economics: the UK’s abuse of the Irish causes a financial crisis
Allowing a million Irish to die and forcing another million to emigrate to try to escape starvation is so self-destructive an economic policy that only quack ideologies would fail to see that it must harm trade and the economy. It was certain to cause a collapse of key parts of the infrastructure, spread disease, and harm employment.
“In February-March 1847 came the final implosion and breakdown of “free trade”: private food imports from America arrived in the amount of 100,000 tons; some never made it to markets for lack of infrastructure (carters had lost their workers and sold their equipment), and the rest couldn’t be sold for lack of buyers with any money. The prices of grains now collapsed. Typhus began to spread in March, so that from that point onward, the better-off classes in Ireland also died in large numbers.
As a kind of final “free trade” commentary, Trevelyan had his secretary send this statement to all Poor Law Unions in July, 1847:”There is much reason to believe that the object of the Relief Act is greatly perverted and that it is frequently applied solely as a means of adding to the comforts of the lower classes … instead of being, as intended, a provision for the utterly destitute, and for the purpose of warding off absolute starvation…. The Commissioners cannot but complain of finding the demands for rations from many districts continuously increasing, and sometimes largely, without even a word of explanation to account for it.”
Since now the entire cost of relief of the destitute and starving lay on the local “rates” paid by landlords, another side of the “rent bubble” of British “free trade” in Ireland now became exposed. Lord Mountcashel presented the following figures to the House of Lords: of the annual rent collection in Ireland of £13 million (a huge amount), the landlord class paid annually 10.5 million pounds-Sterling on “mortages and borrowed money” to the City of London bankers and speculators in real estate. Montcashel was making clear that an increase in rates, now planned by the British government, would siphon money off from mortgage payments, And, sure enough, in late summer 1847, the financial markets of London crashed, as the previous two years’ speculation in rents, wheat, corn, and foreign railway shares collapsed.”
Let them die
Do you recall when Republican audiences during the primary contest cheered at the prospect of the sick losing their health care access? The Great Hunger saw a far worse display of blood lust when the policy of letting the Irish die and emigrate by the millions led to a financial crisis in Ireland and the UK.
“With that collapse, the British government “wound up” its public works loans and tiny relief expenditures in Ireland in August 1847. Only Lord Clarendon, the Viceroy for Ireland, remained the protesting voice:
“What is to be done with these hordes? Improve them off the face of the earth, you will say, let them die. But there is a certain responsibility attaching to it.’”
Racism v. the Irish
The Irish had multiple strikes against them from the perspective of English elites. They were Irish, Catholics, and poor. The degree of glee many UK elites took in the mass deaths and emigration of Irish Catholics is incomprehensible to most modern readers.
“[existing policies] will not kill more than one million Irish in 1848 and that will scarcely be enough to do much good.” – Queen Victoria’s economist, Nassau Senior
“A Celt will soon be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as the red man on the banks of Manhattan.” – The Times, editorial, 1848
Let them eat steak and bonbons: Irish Vegans’ Self-inflicted poverty
The fervency with which the English elites blamed Irish poverty on Irish culture is also exceptional.
“Finally, we come to ‘moralism’-the notion that the fundamental defects from which the Irish suffered were moral rather than financial. Educated Britons of this era saw serious defects in the Irish ‘national character’-disorder or violence, filth, laziness, and worst of all, a lack of self-reliance. This amounted to a kind of racial or cultural stereotyping. The Irish had to be taught to stand on their own feet and to unlearn their dependence on government.
‘Moralism’ was strikingly evident in the various tests of destitution that were associated with the administration of the poor law. Thus labourers on the public works were widely required to perform task labour, with their wages measured by the amount of their work, rather than being paid a fixed daily wage. Similarly, there was the requirement that in order to be eligible for public assistance, those in distress must be willing to enter a workhouse and to submit to its harsh disciplines-such as endless eight-hour days of breaking stones or performing some other equally disagreeable labour. Such work was motivated by the notion that the perceived Irish national characteristic of sloth could be eradicated or at least reduced.”
Thomas Cahill, in How the Irish Saved Civilization, shows how bias can become so all- encompassing that it blinds the “superior” elites to their own bigotry.
“To an educated Englishman of the last century, for instance, the Irish were by their very nature incapable of civilization.” “The Irish,” proclaimed Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria’s beloved prime minister, “hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion [Disraeli’s father had abandoned Judaism for the Church
of England]. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character. Their ideal of human felicity is an alternation of clannish broils and coarse idolatry [i.e., Catholicism]. Their history describes an unbroken circle of bigotry [!] and blood.” The venomous racism and knuckle-headed prejudice of this characterization may be evident to us, but in the days of “dear old Dizzy,” as the queen called the man who had presented her with India, it simply passed for indisputable truth.”
My favorite examples of a contemporary publication purporting to set forth the obvious inferiority of the Irish, demonstrates the intersection of the curves of hate, ignorance, and callousness to the suffering of others at their respective maxima.
“In September, when the Irish had begun to die of starvation and there was plenty of evidence of the 100 percent failure of the second, 1846 potato crop, the Times of London added:
“Such are the thanks that a government gets for attempting to palliate great afflictions and satisfy corresponding demands by an inevitable but ruinous beneficence…. It is the old thing, the old malady, the national character, the national thoughtlessness, the national indolence.”
The Times of London topped even this combination of demands for thanks from the ungrateful and indolent Irish Catholics. Ireland’s real problem was that poor Irish Catholics preferred to eat potatoes, unlike the superior Brits who preferred to eat steak. Eating steak makes one “steady.”
The London Times, September 22, 1846
“For our own parts, we regard the potato blight as a blessing. When the Celts once cease to be potatophagi (potato eaters), they must become carnivorous. With the taste of meats will grow the appetite for them. With this will come steadiness, regularity, and persistence. Nothing will strike so deadly a blow, not only at the dignity of Irish character, but also the elements of Irish prosperity, as a confederacy of rich proprietors to dun the national Treasury.
There are ingredients in the Irish character which must be modified and corrected before either individuals or Government can hope to raise the general condition of the people. It is absurd to prescribe political innovations for the remedy of their suffering or the alleviation of their wants. Extended suffrage and municipal reform for a peasantry who have for six centuries consented to alternate between starvation on a potato and the doles of national charity! You might as well give them bonbons.
The Government provided work for a people who love it not. It made this the absolute condition of relief. The Government was required to ward off starvation, not to reward laziness; its duty was to encourage industry, not to stifle it; to stimulate others to give employment, not to outbid them, or drive them from the labor markets. Alas! The Irish peasant had tasted of famine and found that it was good.
The worst symptoms of the Irish famine have begun to show themselves in the way of popular gatherings and processions, which at present are only turbulent, but may soon become outrageous. The twin powers of Fear and Rumor have lent their hands to the coloring of a picture already sufficiently somber. The people have made up their minds to report the worst and believe the worst. Human agency is now denounced as instrumental in adding to the calamity inflicted by Heaven. It is no longer submission to Providence, but a murmur against the Government. The potatoes were blighted by a decree from on high. Such are the thanks that a Government gets for attempting to palliate great afflictions.”
Ryan’s ideological predecessors’ cruelty was praised by the elites
Even after they saw the mass deaths and emigrations their laissez faire fairy tales produced the British elites displayed total dishonesty.
“When it was “over,” the British officials directly in charge of “Irish famine relief,” particularly acting Treasury Minister Sir Charles Trevelyan, congratulated themselves and were decorated as Queen Victoria made her gala 1848 visit to Ireland. As 1847 ended, Trevelyan wrote: ‘It is my opinion that too much has been done for the people. Under such treatment the people have grown worse instead of better, and we must now try what independent exertion, and the operation of natural causes, can do…. I shall rest after two years of such continuous hard work in public service, as I have never had in my life.’”
Trevelyan was treated by the press and the British political classes as the “serious” man of his era. In the ultimate demonstration of the impossibility of competing with unintentional self- parody, he managed to:
Preside over the (preventable) mass deaths and emigration of Irish Catholics Complain that “too much” had been done for the Irish Complain that such minimal aid made the problem “worse” Complain that the Irish didn’t praise him for presiding over their mass deaths Hope that “natural causes” would kill off many more Irish Complain that for two years he had engaged in the hardest work of his life – largely the work of preventing aid from preventing mass deaths And was decorated by the Queen for his murderous administration
Trevelyan then self-prescribed a vacation in France, where he penned his infamous claim that God set out to commit the mass murder of the Irish in order to “cure” them of their indolence.
Charles Kingsley, the British historian, was also prompted by joining the Queen’s triumphal trip to Ireland to write his infamous passage of multiple bigoted statements.
“I am daunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that 100 miles of horrible country. I don’t believe they are our fault. I believe that there are not only many more of them than of old, but that they are happier, better and more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.
– Cambridge historian Charles Kingsley, letter to his wife from Ireland, 1860
There were exceptions even among British elites, and their views of the dominant elites were scathing.
“However, Lord Clarendon, the British viceroy in Ireland during the famine, saw the situation more clearly. He wrote to Prime Minister Lord John Russell: “‘I don’t think there is another legislature in Europe [other than the British] that would coldly persist in this policy of extermination.’”
Bill Black is the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One and an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He spent years working on regulatory policy and fraud prevention as Executive Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention, Litigation Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and Deputy Director of the National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement, among other positions.
Bill writes a column for Benzinga every Monday. His other academic articles, congressional testimony, and musings about the financial crisis can be found at his Social Science Research Network author page and at the blog New Economic Perspectives.