The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership
April 1998; Volume 16, Number 4
What Caused the Irish Potato Famine?
by Mark Thornton
British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized for doing "too little"
in response to the Irish Potato Famine of the 19th century that killed one million people
and brought about the emigration of millions more. But in fact, the English government was
guilty of doing too much.
Blair's statement draws attention to the question of what caused the
famine. Up to now, the popular theory is that the Irish were promiscuous, slothful, and
excessively dependent on the potato. As a result they died by the hundreds of thousands
when a blight appeared and ruined their food source, in the midst of one of the fastest
economic growth periods in human history.
Was the Potato Famine an ecological accident, as historians usually say?
Like most famines, it had little to do with declines in food production as such. Adam
Smith was right that "bad seasons" cause "dearth," but "the
violence of well-intentioned governments" can
convert "dearth into famine."
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.
Free-market economist J.B. Say was quick to note that the system of
absentee landlords was deplorable. He accurately diagnosed this cause and grimly predicted
the disastrous results that did follow. He sadly relayed the suggestion of a Member of
Parliament that the seas swallow up the Island of Erin for a period long enough to destroy
everything on it.
The Malthusian law of population is sometimes used to explain away English
guilt. Here the Irish were viewed as a promiscuous bunch that married young and had too
many children. Malthus himself considered the Irish situation as hopeless. The Irish then
paid for their sins via the starvation and disease that the famine wrought.
Were the Irish such a promiscuous bunch? The population of Ireland was
high and the island had become densely populated after union with Great Britain
in 1801. Part of this population growth can be attributed to basic economic development as
population was also increasing rapidly in England and elsewhere in Europe.
In fact, the Irish population was only growing slightly faster than the
English population and was starting from a much smaller base. But why was it growing
faster? The answer lies in the fact that England had placed Ireland in an unusual position
as the breadbasket for the Industrial Revolution.
The British Corn Laws were designed to protect local grain farmers from
foreign competition. In 1801, these laws were extended to Ireland. The laws not only kept
prices high; they protected against falling prices in years of plenty. The main
beneficiaries of this protectionism were the English absentee landlords of Ireland, not
The Irish people were able to grow large quantities of nutritious potatoes
that they fed their families and animals. Landlords benefitted from the fact that the
potato did not deplete the soil and allowed a larger percentage of the estate to be
devoted to grain crops for export to England.
Higher prices encouraged the cultivation of new lands and the more intense
use of existing farmlands. A primary input into this increased production was the Irish
peasant who was in most cases nothing more than a landless serf. Likewise, the population
growth rate did slow in response to reduced levels of protectionism in the decade prior to
This artificial stimulus to the Irish population was secure with English
landlords in control of Parliament. However, English manufacturers and laborers supported
free trade and grew as a political force. With the agitation of the Anti-Corn Law League,
the Whigs and Tories agreed in 1845 to reduce protectionist tariffs and the Corn Laws
altogether by 1849. The price of wheat plummeted in 1847 ("corn" being
British for grains, especially wheat, the prime grain protected under the Corn Laws), falling to a 67 year
Repeal drastically impacted the capital value of farmland in Ireland and
reduced the demand for labor as Irish lands converted from grain production to pasture. It
should be clear that while free trade did bring about these changes, the blame for both
stimulating pre-famine population growth and the subsequent depopulation (the Irish
population did not recover until 1951 and net emigration did not end until 1996) rests
with English protectionism and the Corn Laws.
These price shocks made a population decline inevitable. As emigration
became a viable option, many Irish decided to take the long and dangerous journey to the
New World rather than the ferryboat to the factories of England.
Let us now take a look at the so-called laissez-faire approach that the
English applied to the famine and for which Tony Blair apologized. This is important
because it forms the backbone of the case that the free market cannot address famine and
crisis (also that the IMF and FEMA are all the more necessary today).
Far from allowing the market to work, England launched a massive program
of government intervention, consisting mainly of building workhouses, most completed just
prior to the onset of the Famine.
Earlier, the Irish Poor Inquiry had rejected the workhouse as a
solution to poverty. In the report, Archbishop Whately--attacked
today for his free-market stand--argued that the
solution to poverty is investment and charity, but these "radical"
findings were rejected by the English who threw out the report and appointed George
Nicholls to write a new one.
The workhouses, an early version of New Deal make-work programs, only made
the problem of poverty worse. A system of extensive public works required heavy taxation
on the local economy. The English officials directed money away from projects that would
increase productivity and agricultural output into useless roadbuilding.
Most of these roads began nowhere and ended nowhere. Worse yet, the policy
established by Sir Charles Trevelyan to pay below market wages, which you can well imagine
were pretty low, meant that workers earned less in food than the caloric energy they
typically expended in working on the roads.
The British government opened soup kitchens in 1847 and these were
somewhat successful because they mimicked private charity and provided nutrition without
requiring caloric exertion or significant tax increases. But the kitchens were quickly
ended. Next came a return of the workhouses, but again they could not solve the problem of
poverty and hunger. In the summer of 1847, the government raised taxes, a truly callous
In addition to the fundamental failure of the government programs,
workhouses, public works, and soup kitchens tended to concentrate the people into larger
groups and tighter quarters. This allowed the main killer of the Famine, disease, to do
its evil work.
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."
Did the English create the Famine on purpose? This was after all an age of
revolution and the Irish were suspected of plotting yet another revolt. The "Irish Question"
was of major importance and many Englishmen agreed with Trevelyan that God had sent the
blight and Famine.
Ultimately, the question of blame is not as important as the question of
cause. Even more importantly, the Famine is a source of great economic errors, such as:
Famines are the fault of the market and free trade, and starvation results from
laissez-faire policy. Even Karl Marx was heavily influenced by events happening in Ireland
as he wrote in London.
Ireland was swept away by the economic forces that emanated from the most
powerful and aggressive state the world had ever known. It suffered not from a fungus
(which English scientists insisted was just excessive dampness) but from conquest, theft,
bondage, protectionism, government welfare, public works, and inflation.
As an American, I am hardly one to consider Mr. Blair's apology.
However, if the apology had been for causing the Famine and for the welfare policies that
made it so deadly, it would have much more to recommend it.
Mark Thornton is senior fellow of the Mises Institute
FURTHER READING: Christine Kinealy, A Death-Dealing Famine: The Great
Hunger in Ireland (Chicago: Pluto Press, 1997); Austin Bourke, The Visitation of
God?: The Potato and the Great Irish Famine (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1993); Cormac
O'Grada, The Great Irish Famine (Macmillan, 1989).