Classical economics and the Great Irish Famine:A study in limits

For most of the 19th century, the English answer was to ignore the hate and crush the crime which [the land system] produced. In the forty years before 1870 forty-two Coercion Acts were passed. During the same period there was not a single statute to protect the Irish peasant from eviction and rack-renting.—Winston Churchill, The Great Democracies,p. 343.

Abstract

The Great Irish Famine resulted from two massive failures: the blight that destroyed the potato crop and the non-interventionism of the English government. The first failure, which also occurred in other European countries, was devastating for the Irish who depended on the potato as their main source of nourishment. The second failure was a human failure because English government policy was instructed by classical economics to let the market clear the surplus population from the land and was reinforced by the anti-Irish racism common in England at the time, even among classical economists, notably Nassau Senior and J.S. Mill.

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Correspondence to Edward J. O’Boyle.

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It is commonplace in economic research to assume that the investigator has removed all traces of personal values from his/her work. As Becker (1961, p. 10) implies, that could be a serious error. For that reason, let me state at the outset that I am a first-generation Irish-American, holding dual citizenship in the United States and the Republic of Ireland. My mother and father both were born and raised in County Mayo—the poorest county in western Ireland, where the toll in human lives lost during the Great Famine was staggering. I do not know how many of my own Irish ancestors suffered and died during the Great Famine. What I do know and acknowledge is that my selection of this topic clearly is related to that family background which also very likely influenced the way I have interpreted the evidence presented herein. I concede that someone else sifting through the evidence might come to different conclusions, but I know of no other way to proceed. Supportive comments by Hans Jensen and Peter Danner on earlier drafts are gratefully acknowledged, as are the suggestions made by the editor and an anonymous referee. Any remaining errors are entirely mine.

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O’Boyle, E.J. Classical economics and the Great Irish Famine:A study in limits . FSSE 35, 21–53 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02746430

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Keywords

  • Social Economic
  • Classical Economic
  • English Government
  • Soup Kitchen
  • Irish People