Laissez Faire and the Potato Famine

Via Cafe Hayek

As explained by historian Stephen Davies, after defeating James II in 1690, protestants subjected Irish Catholics to harsh restrictions on land ownership and leasing.  Most of Ireland’s people were thus forced to farm plots of land that were inefficiently small and on which they had no incentives to make long-term improvements.  As a consequence, Irish agricultural productivity stagnated, and, in turn, the high-yield, highly nutritious, and labor-intensive potato became the dominant crop.  In combination with interventions that obstructed Catholics from engaging in modern commercial activities – interventions that kept large numbers of Irish practicing subsistence agriculture well into the 19th century – this over-dependence on the potato spelled doom when in 1845 that crop became infected with the fungus Phytophthora infestans.

To make matters worse, Britain’s high-tariff “corn laws” discouraged the importation of grains that would have lessened the starvation.  Indeed, one of Britain’s most famous moves toward laissez faire – the 1846 repeal of the corn laws – was partly a response to the famine in Ireland.

Had laissez faire in fact reigned in Ireland in the mid-19th century, the potato famine almost certainly would never had happened.


  1. Mercury:

    Perhaps but you can also say that laissez faire “allowed” the Irish Catholic population to quintuple in the forty years leading up to the famine as it also “allowed” (apparently no relevant import/export bans existed) the phytophthora infestans fungus to migrate from America where it originated.

    And, there was also a large amount of "bottom-up", charitable relief contributed by English common/poor folk and their parish churches.

  2. jhertzli:

    The Corn Laws were based on the idea that being independent of foreign resources was more important than feeding people. The present-day equivalent of that policy is the ethanol mandate.

  3. kidmugsy:

    It seems less than honest of the writer not to admit that the "interventions" had been scrapped long before 1845. Moreover the potato famine also hit Belgium and the Scottish Highlands, neither of which was subject to Irish Law.

  4. Gil G:

    In other words it was an unfortunate "act of God" so folks should just get over it.

  5. An Inquirer:

    The fungus was not limited to Ireland, but Ireland is known for the devastation that the fungus brought upon that country. Government laws, policies and actions largely explain why Ireland was so hard hit.

  6. irandom419:

    Leftopedia says that they continued to export potatoes during the famine.

  7. FelineCannonball:

    What bullshit.

    Irish Catholics were under the boot and kept dirt poor. The reason they relied on historically productive Irish lumper potatoes they grew on crappy rented land was that they couldn't afford to eat anything else.

    "Let them buy corn" (or the local grains grown and exported during the famine) is the equivalent of asking them to eat cake. The famine continued 6 years after the repeal of the corn laws. They didn't eat pounds of potatoes day after day because they preferred them to all other calorie sources.

    Extreme occupation-related poverty --> over-reliance on single cheap productive variant of single crop--> lack of understanding of basic principles of plant disease prevention (crop rotation, genetic diversity, disease quarantine fundamentals, phytophthera biology, fungicide chemistry, . . .)

  8. FelineCannonball:

    Mostly grains (barley, wheat, oats) and livestock. Find me a country where export crops aren't exported during a famine and I'll show a country without a laissez faire economy.

  9. Allen G:

    They needed the cash

  10. Allen G:

    Ireland is the only country today that has a smaller population then before the famine. It wasn't as simple as policy but, as you pointed out, the policies not only didn't help they likely caused a lot of damage.

  11. Allen G:

    Good points. In that sense what trade that was allowed also allowed the potato itself to come to Ireland and the rest of Europe from the Andes.

  12. Allen G:

    Charles Mann has quite a bit to say on the potato & globalisation in 1493. I don't recall him talking about the land restrictions in terms of laws. He does touch on the poo-pooing of the Irish techniques being a problem. It seems the learned gentry looked down on their techniques as being backward and pushed for farming practices that hurt the potatoes and added to the spread of the blight.

  13. Gil G:

    And I watched something on TV years ago about how Brits tried to depopulate the Irish at the same time by sending them into religious, celibate orders.

  14. irandom419:

    You know what would be awesome, is if they could demonstrate that immigrants to the US were able to afford the potatoes from Ireland while those that stayed could not.

    I just realized that it is just like Africa where we import food for them, when it would probably be cheaper just to buy it there.

  15. FelineCannonball:

    The blight knocked out 90% of potato production and if they were smart the rest were quarantined. I doubt any were exported.

    Immigrants likely could have afforded Irish whiskey and barley though.

    The big difference between now and today was shipping technology which made everything crossing the Atlantic fairly expensive. Clipper ships were mainly for moving people, tea, opium, silk, cotton, rum, ice, etc. It wasn't really till the late 1850's that long distance transport of grains really took off, and then it was because of bulk government purchases during the Crimean war.

  16. mesaeconoguy:

    You’re really not very bright, are you?

    Ireland has more descendants in America than Ireland.

    How do you think they got here? Did they swim here?

    Apparently, it wasn’t expensive enough to prevent them from coming, for economic reasons.

    Grain shipments were extremely common in the antebellum period on large transatlantic steamers.

    The major difference in North America was development of a railroad system to bring goods to market, not some ridiculous foreign war. It was US domestic demand, fueled and driven by massive European emigration, including your famine.

    The US market developed, and subsequently absorbed and cultivated millions of Irish due to transcontinental shipment, not some unrelated distant foreign conflict.

  17. FelineCannonball:

    The first transatlantic steamer was something like 1838 and they did nothing but ferry the wealthy for their first ten years. The first ones were also fairly bizarre modifications of river paddle wheels with auxiliary sails. Efficient propulsion took a while.

    Regular immigrants moved by sail during the potato famine and grain had no easy route to ports or across the Atlantic.

  18. mesaeconoguy:

    You seem to commit the same offense repeatedly.

    If you check with Lloyds, they will tell you that the grain shipments you refer to were common in that time, and that people transit were primarily slaves.

    The Famine was a result of Warren’s stated reasons above, plus the Corn Laws, plus lack of financing due to European jockeying (and indirect lack of central banks, fulfilled by the Rothschild bank)

    As before, you are quite full of shit.

  19. FelineCannonball:

    Warren didn't state anything. He provided a block quote.

    The corn laws affected industrialized cities with the purchasing power to buy imported food. It didn't negatively impact starving subsistence farmers who couldn't pay for it regardless. It was a pretty small chunk of global trade in 1845 and had nothing to do with the Irish famine.

  20. mesaeconoguy:

    I don’t have the time required to unpack your ignorance
    about this, and your other extensive catalogue of economic history stupidity.