Millian Liberalism and the Irish Famine

by Henry Farrell on January 28, 2016

Tyler Cowen has a piece today responding to Kevin Drum, and arguing that one can’t easily disassociate progressivism from eugenics:

Most of all Drum is saying that the earlier history is not very illustrative of anything for today. I view it this way. Go back to Millian liberalism of the mid-19th century. Had American or for that matter British Progressivism been infused with more of this philosophy, the eugenics debacle never would have happened. … The claim is not that current Progressives are evil or racist, but rather they still don’t have nearly enough Mill in their thought, and not nearly enough emphasis on individual liberty. Their continuing choice of label seems to indicate they are not much bothered by that, or maybe not even fully aware of that. … they don’t seem to relate to the broader philosophy of individual liberty as it surfaced in the philosophy of Mill and others. That’s a big, big drawback and the longer history of Progressivism and eugenics is perhaps the simplest and most vivid way to illuminate the point. This is one reason why the commitment of the current Left to free speech just isn’t very strong. … Do we really want to identify with a general philosophy which embraced eugenics for so many decades, when so many pro-liberty and also social democratic thinkers were in opposition? I think Mill himself would say no.

It’s hard for me to read a defense of “Millian liberalism in the mid-nineteenth century” and not think about the response of Millian liberalism and associated forms of thought in political economy to the Irish famine in which a million or so people died, and a million emigrated.

Mill self-consciously belonged to a broader tradition of political economy that was highly influential in Britain during the relevant period. This tradition did not distinguish itself during the Irish Famine. I posted a few years back about the Economist‘s editorializing that:

… 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.

and Nassau Senior’s alleged quip that the Irish famine “would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do much good” is reasonably notorious. As Cormac O’Grada notes, in his history of famine (p.205),

Radical nationalist John Mitchel’s dramatic claim that Ireland had ‘died of political economy’ in the 1840s was thus by no means entirely untrue; policy at the time was constrained by a stance that was obsessive about the moral hazard implications of relieving the starving, the providential nature of the failure of the potato crop, and fiscal prudence even in times of the extreme humanitarian crisis

John Stuart Mill, with his love of liberty, was entirely part of this consensus. Below, some extracts from his contemporary articles for the Morning Chronicle on the Irish Famine.

In response to a proposal that starving Irish people be granted relief in return for labour on public work projects:

The alpha and omega of the schemes for the relief of Ireland—the quintessence of all the propositions we hear, is, give, give, give. … But the objection common to all these schemes is, that they consist of giving, and nothing more. That objection is fatal. Did ever any one hear, was ever any one so completely out of his senses as to imagine, that the whole social and economical state of a country could be made to rest upon giving? Giving, when the whole labouring population are the parties concerned, is a thing to be done once, and then largely and generously, to the full measure of the need. But it is not a thing to be done at all, save when the object to be compassed, or at least greatly promoted, is that of so altering the condition of the receivers, that they shall not need to look to giving as a permanent resource. If this could be accomplished for Ireland—and that it could we are fully prepared to show—we will not venture to say what sum of money we would not willingly give, and call on others to give, for so noble a purpose. Or if the habitual condition of the Irish people were satisfactory, and the present distress a sharp but passing calamity, as little connected with the general course of events as the cholera—a torrent which they only required to be helped through, to be landed again in prosperity on the other side—then too we could join our voices with those who say, give freely, and ask no questions about the future. But as things are, we protest with all our force against giving one additional farthing on plans which hold out no better promise than that, after a larger or smaller sum of money is spent and gone, the Irish will be exactly as they were before. Give as much as you will, but let it be for the permanent improvement of the condition of the people. We will not hear of any giving merely to feed the disease, not to cure it. … Are the Irish, on the showing of the Times and its Commissioner, a people who can be trusted with an unlimited license to draw upon the national alms? … But the Irish peasant: what of him? Is he a similar paragon of industry, providence, self-reliance, and the other virtues of that mythological creation, “a stout peasantry?” Listen to Mr. Foster—listen to the “Times Commissioner,” and he will tell you that the Irish peasant, while he has his sufficient meal of bad, watery potatoes, will not stir two steps from the door of his turf hut to gain either comfort or luxury at the cost of half an hour’s exertion; that when a boat is found for him by his own parish priest, and a thousand herrings may be caught in one day, neither the prize can tempt nor the priest persuade him to make use of the opportunity; or he perhaps goes once, and brings home a week’s subsistence; but, declaring it too much trouble ever to go again, loiters at home and asks a passing traveller for money. Such are said to be the people to whom the Times wishes the Legislature to declare, that they need not take any trouble to feed themselves, for it will make the landlords feed them. … Because the Irish are indolent, unenterprising, careless of the future, doing nothing for themselves, and demanding everything from other people; because, being freemen, they want the characteristic virtues of freemen, it is proposed to create a fit soil for the growth of those virtues by placing them in the position of slaves!

And in a later article:

The entire population of the country are coming upon us to be fed. And we are called upon to decide instantaneously whether we will or will not undertake the office. There is no retreating, no putting off. The burden of Irish destitution is now to be borne by us. Ireland can no longer suffer alone. We must take our full share of the evil, or put an end to it. For a few weeks or months longer we have the choice which. Wait a year, and we may have it no longer. Wait a year, and the mind of the Irish population may be so thoroughly pauperised, that to be supported by other people may be the only mode of existence they will consent to. There may be a Jacquerie, or another ninety-eight, in defence of the rights of sturdy beggary. It may require a hundred thousand armed men to make the Irish people submit to the common destiny of working in order to live.

Under such a mass of impending evil it is no longer enough not to make the eleemosynary system permanent. That system must be promptly put an end to. We must give over telling the Irish that it is our business to find food for them. We must tell them, now and for ever, that it is their business. We must tell them that to find or make employment as an excuse for feeding those who have a head to seek for work and hands to do it, is a thing they are not to expect either from the Government, or from the barony, or from the parish. They have a right, not to support at the public cost, but to aid and furtherance in finding support for themselves. They have a right to a repeal of all laws and a reform of all social systems which improperly impede them in finding it, and they have a right to their fair share of the raw material of the earth. They have a right to that part of the earth’s surface which is as much theirs as any man’s, since no man made it, and no man has ever used or improved it. Millions of acres are lying waste, requiring little more than labour to render them productive, and to avoid giving these acres to the destitute, we are giving them, instead, many millions of pounds sterling. We are paying gold with both hands to destroy such industry, independence, and self-reliance as they already have, and we withhold what would cost us little or nothing, and would be to them the fountain spring of those virtues for all time to come.


It may be said, perhaps … that conjointly with remedial measures, and while doing everything in our power to raise up for the people an abundance of food and the amplest field of employment, we must also, to complete the impression on their minds, afford an assurance, not inferential but positive, of a sufficient maintenance. To which we reply, that to give them such an assurance in the present state of their minds is certain to render any and every remedial measure inoperative. No measure calculated to be of use to Ireland has a chance of effect unless the exertions of the people are called forth with considerable intensity to co-operate with it. With their present habits, the only motive which is found sufficient to produce any real exertion, and that not always, is the fear of destitution. From that fear it is proposed permanently to relieve them. What other motive is to be provided? It must be force; for reason and experience are equally against the wild idea that even a much more industrious people than the Irish will work with any efficacy for employers who are not permitted to dismiss them, unless it be like slaves, under compulsion, and if that is to be the resource, it is good to bethink ourselves, in the first instance, whether we can compel them to be compelled.

Depending on how one reads “sufficient maintenance,” Mills seems to be saying either that the only motivation (other than the threat of violence) sufficient to get the Irish to work hard in their current condition is the fear of starvation or (in a more generous reading) utter penury. Hence, providing them any guarantee of sufficient maintenance or employment would be ruinous.

On the one hand, Mill argues in this and other articles that the Irish are a victim of their institutional circumstances (and English landlords), rather than being inherently inferior to English people in some way, and calls for the repeal of oppressive laws. This, under other circumstances, is the genuinely attractive and compelling message of Millian political economy – that one should look first to the external circumstances that constrain people’s choices before appealing to innate differences (this intuition lies behind his feminism, for example). On the other, he ferociously condemns proposals to create public works schemes for people who are quite literally starving in their tens and hundreds of thousands as he writes, for fear that these measures would inculcate indolence and undermine self-reliance. In a controversy which I don’t discuss above, he indeed argues that any scheme of general relief for the starving Irish would be radically incompatible with the reforms he proposes – it would cement the Irish in their bad habits so that political economy reforms could not take hold. This kind of response to men, women and children dying in their multitudes next door is, to put it mildly, less attractive in its logic and implications.

Mill’s response to the Irish Famine was hence twofold. First, to contemn in the harshest terms efforts to help people who were, at that very moment, starving to death. Second and simultaneously, to propose political economy reforms to the Irish landholding system, which while based on a plausible diagnosis, were irrelevant to those whose immediate problem was not that they had no long term surety of property, but that they were dying for lack of food. “Let them eat liberty and secure property rights” is not an efficacious program for immediate famine relief, whatever its abstract and/or long term merits.

So if Tyler really wants to hang eugenics around the neck of progressivism, and deplore its insufficient infusion of mid-nineteenth century Millian liberalism, he really ought consider the demonstrable problems of mid-nineteenth century Millian liberalism itself, as expounded e.g. by John Stuart Mill himself. I don’t think it’s fair to accuse Mill of being engaged, a la J.K. Galbraith’s definition of conservatism, in a search for a higher justification for selfishness (I’d be less swift to pardon some other Whig voices of the period). But I do think it is entirely fair to see him – and the broader tradition he represents – as culpable of a specific obtuseness to the ways in which political economy prescriptions can blind one as well as enlighten one as to what is happening in the world around oneself, a blindness that could potentially be partly remedied by some of the collective commitments that e.g. progressivism can provide. Modern day economics – and associated strains of thought in libertarianism – sometimes seem to pride themselves on a kind of ostentatious moral toughness (exemplified and made almost parodic by the whole Robert Heinlein shtick that of course lunar settlers should be left suffocate if they can’t afford to pay for air) that is all too often an obnoxious and rather squalid form of callousness. Hence, if progressivism should reasonably be corrected by the Millian tradition on individual liberties, that tradition could do with a lot of correcting back (furthermore, Tyler’s implication that progressivism is somehow disreputable in a way that unalloyed Millian liberalism is not, simply does not seem to me to be justified by the historical evidence.



MPAVictoria 01.28.16 at 7:40 pm

“Let them eat liberty and secure property rights” is not an efficacious program for immediate famine relief, whatever its abstract and/or long term merits.”


MPAVictoria 01.28.16 at 7:42 pm

“a general philosophy which embraced eugenics for so many decades”

And of course he is ignoring the fact the Eugenics was embraced by people from across the political spectrum and not just those on the left.


Roger Gathman 01.28.16 at 7:55 pm

Mike Davis’s book, Late Victorian Holocausts, does a pretty brilliant job of showing how Millian liberalism responded to repeated Indian famines of unimaginable scope. Here’s a bit on the labor camps the Brits set up. First, they forced anyone in a camp to come from outside the district in which the camp was set up – that is, they forced starving families to tramp for 30 to 150 miles to get to the camp. Then they systematically reduced rations to about 20 ounces of rice per day, plus a pound of meat or vegetables. Then they set them to hard labor. As Davis points out the rations provided less sustenance for the labor required than the rations at Buchenwald. Davis also includes photographs of the result, which make the latter point more viscerally.


mds 01.28.16 at 8:22 pm

Tyler Cowen has a piece today responding to Kevin Drum, and arguing that one can’t easily disassociate progressivism from eugenics:

Hey, Tyler, I support modern economic and social progressivism, and I’m opposed to eugenics. There, that was easy.

Now perhaps Tyler can ask around at the Mercatus Center, and determine how easily one can dissociate Millian liberalism from poisoning a populace with lead to save a few bucks.


CJColucci 01.28.16 at 8:22 pm

So here’s my proposal for a fair trade: Progressives cop to their share of the ugly past of eugenics (as MPA Victoria points out, Progressives were far from alone) and demonstrate, by deeds as well as words, that they aren’t that way anymore; and the Conservatives cop to their ugly “let the f*****s starve” past and demonstrate, by deeds as well as words, that they aren’t that way anymore.
Any takers?


Peak Leftism 01.28.16 at 10:12 pm

Ah, it’s always interesting to read that state of mind that associates an unwillingness to use government policy to ameliorate social ills with an acceptance of said ills.

By the way, from Wikipedia:

“Throughout the entire period of the Famine, Ireland was exporting enormous quantities of food. Cormac O’Grada points out that, in Ireland before and after the famine, “Although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. But that was a ‘money crop’ and not a ‘food crop’ and could not be interfered with.”

Sounds like a problem that was quite solvable by Ireland.


John Quiggin 01.28.16 at 10:19 pm

A bit of a side issue, but in what sense is the use of the term “progressive” in English-speaking countries today related to the early-C20 US political movement of that name. To make the point more sharply, isn’t Woodrow Wilson generally seen as the most prominent Progressive leader?

AFAICT, this kind of thing is like Republicans claiming to be the political heirs of Lincoln.


Helen 01.28.16 at 11:07 pm

Wow, that (the article under discussion) stings. Progressives are always being criticised by other progressives for being too individualistic and therefore quasi-neoliberal with all our nasty feminism and such. Now we’re not liberal enough. People are never satisfied.


Chip Daniels 01.28.16 at 11:38 pm

At last, a situation where being an amateur follower of political philosophy comes in handy.

Someone is trying to “hang Millian liberalism around the neck of progressivism”?

Really? How do you hang something around our neck that most of us have never even heard of, something that stopped being a thing a century before any of us were born?

It reminds me of how in 2008, suddenly Saul Alinsky rose from the dead and became the prime mover, the Master Yoda to all of Obama’s supporters, 99% of whom had to rush to Google to figure out who this guy was.

Yeah, OK, I get it, that the strains of philosophical thought that stretch from Mills to today can be traced by historians. But to make this anything more than an oddity, to somehow make this a hit on current progressive thought seems like just a high toned version of “the Democrats were the party of the KKK”.


Chip Daniels 01.28.16 at 11:42 pm

This also reminds me of the discussions they have over at LGM, about whether Nixon was a liberal, or how conservatives are eager to tell us how Kennedy cut taxes.

That is, trying to map our current political landscape onto the past yields some pretty weird results.


bob mcmanus 01.28.16 at 11:55 pm

7: Directly related. Yes, Wilson was a progressive. Yes, there was a lot of racism in the circa 1900 movement so the eugenics argument stings, and in many ways it was in opposition to the populism of the same period. Technocratic elitism, and some measures of imperialism, was in its bones. Feminism and and the temperance movement were in there. Complicated relation to Bismarck’s Germany. I try to look at the Int’l aspects or manifestations.

“Progressive” was re-appropriated in the 90s I think, without very much thought except to avoid “liberal,” but with many more parallels than usually acknowledged.


Bill Camarda 01.29.16 at 12:00 am

You mean the Tyler Cowen who wrote: “We need to accept the principle that sometimes poor people will die just because they are poor. Some of you don’t like the sound of that, but we already let the wealthy enjoy all sorts of other goods — most importantly status — which lengthen their lives and which the poor enjoy to a much lesser degree. We shouldn’t screw up our health care institutions by being determined to fight inegalitarian principles for one very select set of factors which determine health care outcomes.”?

Perhaps a touch more Mill would help progressives become more humane, but I have no idea what prescription would be effective for Mr. Cowen.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 01.29.16 at 12:14 am

Why does no one bring up the moral hazard caused by profit seeking in the healthcare industry.


Ed 01.29.16 at 1:01 am

I am no expert on the Irish famine, and this is a question for the commentators who are. What was the extent to which the problem was caused by overpopulation, and solved by emigration?


Bruce Wilder 01.29.16 at 1:03 am

Progressives in the early 20th century were not a particularly “left” movement. They were institution-building reformers, but came at it from conservative and paternalistic instincts and politics.

Theodore Roosevelt, not Wilson, should get the nod for most prominent Progessive. His accidental Presidency seems to have set off the explosion, and it was an explosion in political culture. A faction of Republicans, with rather fewer conservatives in its ranks, continued as self-named Progressives after WWII. Progressive Republicans in Congress were much abused by the party regulars. The Taft faction, in particular, never forgave. But, the Republican Party continued to benefit from the Progressive brand. Herbert Hoover was billed as a Progressive.

FDR used “liberal” as a new brand, under which he welcomed (Republican) Progressive support for the New Deal. In the transition, and in blending with late populism and the working class and outsider constituencies of the Democratic Party, the conservative character of early 20th century Progressivism was lost to memory.


LFC 01.29.16 at 2:10 am

I agree (for once) with something b. mcmanus writes, namely this part of a sentence @11:
“Progressive” was re-appropriated in the 90s I think, without very much thought except to avoid “liberal”…

I think that’s right: some people adopted ‘progressive’ b/c ‘liberal’ had become increasingly a ‘boo word’ in the Reagan era and after, at least in some parts of popular and political debate. There was, afaik, relatively little thought of consciously harking back to the early-20th-cent. Progressives. So while it’s interesting as an historical matter to learn that British opponents of eugenics in 1912 drew inspiration from Mill, and while Cowen may have some pt against U.S. Progressives of the early 20th cent., the relevance of this to contemporary politics seems slim. Cowen says “the commitment of the current Left to free speech just isn’t very strong.” Well, it’s at least as strong as the current Right’s commitment to free speech. When was the last time Cowen heard a Republican politician praise the ACLU?

Anyway, Henry’s right that “if progressivism [of whatever era] should reasonably be corrected by the Millian tradition on individual liberties, that tradition could do with a lot of correcting back,” as he explains.


Tom M 01.29.16 at 2:24 am

What was the extent to which the problem was caused by overpopulation, and solved by emigration

The English did what they could back in the late 18th century to reduce overpopulation in Ireland. It’s called Australia.


John Quiggin 01.29.16 at 2:40 am

Until I read the passage from Cowen, I’m pretty sure I’d never read or heard the phrase “British Progressivism”. My immediate association was with the Webbs, not because I’ve ever seen the term “Progressivism” associated with them, but because they are the British figures most like my (admittedly vague) impressive of early C20 US Progressives.

Google produces various unhelpful links, but AFAICT, there was never a significant British movement labelled as Progressivism, either by its members or by its opponents.


Sebastian H 01.29.16 at 2:41 am

Hey this really is a both sides do it thing.

It seems to be a cognitive bias. In our friends or allies, it is easy to see how they have broken with the past. In our adversaries it is clear to us that they haven’t–even on nearly identical types of ties. (See for example Corey Robin on conservatism).

You can actually almost list the examples:

Bloodless Social Planners (the creators of the large housing projects of the post war ghettos for example).

Whether or not you think a group has sufficiently severed their ties with the past will correspond exactly with whether or not you feel affiliated with that group.


Kieran 01.29.16 at 2:43 am

Mill’s response honestly does feel quite different to me to the Progressive position on eugenics. His economic analysis was that if they helped too much or indicated too strongly that they would adopt responsibility for feeding everyone, it would incentivize the people of Ireland to remain in a sorry state for the conceivable future. Mill was balancing Ireland’s past against its future. I think that he got the wrong answer, but I think that it was an honest one, all things considered.


John Quiggin 01.29.16 at 3:13 am

@19 In the case of the racist/eugenicist element of the Progressive movement, the break seems pretty clear, given that progressives are now pushing to expunge or rethink names honoring Woodrow Wilson, along with Forrest, Jefferson (Thomas and Davis) and similar.

In this sense, people like Jonah Goldberg and George Will have performed some inadvertent good service. They started with a tu quoque along the lines

If you’re so keen to attack the Confederate Flag, why not denounce Woodrow Wilson’s racism, abandon Jefferson-Jackson dinners and so forth

only to be taken at their word, and be forced into a quick pivot back to historical relativism.


Cranky Observer 01.29.16 at 3:24 am

= = = I think that he got the wrong answer, but I think that it was an honest one, all things considered. = = =

Consideration including thousands of children under the age of 16, and therefore in no way responsible for their fate, starving to death. Unfortunate, but there you have it.


geo 01.29.16 at 3:30 am

That stuff in Mill’s article about the Irish national character is fascinating, Henry. I always assumed that southern Italian peasants were the laziest, most shiftless people in 19th-century Europe. Was it really the Irish?


None 01.29.16 at 4:12 am

Roger Gathman has spared me the trouble of writing a comment about John Staurt Mill – lover of Liberty and career employee of the East India Company. Thank you, Roger Gathman. Needless to say I am highly skeptical that association with Mill will have had the ameliorating effect that Cowen postulates.
But all Cowen really wants to do is take a shot at contemporary “progressives”, right ?


ozajh 01.29.16 at 4:28 am

Peak Leftism @ 6,

Sounds like a problem that was quite solvable by Ireland.

Ireland was part of the UK at that time, although it was in effect being run as a colony with a foreign-dominated commercial agricultural sector and a domestic subsistence sector. The first sector produced wheat and beef for export, and exported to England where the money was. The second sector produced potatoes for subsistence.

When the potato crop failed, the cottiers had no resources at all. Their plight was similar to that of the Ethiopians a few years back when the rains didn’t come.


Henry 01.29.16 at 4:45 am

That stuff in Mill’s article about the Irish national character is fascinating, Henry. I always assumed that southern Italian peasants were the laziest, most shiftless people in 19th-century Europe. Was it really the Irish?

Are we going to get into a ‘my peasant ancestors were more feckless than yours’-off? (although all the 19th century ancestors I know about were Catholic bourgeois and petty bourgeois – farmers, shop owners, journalists and the like).


Henry 01.29.16 at 4:47 am

And also, in fairness to Mill, he argued that the national character was the result of circumstances – he argued that if you gave Irish peasants secure property and opportunity, they’d turn towards the better (much of his venom was reserved for the landlords).


Rakesh Bhandari 01.29.16 at 4:53 am

Very interesting analysis. Meliorative policies are critiqued because they would weaken incentives for self-reliance, not because they would stand in the way of natural selection doing its work through death? Really interesting quotes from Mill-thank you. Perhaps Mill played a similarly insidious role in relation to the Chartist Movement. He of course had faith in the good work the British Empire would do in India.

I am not sure whether Irving Fisher is discussed at Cowen’s blog, but I remember reading many years ago a piece by Mark Aldrich on Fisher’s eugenic commitments. Fisher was one of the most important American economists and a leading exponent of eugenics. Had he not internalized the putative lessons of Millian liberalism, or was there another source of the problem? William (Sandy) Darity has written of how committed American economists were to the Negro disappearance hypothesis at the turn of the 20th century.


A H 01.29.16 at 5:17 am

It’s a bit rich of Cowen to complain about historical left eugenicists when he promotes the work of actual existing eugenicist Charles Murray.


Chris Bertram 01.29.16 at 7:39 am

Notice the parallel between Mill and the current British government, who argue that if we rescue drowning children it will only encourage other children to take risks.


ccc 01.29.16 at 7:52 am

“Their continuing choice of label seems to indicate they are not much bothered by that … This is one reason why the commitment of the current Left to free speech just isn’t very strong.”

This Tyler Cower argument is so utterly weak that the most cheritable interpretation is that it is disingenuous.


Stephen 01.29.16 at 8:55 am

CJColucci@8: the problem with your demand that “Conservatives cop to their ugly “let the f*****s starve” past”, in the context of the Irish potato famine, is that there actually was a Conservative policy, followed in the earlier part of the famine under Peel’s government, and it was “whatever the cost, the people must not be allowed to starve”. And they didn’t. Under Peel, imports of American maize at Government expense kept the famine at bay. It was only after Peel’s fall that the Liberal policies were tried.


Maria 01.29.16 at 8:57 am

Chris has it. It’s remarkable to see the same argument on encouraging the fecklessness of those who have the bad sense to be starving in Famine / fleeing war and failed states pop up again, with no self consciousness at all. Mill would have made a most dependable member of Cameron’s cabinet.


Maria 01.29.16 at 8:59 am

Though the stories wouldn’t like Mill’s shtick about reforming land ownership. Structural causes of poverty? Pah. Pull your socks up!


Ronan(rf) 01.29.16 at 9:01 am

Ed, I am not an expert. I’ll give you my opinion anyway, but take it with a pinch of salt.
Are you asking to what extent was Ireland population growth the cause of and emigration the solution to the famine ? Or to Ireland’s (apparent ) economic and social backwardness ? (I don’t know if Ireland’s population growth at the time, ie mid late18th early 19th century, was outside the European norm much. Perhaps it was exceptional in the rate of growth but population expansion was the norm in northeastern Europe afaicr)
On the first question (afaik) I don’t think overpopulation was a main cause. The blight + over dependance on the potato by some parts of the pop was. By a number of quality of health indicators (ie height, child hood mortality) the irish labouring and cottier were above the European average, and the country was mainly self sufficient in food.
On the second. Afaik it depends who you ask. In the decades before the famine Ireland’s population growth was declining due to a mixture of (disproportionately Presbyterian iirc) emigration and delayed marriage/lower birth rates. Some historians argue that those trends would have continued without the famine and relieved any population . Pressures . The other question is whether without the famine the Irish economy would have modernised as quickly and as extensively. My understanding is that a lot of the changes modernising the economy (development of English as spoken language, shift from subsistence agriculture, rise of catholic bourgeoise and their political aspirations, greater integration of an internal market) were obvious up to 50 years before the famine. Ireland wAs a relatively modern agricultural economy at the time . (And political and socially relatively advanced) T he famine exacerbated these trends by decimating the labourer and cottier, forcing the smaller farmer into emigration, and enabling the larger farmer to expand his position. It also (to what extent depending on who you believe ) shifted perspectives on early marriage and family size. It killed off a large section of the pop most likely to marry early and have more children , and those remaining seemed to shift their behaviour to that of the larger farmer.
I don’t know if that answers your question or how accurate it is. I’d be interested in anyone else weighing in. Emigration was going to be an important part of modernising the economy regardless (as it was in similar European countries of the time) particularly as the shift from sub division of land to single inheritance left a growing part of the population without opportunities or security. The question is would it have done enough, and how would modernisation have accomadated the Poorer landless/ small land renting classes ,particularly without a particularly developed domestic industrial sector for them to move into .
As I said though, I’m not an expert , so this might mostly be Rubbish. Apologies if that’s the case


Stephen 01.29.16 at 9:11 am

Peak Leftism@6: I hate to disillusion you, but Wikipedia articles are not always entirely accurate. Historians who have studied the actual food production and exports of Ireland have concluded that the main Irish food export was grain (oats and wheat), that most of the grain grown in Ireland was consumed in Ireland, that grain exports fell markedly during the famine, and that the amount exported was nothing like enough to replace the missing potatoes. I would recommend Robin Haines’ “Charles Trevelyan and the Great Irish Famine” and Austin Bourke’s “The visitation of God?”. Bourke if I remember accurately quotes Daniel O’Connell saying that closing the Irish ports would do more harm than good: I would hesitate to go against O’Connell.


Stephen 01.29.16 at 9:32 am

Ronan@38: you may find it surprising, but I largely agree with you. I would add one other factor: railways. It was an evil coincidence that the famine came after the great railway boom in Britain, but before railway construction had got far in Ireland. The British story was one that has since become familiar: a revolutionary new means of communication that will entirely change the way we all live, guaranteed to make a fortune for those investing in it, shares in the relevant companies can only go up, buy yours now on credit if necessary … Unfortunately, the inevitable collapse, with widespread bankruptcies and a financial crisis, came in 1847 an the height of the famine, and seriously restricted even the UK government’s ability to raise money.

Without the famine, the building of railroads in Ireland would probably have been faster and more extensive, stimulating the economy, making emigration easier and incidentally making relief in any later famine a great deal more effective.


Peter T 01.29.16 at 10:13 am


From reviews, Haynes seems to concentrate more on Trevelyan’s ideological dispositions than food statistics. But there was certainly food in England, and the means to ship it. This seems a balanced view:

and it does not look as if British policy made saving Irish lives the over-riding concern.


TM 01.29.16 at 10:28 am

“Do we really want to identify with a general philosophy which embraced eugenics for so many decades, when so many pro-liberty and also social democratic thinkers were in opposition? I think Mill himself would say no.”

He’s obviously trolling. What else would you expect?


TM 01.29.16 at 10:39 am

Pe progressives, and perhaps OT, but where did the Canadian Progressive Conservative party come from?


casmilus 01.29.16 at 10:40 am


You don’t even need to be a progressive to find that style of anti-progressive argument fatuous. Like this guy:


Niall McAuley 01.29.16 at 12:14 pm

Today Ireland has about 1/10th the population of England. In 1841, it had 1/2.


Ronan(rf) 01.29.16 at 1:13 pm

@6, well o grada says this in his latest book (on markets roles in alleviating/exacerbating subsistence crises)

“The more stereotypical view of market forces during the Great Irish Famine is reflected by the claim about “ship after ship sailing down the river Shannon with various types of food.” But this claim ignores the reverse and much larger flow, also through the market mechanism, of maize or cornmeal from 1846 on. Exports of maize were never significant, and those of wheat fell sharply in 1846; only exports of oats continued to be sizeable (see fig. 3.1). Prohibiting the export of Irish oats or wheat at the start of the famine might have been worth consideration, but a smarter policy would have been to transfer entitlements by taxing the producers and consumers of those cereals more heavily and using the proceeds for the poor. But feeding the potato-eating Irish poor a luxury food like wheat during a famine would have been rather akin to following the solution of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s grande princesse, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.”62 The fundamental problem with relying on markets in Ireland in 1846–47 was that grain merchants were too risk-averse and the means of transport too slow to deliver the urgently needed imports in time. Considering the evidence of this section as a whole, the outcome is broadly supportive of well-integrated markets both in normal and famine times. Co-movements between pairs of markets continued to be strong in crisis years, and in general the speed of adjustment is like that in normal times. The problem was that before the era of the steamship and the telegraph, adjustment to disequilibria was slow in both normal and crisis times”


ffrancis 01.29.16 at 1:15 pm

TM @40

It came from a sort of merger in 1942 between the Progressive Party and the Conservative Party, in which the Manitoba leader (and Premier) of the former became the federal leader of the latter and made the addition of “Progressive” a condition of taking the job. In the event, he didn’t bring many Progressive members with him – they subsequently veered either left to the CCF or the Liberals – but there was a sort of left fringe in the Progressive Conservative party, known as Red Tories, for years after.

I concluded that the problem with the Progressive Conservatives (at least by the time I became aware of them in the 1980s) was that they were progressive about the things they should have been conservative about and conservative about the things they should have been progressive about.


jake the antisoshul soshulist 01.29.16 at 2:40 pm

I suppose we should be glad they did not take Swift’s “Modest Proposal” seriously.
Something I am not sure we could count on from today Republican Party in the US.
Unless, of course, the suggestion was the consumption of fetuses.


MPAVictoria 01.29.16 at 3:07 pm

“I concluded that the problem with the Progressive Conservatives (at least by the time I became aware of them in the 1980s) was that they were progressive about the things they should have been conservative about and conservative about the things they should have been progressive about.”

I like this. :-)


Daragh 01.29.16 at 3:17 pm

Perhaps this is just a bit of Millian hero worship on my part but, and acknowledging the shortcomings of the argument overall, I think there’s plenty to admire in “the objection common to all these schemes is, that they consist of giving, and nothing more”. To my mind, while Mills is definitely underrating the necessity of addressing the current emergency, he is right to focus on the importance of taking measures to prevent avoidable tragedies from happening again, rather than simply mitigating their effects when they do. Anecdotally, from conversations I’ve had with those involved in development this is a continual problem – we plow resources into containing crises that have already happened, and pay too scant attention to capacity and resilience building. There’s a bit of a circle to be squared/paradox to be resolved here as resources and political attention are always finite. But it is an awful irony of the European refugee crisis that political forces most hostile to accepting refugees in Europe correlate fairly strongly with those seeking a greater Western role in ending the Syrian civil war, while those who have urged a more liberal and humanitarian refugee crisis are also deeply opposed to intervening in the conflict driving it. That’s not to pass judgement on either approach, BTW, or to claim that everyone’s motivations are pure as the driven snow (‘we need to focus on rebuilding Syria!’ is a great way to pretend you’re not just a cranky xenophobe), but there is often a tension between crisis management and crisis prevention, and I’m not sure those leaning towards the latter should be castigated for callousness.


TM 01.29.16 at 3:22 pm

“But feeding the potato-eating Irish poor a luxury food like wheat during a famine would have been rather akin to following the solution of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s grande princesse, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.””

Wheat a luxury food? Really?


Ronan(rf) 01.29.16 at 4:35 pm

Yeah, afaik wheat wasn’t common so was mainly consumed by the wealthy


Stephen 01.29.16 at 4:42 pm

Appointing myself as devil’s, or Mill’s advocate in this matter:

Suppose you are in charge of the UK government in 1847, with limited magical powers (which you will sometimes need). You wish to prevent any deaths in Ireland from the catastrophic failure of the potato crop, the main source of food. First, you need to get hold of enough food to send where it is needed. Ideally, that would be potatoes, which the Irish are used to, but that will need really serious heavy-duty magic since the potato crop has failed throughout western Europe. Failing that you can purchase grain; maybe even including wheat (which is indeed, by Irish standards, a luxury food) but you will get better value for money by buying oats or maize; you will also need to provide facilities for grinding and cooking this grain, which in some parts of Ireland are few and far between. Without access to a magic money tree, you will have to borrow money for this (but the simultaneous business and financial crisis makes that difficult) or raise it by higher taxation (which won’t help the crisis).

Suppose you can find the money, you then need to get the food in rather large quantities to where it is needed. Since there are no railways to speak of, and the places where it is most needed are remote mountain areas with few if any modern roads, you really are going to need magic here, possibly to allow you to invent the jet turbine and the helicopter. Given those, you can move adequate amounts of grain, and cooking facilities, into the mountains, so that the hungry potatoless peasants don’t have to leave their cabins and flock into overcrowded and insanitary accommodation in the towns where they will perish from infectious diseases (which, rather than straight hunger, were the main killers).

All right, you’ve done all that, nobody dies. But what do you do if the potato crop fails again next year, and the year after that? Do you keep on feeding the Irish peasants who are unable to feed themselves? Do you insist that they do something in return for food, and if so what? Where they live, the land is often too poor and the climate too wet for them to raise any significant crop but potatoes (go into the hills nowadays and you will be astonished how high up there are the traces of abandoned potato plots, which now can only offer grazing for the occasional sheep). If the peasants don’t want to leave their accustomed cabins, where they are at home, surrounded by their friends and family, and now adequately and regularly fed at UK government expense, can you make them? And if they stay there and their population continues to increase …

I’m not saying that the actual UK government measures were adequate, after Peel’s time they clearly weren’t. But Mill wasn’t warning against an imaginary problem.


bianca steele 01.29.16 at 5:02 pm

Once again (I think Ronan will know what I mean) I find myself thinking of Oliver Twist.


Brett Dunbar 01.29.16 at 5:08 pm

The blight didn’t cause famine in the Scottish highlands. A few decades earlier it would have done. Highlanders had been almost as dependent on potatoes as the Irish, there was a little more crop diversity but not much. The reason that Scotland wasn’t affected much was the Highland Clearances. The expulsion and forced emigration of so many meant that the available alternative food supply was adequate to prevent famine when the potato crop failed repeatedly.


Stephen 01.29.16 at 5:27 pm

Ronan@35: I’m not sure that anybody really knows what was happening to Irish population growth in the years before the Famine. We have census records for 1821, 1831, 1841, showing a 14.2% increase in the first decade and a 5.2% increase in the second: on the face of it, that looks like a serious decrease in the rate of growth. Trouble is, in 1831 but not in other years the census enumerators were paid according to the number of inhabitants they recorded. It does not take an unusually cynical view of human nature to lead one to suspect that the 1831 results may have been artificially on the high side.


Stephen 01.29.16 at 5:33 pm


Chris Bertram 01.29.16 at 5:35 pm

@Henry writes: ““Let them eat liberty and secure property rights” is not an efficacious program for immediate famine relief, whatever its abstract and/or long term merits.”

I’m suddenly reminded of Peter Griffiths’s The Economist’s Tale: A Consultant Encounters Hunger and the World Bank, which is exactly about being on the ground faced with this very concrete problem and getting memos from people in offices far away about how the market and/or private enterprise would solve the problem. Griffiths’s tale is set in Sierra Leone, rather than 19th century Ireland. I wonder if Tyler Cowen has read it? (h/t to dsquared on whose recommendation I read it years ago).


Roger Gathman 01.29.16 at 7:25 pm

7. Re Wilson. Wilson was definitely a latecomer to the progressive cause – a sort of neo-liberal progressive, if you’ll pardon the anachronism.
The first flowering of the progressive movement was definitely in the Republican party, with the standard bearer being Theodore Roosevelt – the man who famously had tea with Booker T. Washington. Not that T.R. was a 1960s progressive, but he definitely was in touch with the Lincolnesque or Grantesque strain in the Republican party.
All the reforms that Wilson put in place, from anti-trust to the Fed, were suggested, in more radical form, by the progressives who opposed Taft.
The tariff controversy was at the intersection of different progressive tendencies. McKinley, the anti-progressive par excellence, was moving towards a reduction of tariffs. The progressives, in as much as they were driven by the intellectual reformers, were generally for tariff “reform” – the populists were generally for protectionism. But these notions cover a shifting landscape, in which tariffs were tied to monopolies and to subservience to foreign threats, i.e. nationalism.
Myself, I think of Wilson as the president who let the steam out of the progressive/populist coalition, which had brought about the income tax and various regulations on corporations. They didn’t succeed in certain matters. For instance, the big push to make the Commerce department the regulator of last resort – to abolish the corporate ability to headquarter in states while pursuing interstate commerce, obeying the state’s laws, in favor of incorporation at the national level – failed. The attempt to regulate “watered” stock, a favorite Roosevelt program, also failed. Wilson pushed back on civil rights, famously, but he also moderated the reforms the more radical progressives were pushing.


Roger Gathman 01.29.16 at 7:35 pm

49. No. Here’s Cormac O’Grada: “Throughout the entire period of the Famine, Ireland was exporting enormous quantities of food to England. In Ireland Before and After the Famine, Cormac O’Grada points out, “Although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. But that was a “money crop” and not a “food crop” and could not be interfered with.” Up to 75 percent of Irish soil was devoted to wheat, oats, barley and other crops that were grown for export and shipped abroad while the people starved.”
The English ate bread. The Irish starved. End of story.


Bruce Wilder 01.29.16 at 7:35 pm

The dynamics of the French Revolution turned in important ways on the conflict between the immediate need of large numbers of poor people to eat amidst a series of poor harvests due to climactic conditions and the insistence of enlightened, liberal opinion, on free trade in grain and the abolition of the state’s detailed management of grain distribution.


Bruce Wilder 01.29.16 at 7:47 pm

The deep causes of the Irish Famine have been caricatured, and the caricature exaggerates some features of the situation, as caricature do; reactionary apologists for the callousness of the British response have used that exaggeration as a point of leverage for denying the resemblance of the caricature to reality.

I am not sure what the point of laboring thru the documentation to meticulously establish say that only about 850,000 can be proved by documentary evidence to have starved to death in Ireland, but some British historians have done it.

Similarly, some tedious research has established that the distribution of landholdings by size conform to a power law, as such things ordinarily do, and that many aristocratic families lived as least part of the year in Ireland, so that the pattern of landholding was not, as the caricature has it, of great absentee landlords with vast acreage.


Bruce Wilder 01.29.16 at 8:03 pm

The question of whether Ireland was “overpopulated” is clearly a judgement call. I think Ireland was clearly overpopulated, given the extremely limited access of the bulk of the population to arable land for subsistence.

The gaelic-speaking Irish were the aborigines of a conquered British province, pushed onto the margins and dangled there in abject poverty. Reformers and travellers had brought public notice to the extreme poverty of the native Irish in the decade immediately prior to the famine, though obviously conditions in Ireland, and English contempt for their conquered dependents, were of long-standing, Swift having published his Modest Proposal in 1729.

Mill’s remarks have to be read against the background of an Ireland in which the native Irish had little access to the principle means of production and no legal political capacity for self-government and, therefore, none for collective self-help in 1845. It might be archly observed that the Irish diaspora produced many notable politicians in the U.S. and the dominions.

Exports of Irish grain continued thru the famine for the rather obvious reason that this is what fed the British working classes. 1848 was the year of revolutions for a reason. Liberal opinion and Peel united in repealing the Corn Laws, tariffs on grain that secured the high cash returns on landed wealth in Britain and Ireland. The combination of free trade, technological advance in the efficiency of ocean shipping and the opening of the vast granaries of North America would drive rents down in later years, and Irish politics turned for decades on the long struggle to buy back the land from the English and restore self-government to the island.


Benny Lava 01.29.16 at 8:36 pm


The sensible policy would be to do what the Irish requested, which is pay the peasants to improve the land and switch to growing maize. This was proposed so that A) they would have money to eat and B) they would have money to purchase Maize corn and retill the fields for maize. Instead what relief programs there were built roads and thus the Irish starved year after year.

Where would the food come from? Why Ireland of course. The Irish requested that exports of food cease and that production of whiskey (which was mostly sold as export) be halted so that grains could be used for food.

It didn’t require magic.


TallDave 01.29.16 at 8:47 pm

Today we tend to think of food as something that only fails to reach mouths under Communism or warlordism, but starvation in the 1800s wasn’t uncommon. I would be curious how many Brits starved in the same period, and how many more would have starved had they fed the Irish.


Ronan(rf) 01.29.16 at 9:44 pm

Roger, I don’t know what you mean by “no”. I’m quoting what o grada said in his most recent book, that isn’t negated by the fact that he might have said something else 30 years ago. Kinnealy (also from that link) has a different perspective and puts more emphasise on the ability of exports to fill the gap (afaicr) . Although I don’t have the knowledge to adjudicate between them, my understanding is her claims on this aspect of it are widely contested . I don’t have o gradas other books, just this summation by James Donnelly :

“Could government action have closed this gap? The shortfall was admittedly much greater in 1846 and 1847 than it was later. Ó Gráda has estimated that the retention of all the grain exported in 1846 and 1847 ‘would still have filled only about one-seventh of the gap left by [the loss of] the potatoes in Ireland in these two crucial years’. But he also acknowledges that ‘a temporary embargo on grain exports coupled with restrictions or prohibitions on brewing and distilling – a time-honoured stratagem – or else a more vigorous public commitment to buying up and redistributing Irish and foreign grain in late 1846 and early 1847, might have alleviated starvation in these critical months’. Ó Gráda seriously doubts that a simple export embargo would have been politically feasible for several years in succession in the face of the likely resistance from Irish middling and large farmers who, riding above the disaster, were after all the ultimate exporters of the great bulk of the grain that left the country during the famine years. But this view, while reasonable enough, assumes what was undeniably the source of the problem: the refusal of the British government to treat Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and its famine as an imperial responsibility.
After 1847 it would not even have required an embargo for the government to address the continuing crisis effectively, for that crisis was now not the outcome of an absolute shortage of food but a matter of mal-distribution, or (in the language of the distinguished economist Amartya Sen) of the weak ‘entitlements’ of the destitute to the greatly increased
availability of Indian corn and meal. Thus Ó Gráda is surely right to conclude that ‘the persistence of destitution and famine throughout much of the west of Ireland during 1849 and 1850, despite plentiful supplies of food, would seem to fit the entitlements approach well enough”

This is all a little beside the point. I’m not trying to absolve the British state of culpability and don’t really want to take up the thread with a source counter source back and forth. I doubt we disagree much on this in general , rather than this just on this specific question.


cassander 01.29.16 at 10:14 pm

There is no question that eugenics as advocated by the progressive movement, that is, the forcible sterilization of certain segments of the population and the planning of parenthood, would have been mitigated by more sympathy with Mill. You do not even dispute this point. You just claim that Mill was ok with allowing some irish to starve, and that somehow means that progressives aren’t guilty of enthusiastic embrace of eugenics. Not only is this a non-sequitur, but even if it weren’t, most people make a strong distinction between allowing bad things to happen and actively doing bad things. Mill was not running around ireland stealing potatoes. the progressives were actively rounding people up and sterilizing them.


>Whether or not you think a group has sufficiently severed their ties with the past will correspond exactly with whether or not you feel affiliated with that group.

There is some truth to this, but only some. There are no doddering old nazi professors or former nazi professors in the universities. Most students will not read any Mein Kampf. Saying you are a nazi or flying a swastika at work is a good way to get yourself fired. This is a good thing, but it is most definitely not true of the communist equivalents, and it should be, for the same reasons.


>Communism or warlordism, but starvation in the 1800s wasn’t uncommon.

was not uncommon, mass starvation definitely was, particularly on the scale of the irish famine, at least in europe.


Roger Gathman 01.29.16 at 10:39 pm

Ronan, the last sentence in your quotation from Diamond is pretty much the point I am getting at.
Although I don’t know if the literature has been here, the potato famine hit other places as well as Ireland – Belgium, France and the Netherlands, for instance. Those states responded. It would be interesting to see whether Millian liberalism, which was considerably diluted in each of those states, contributed to more effective relief efforts. Still, an estimated 300,000 dutch, belgian and prussian people died because of the famine. In France, regions affected were given food by the government without the worry that the peasants would just sit around thereafter, waitin’ for the handouts.


Ronan(rf) 01.29.16 at 10:47 pm

My understanding is that a lot of the more recent research (over past 3 or so decades ) is more critical of the British response , certainly more than the “revisionists” even if it hasn’t gone back to the nationalist perspective . I don’t know if there’s been any comparative study done on the different European responses at the time though
This is a nice article I thought, a bit long perhaps , but worth a read


The Temporary Name 01.29.16 at 10:48 pm

that is, the forcible sterilization of certain segments of the population and the planning of parenthood



LFC 01.29.16 at 11:40 pm

cassander @64

You just claim that Mill was ok with allowing some irish to starve, and that somehow means that progressives aren’t [should be “weren’t”] guilty of enthusiastic embrace of eugenics.

The OP says nothing of the kind. It points out that Mill had his own blind spots. That seems a reasonable reply, inasmuch as Cowen is all “oh if only progressives were more like Mill, they would be so much better” including stronger in defense of free speech. The last pt btw is dubious, since contemporary ‘progressives’ are at least as committed to free speech as conservatives. Cowen may have certain campus incidents in mind, but looking at free speech across the society, his point loses force. Some conservatives think money counts as speech, but if Cowen thinks Mill would have supported the Citizens United decision, I’m not sure that’s true. (Will yield to the Mill experts on that.)


casander 01.30.16 at 1:21 am

@The Temporary Name 01.29.16 at 10:48 pm


Not bad work, if you can get it. Sort of sucks if you’re the one who gets planned though. But I guess that’s usually how progressive projects are…


The Temporary Name 01.30.16 at 2:56 am

What an odd way of putting things, casander with a single S.


cassander 01.30.16 at 3:06 am

those are the same cassander.

And it’s an accurate way of putting things. Central planning invariably ends up stomping on the little guy, the powerless ones. If progressives would read their Hayek, they’d be much better at accomplishing their goals.


UserGoogol 01.30.16 at 9:39 am

cassander: Oh then your problem is that you’re misusing the phrase “planning of parenthood,” I think. Generally speaking, parenthood planning refers not to the centralized planning of how many children are to be produced, (which eugenicists certainly did, which was bad of them) but to the extremely decentralized process by which individual reproducers and their partners plan their own reproduction.


Hansjörg Walther 01.30.16 at 9:58 am

So here’s what the argument boils down to: also other people held despicable views, and that’s why the connection between progressivism and eugenics doesn’t matter.


P.M.Lawrence 01.30.16 at 10:51 am

Benny Lava, anyone who seriously proposed growing maize in Ireland didn’t know it doesn’t grow that far north; at any rate, the strains then available didn’t. It’s not a climate thing, it’s a length of days and nights thing.


Keith 01.30.16 at 11:42 am

This thread is odd. There is clearly a confusion about the words liberal and progressive. They are not being used consistently and neither is the concept of eugenics.

Modern liberalism or progressivism involves support for a welfare state and redistribution and so is related to but not the same as free market fundamentalism, the ideology of liberal factory owners in the Victorian age. Many features of left or liberal positions today clearly have nothing to do with any support for allowing famine victims to starve or involuntary sterilisation of people. Eugenics also does not require the state to enforce birth control, but that step is an extreme one, which some eugenicists did support. So both implying that ALL eugenic supporters support involuntary sterilisations and ALL Liberals or progressive people do or did is a stretch. Hyperbole.

J S Mill illustrates the problem of trying to be a Liberal while supporting British Imperialism and benefiting from it personally. It requires contortions to back a system of exploitation which employs racist stereotypes as propaganda while maintaing a self view of being morally enlightened.

It is an interesting or disquieting fact that all sorts of important historical figures believed in ideas now regarded as wicked or stupid, as everyone else did the same at the time.


Bruce Wilder 01.30.16 at 1:06 pm

The rear-view mirror is seldom a clear or unobstructed one.

Neither the Liberal nor the Conservative Party at mid-19th century was “left” or popularly democratic. These were two Parties led by some mix of landed gentry, hereditary aristocrats and wealthy capitalists. Both Parties were dominated by reactionaries and deeply vested interests. The popular left at the time was out of doors, with no more political power than can be conferred by the threats to riot or to die in conspicuous numbers.

In American politics in the first decades of the 20th Century, both Parties were overwhelmed by an enthusiasm for institution-building and reform. Much of this energy came from people who would ordinarily fall on the Right, and the reforms championed reflected their conservative outlook.

Unless you are going to exclude entirely the possibilty of conservative political initiative, you should accept that conservatives do act in the name of reform. The sensibilities that waxed strongly in favor of birth control and eugenics need not bear much relation to those that favored the 8 hour day. The swirling mix of ideas in politics is driven by a turning kaleidoscope. We are badly misled if we think the same pattern persists from generation to generation.


Lord 01.30.16 at 2:37 pm

A difference between those believing in preventing the next generation and others that aren’t so patient?


Bloix 01.30.16 at 3:10 pm

Present-day American liberals began calling themselves progressives because right-wingers had managed to stigmatize the word liberal. It was rebranding, pure and simple.
So the next step is to stigmatize the word progressive. How? Assert a continuity of philosophical outlook that doesn’t exist, and then use the sins of people who’ve been dead for a century or more as a bludgeon to attack the timid souls who gave up liberal in the first place.
I suppose that once we’ve been convinced to run away from the word progressive we will call ourselves bananas. Then Tyler Cowen will write articles about the evils of the United Fruit Company.


Ronan(rf) 01.30.16 at 4:00 pm

“from conversations I’ve had with those involved in development this is a continual problem – we plow resources into containing crises that have already happened, and pay too scant attention to capacity and resilience building”

I don’t know how far this comparison goes, unless these people were advising a non response to (for example) the Ethiopian Famine so as to change the perspectives and preferences of the people. I wouldnt imagine concentrating on ‘capacity and resilience building’ in the development sector is all the controversial.

More broadly though, to what extent was Mill right, and what are the alternative paths to ‘development’, or economic and social ‘modernisation’? From the link @66,
Breandán Mac Suibhne mentions that “modern Ireland was spat out of horror and squalor”, and this seems to be the case more often than not.
Further from that link, quoting A.M Sullivan:

“When sauve qui peut has resounded throughout a country for three years of alarm and disaster, human nature becomes contracted in its sympathies, and “every one for himself” becomes a maxim of life and conduct long after. The open-handed, open-hearted ways of the rural population have been visibly affected by the “Forty-seven”. Their ancient sports and pastimes everywhere disappeared, and in many parts of Ireland have never returned. The outdoor games, the hurling-match, and the village dance are seen no more.
With the seriousness of character, which the famine-period has imprinted on the Irish people, some notable changes for the better must be recognized. Providence, forethought, economy are studied and valued as never before. There is more method, strictness and punctuality in business transactions. There is a graver sense of responsibility on all hands. For the first time, the future seems to be earnestly thought of, and its possible vicissitudes kept in view. More steadiness of purpose, more firmness and determination of character, mark the Irish peasantry of the new era. God has willed that in the midst of such awful sufferings some share of blessing should fall on the sorely-shattered nation”

But what does this leave us with? On the one hand a theory of modernisation that ignores the dislocation, disorientation and trauma of the transition. Or at least waves it away as an inevitability. Or imagines that the dispossesed will quickly readjust and prosper in the new normal.
On the other an unwillingness to accept that perhaps there is an inevitability to it. That the ‘problem’ is as much in the minds and behaviours and relations of the people, as it is the institutions, and that a fix requires a change in those perspectivess that will take time and is not resolved by institutional tinkering.
What are the answers to such queries ?


Consumatopia 01.30.16 at 4:42 pm

Maybe I’m just showing off my ignorance of Mill, but would Millian liberalism actually stop eugenics? I grant that it might stop forced sterilization, but eugenics is much more than that. What about giving the “right” people financial incentive to breed? That wouldn’t take away any individual’s free choice. But it would be extremely racist.

And what about other kinds of medical coercion for the greater good that are more widely accepted, like (all but) forced vaccination, or mandatory quarantines in emergencies? If we oppose eugenics primarily because it coerced individuals, do we also have to oppose any other medical coercion?

I’m very open to be corrected on this score, but I’m not sure 19th century liberalism fully captured what was really wrong with eugenics.


Billikin 01.30.16 at 5:42 pm

geo: “That stuff in Mill’s article about the Irish national character is fascinating, Henry. I always assumed that southern Italian peasants were the laziest, most shiftless people in 19th-century Europe. Was it really the Irish?”

Henry: “Are we going to get into a ‘my peasant ancestors were more feckless than yours’-off?”

FWIW, I took geo’s remark as a joke.


The Raven 01.30.16 at 5:52 pm

My reaction to the whole thing, and especially Mill’s windy, useless blither was to think “If I were there, and I survived the famine, I would take up arms.” Oh, wait…

“Individualists” seem to talk about individual people as though they were some sort of subatomic particles, bound by simple behavioral rules and mechanically responsive to environmental stimuli. What kind of philosopher or politician forgets that people will remember and resent, or even hate?


Stephen 01.30.16 at 6:27 pm

Bruce Wilder@60: “Exports of Irish grain continued thru the famine for the rather obvious reason that this is what fed the British working classes.” If that were true than it should have been the British who were starving. From Bourke’s figures, Irish wheat exports in 1846 were equivalent to 84,399 tons: divide that between 15.9 million people in England and Wales as per the 1841 census, assuming the Scots ate only oats, and ignoring population increase by 1846, gives us a shade over half an ounce per person per day. I think you have to look for another reason: I would suggest, that Irishmen who were not starving wanted to maximise their income.


LFC 01.30.16 at 7:10 pm

I don’t know v much about the Irish famine so haven’t been participating in that part of the discussion, but re modernization theory, Western and particularly US modernization theorists of the postwar pd, esp 50s and 60s, were v. concerned about the supposed emotional strains of the transition from ‘tradition’ to ‘modernity’, seeing these strains as a factor that drove young rural men, esp., into the arms of leftist insurgencies. (I discussed this in my post some time ago on Latham’s The Right Kind of Revolution.) That quote from Sullivan, whoever he is, sounds to some extent like it cd have been written by a modernization theorist of the 50s talking about the Third World. (Not all of such theorists fall into this camp, of course, but some do.)

That stuff about providence, forethought, economy (presumably a synonym for, what?, thrift or something) cd come out of e.g. a reading of Weber; not altogether surprising as Weber via Parsons exercised some influence on ’50s modernization theorists. Not, to be fair, that they wd have recommended a famine as a way to produce this mindset; rather, on a Weberian view it comes w capitalism and ‘rationalization’ of everything. Not sure this has much bearing on contemp. discussions of development, though one wd also have to look at the critics of mainstream ‘development’ discourse.


TM 01.30.16 at 7:36 pm

Ronan 49: “wheat wasn’t common so was mainly consumed by the wealthy”
BW 60: “Exports of Irish grain continued thru the famine for the rather obvious reason that this is what fed the British working classes.”

Both of these can’t be true obviously. I agree that wheat was a more valuable crop than potatos or oats but if “only the wealthy” ate it, given there weren’t all that many wealthy people, one would think that wheat would have had to be a rather niche crop.

I would be interested if anybody has data on how Irish arable land was used in the period – what percentage for subsistence and what percentage for export, and also what degree of crop diversity there was. If it turns out that Irish agriculture was characterized by low diversity and a low subsistence share – comparable to many modern day third world economies unable to feed themselves but exporting large quantities of cash crops to pay for usurious debt service – that would strongly suggest that the famine was man-made and preventable. But I don’t know these statistics.


Stephen 01.30.16 at 7:53 pm

Benny Lava@61: I fear you are a little confused. I know of no evidence that “the Irish requested [to] pay the peasants to improve the land and switch to growing maize”. If they had, there would have been three very serious problems. One, that the land was not owned outright by the peasants: they were tenants, sub-tenants, sub-sub-tenants, or even sub-sub-sub tenants. Paying to improve the land would have ultimately enriched the landlords at Government expense; if you follow Trevelyan’s career, you will find that a major theme is the struggle between the Government in London and the more prosperous Irish, many of whom did what they could to ensure that famine relief came mostly to themselves or their friends and relations.

Two, much of the land could not usefully be improved, being incapable of growing any crop other than potatoes by reason of the local climate; that crop having been abandoned, all that is left is not very productive rough grazing, which cannot possibly support anything like the potato-dependent population. Where land could be converted from growing potatoes to other crops, the problem is that the yield per acre of the other crops is far smaller. If you have ever lifted potatoes, you will know that they are wonderfully abundant. Switch from potatoes to oats or peas, and again you can only support a small fraction of the previous population.

Three, if the Irish had switched to growing maize for their food they would have needed some really astonishing magic. Maize is, originally, a Mexican crop. Ireland is much further north than Mexico; if it were moved due west it would be in the southern parts of Hudson’s Bay. I’m not sure that the restriction on its growth is, as PM Lawrence suggests, a matter of daylight length: small amounts of maize are grown in the extreme south of England for food, and Cobbett in the early nineteenth century did that also. I think it’s more a matter of summer warmth, which Ireland lacks. I’ve seen maize being grown in Ireland but only for fodder, not as an edible crop.

Furthermore, when you write “The Irish requested that exports of food cease” I think what you mean is that John Mitchel demanded that exports of food cease. Not a man whose judgment I would easily trust: he was also in favour of destroying the railways, and of supporting the Confederates. I’d go with O’Connell.

As for your suggestion that “production of whiskey (which was mostly sold as export) be halted”: well, I would like some evidence that whiskey was mostly sold for export, I wonder if you realize what a prohibition of legal distilling would have done to the already-established poitin industry, and suspect that if it had happened the long list of Irish grievances against the British would now prominently feature the Deprivation of Essential Comforts Act.


Stephen 01.30.16 at 8:01 pm

TM@84: you’ll find the statistics you ask for in Austin Bourke’s book, as cited. To summarise: relatively low diversity, very heavy commitment to potatoes (hence the problem when they went), very high subsistence share and quite small exports (essentially all the potatoes grown in Ireland consumed in Ireland, most of the grain produced in Ireland consumed in Ireland), nothing at all like some modern third-world economies.

And you’re right, wheat was a niche crop, largely because it can’t be economically grown in Ireland outside a few favoured areas.


Ronan(rf) 01.30.16 at 8:02 pm

Tm. This might have the answer

I’m going by memory and haven’t ‘re-read this stuff recently, so I’m sure there’s nuance I’m missing.

Lfc, thanks. I’m going to look up that post (though I remember reading it at the time)


Cassander 01.30.16 at 9:28 pm


>Generally speaking, parenthood planning refers not to the centralized planning of how many children are to be produced, (which eugenicists certainly did, which was bad of them) but to the extremely decentralized process by which individual reproducers and their partners plan their own reproduction.

I think we are in violent agreement. I meant to refer only to the former. I am in favor of the latter, which is why I used the somewhat clunky phrase “planning of parenthood.”

@Bruce wilder

>In American politics in the first decades of the 20th Century, both Parties were overwhelmed by an enthusiasm for institution-building and reform. Much of this energy came from people who would ordinarily fall on the Right, and the reforms championed reflected their conservative outlook.

I would have to disagree strongly. I would say rather that in the early 20th centuries, American political parties were basically regional coalitions of interest groups. Both contained left and right wing elements. The progressive movement consequently found footing in both parties, flavored by their regional interests and culture. The northern/republican version was technocratic and sometimes authoritarian, the southern/democratic more populist, but both, particularly the southern variety, were mostly of the left. The early movement reaches its apotheosis with Woodrow Wilson, who frankly combines the worst of both worlds, mixing northern intellectual arrogance and puritan moralism with southern parochialism and racist populism, and solidifies the movement as one of the left. There is a brief conservative counter-reaction in the 20s, but it doesn’t last. In 28, both parties nominate left progressives. For the next 60 years, the most important political battles are not between parties, but between the progressive and conservative wings within each party. FDR vs nance garner, Taft vs Ike, Rockefeller republicans vs Reagan.


Ronan(rf) 01.30.16 at 10:00 pm

Roger, I found a Europe wide comparative analysis when looking for something else


Henry 01.30.16 at 10:14 pm

geo: “That stuff in Mill’s article about the Irish national character is fascinating, Henry. I always assumed that southern Italian peasants were the laziest, most shiftless people in 19th-century Europe. Was it really the Irish?”

Henry: “Are we going to get into a ‘my peasant ancestors were more feckless than yours’-off?”

FWIW, I took geo’s remark as a joke

As did I (and I hope and imagine George took my comments as continuing on in the same vein; he’s a friend)


Nathanael 01.31.16 at 3:36 am

Please notice that *everyone* involved in discussing the famine attacks the landlords as arrogant jackasses who made everything worse.

And yet nobody was actually politically willing to dispossess the landlords.

Little wonder, then, that the Irish decided they had to overthrow the landlords by force of arms.


kidneystones 01.31.16 at 3:58 am

When Henry ‘has to/chooses to’ respond to what is clearly (to any fair-minded non-speech Nazi) a warm and witty exchange on his own comment thread he provides a telling data point revealing just how powerful, intrusive and pervasive the speech police have become.

I’m so old I can remember not needing to defend or explain humor among friends. Many, many, many are deeply unhappy to find themselves censored within their own communities. Unlike Henry, these long-unhappy collection of individuals have elected to dispense with the explaining sensible and friendly commentary to the puerile.


dr ngo 01.31.16 at 6:40 am

” just how powerful, intrusive and pervasive the speech police have become.” ??

I thought perhaps I had missed something, so I went back over the thread. The jackboots that kidneystones hears seem to come from someone politely indicating that he has missed a joke, which – given that most of us don’t know each other in the flesh, and that on the internet we can’t see each others’ faces or hear their tone of voice – is hardly unusual.

I’m probably as old as kidneystones (just turned 72). I also can remember not needing to defend or explain humor among friends. But (1) these “friends” were actually known to each other, and (2) generally communicated orally, or in private letters. (And FWIW I also remember some jokes I heard – and probably some I told – that would not have been easily defensible among a wider audience. When I get too nostalgic for The Way Things Were, I try to remember that things were not necessarily better when racism and sexism were considered amusing, even whimsical.)

“Sensible and friendly commentary” is always welcome, though I do not always manage to dispense it. It makes more sense, however, to distribute it to the “puerile” than to crotchety old men who can’t get over the fact that public comments may be subjected to public criticism – imagine that!


P.M.Lawrence 01.31.16 at 8:31 am

Stephen at no. 86, I should perhaps have written “[maize] doesn’t grow PROPERLY that far north”. For backing, see – this contains:-

‘… Because of its tropical origins maize is basically a short-day/long-night plant which ,ay have gone through thousands of generations of selection to develop strains that would mature in the short summer nights of the northern United States and southern Canada. Seed from a tropically adapted strain of maize transported directly to the United States may not flower until late September, much too late to mature within the limits of the growing season (Jenkins 1941:315). This behavior is taken advantage of when southern varieties of maize are purposely grown in the north to produce green silage for cattle feed, because until flowering begins plant growth is concentrated in the leaves and stems. A reverse effect may be achieved when maize adapted to northern latitudes is grown farther to the south. One writer quantifies these effects for modern blends by stating, “In general it may be said that as we go north or south of a given latitude a variety becomes one day later or earlier for each 10 miles of travel, the altitude remaining the same” (Hunt 1904; Jenkins 1941).’

As for “I’ve seen maize being grown in Ireland but only for fodder, not as an edible crop”, yes, maize that is planted too far north (or south) will in fact grow as silage (see the material quoted above), but the lengths of the nights (that’s what’s the driver, scientists know now) won’t trigger the flowering/fruiting early enough to yield a useful cereal crop – unless and until the right strains come along, which I think has only recently, as such things go, made possible “small amounts of maize are grown in the extreme south of England for food”. Clearly there is an interaction with climate, in that maize could flower in Ireland just before the autumnal equinox, but only strains flowering a lot earlier could catch enough good enough weather – and most of the plant selection happened in North America, where cold weather limits cut in further south than that and so there wasn’t enough selection for early enough flowering for Irish cultivation.

Unlike the above, I cannot vouch for something else I heard somewhere: the maize that was sent to Ireland as famine relief from the U.S.A. couldn’t be used, as there is some detail of grinding it that the Irish did not know and nobody thought to tell them (double grinding? some reader may know more and better than I do).


Ronan(rf) 01.31.16 at 9:55 am

Pm Lawrence , on the last bit yeah, afaik.

“Due to unfavourable weather conditions, the first shipment of Indian corn did not arrive in Ireland until the early part of February 1846. In the first instance, all the imported corn was to be unloaded and stored in Cork. This was because the corn had not been ground and was inedible. The government recognised that this task was unlikely to be carried out locally, as it involved a long and complicated process if it was to be done correctly. It was therefore to be carried out in Cork where it could be supervised by Commissary-General Hewetson, an officer of the Relief Commission.

The following description of the process, written by Routh, shows what a complicated and delicate process the grinding of Indian corn was:
‘First to keep the corn eight hours on the kilns, and turn it twice, so as to be thoroughly dried without parching. It was then allowed to cool for forty-eight hours. In grinding it, the stones were kept wider apart than for wheat, and not driven too rapidly lest it should heat the meal. . . . The meal was then ordered to remain seventy hours to cool before it was dressed, it was again left to cool for a day or two before it was sacked.’

Before the Indian meal was actually consumed, it had to be ‘very much’ cooked again, otherwise its consumption could result in severe bowel complaints.57 Sir Randolph Routh who, during sixteen years service in America, had become acquainted with these processes, regarded himself as an authority on Indian corn. He produced a pamphlet containing simple recipes for its use, which was sold throughout the country. Not surprisingly, the demand for this small book was great in a country where Indian corn was hardly known. .”


Ronan(rf) 01.31.16 at 9:58 am

Well not “yeah”, half right.


EWI 01.31.16 at 10:50 am

Stephen @ 36

Bourke if I remember accurately quotes Daniel O’Connell saying that closing the Irish ports would do more harm than good: I would hesitate to go against O’Connell.

I, on the other hand, would – O’Connell, like Burke, was ostensibly of Irish Catholic background but followed the path to influence and success. Reference is made in the OP to ’98’ – the United Irishmen rebellion, the first attempt at establishing an Irish Republic, O’Connell’s reaction to this chance at liberating his country was to join a British militia, so as not to appear disloyal among his new Anglo-Irish friends in Dublin. Dissatisfaction with his unwillingness to challenge the root cause of the system in Ireland led to the Young Irelanders breaking away, eventually leading to the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the 1916 Rising.


Stephen 01.31.16 at 11:52 am

Bruce Wilder @76: basically I agree with you, but when you say Britain up to mid-C19 had ” two Parties led by some mix of landed gentry, hereditary aristocrats and wealthy capitalists” I wonder how you would account for the successful careers of, say, Canning and Disraeli.


Stephen 01.31.16 at 12:09 pm

EWI: in the context of 1798, with a war against the violently anti-Catholic French Republic that intended to “liberate” Ireland, I can see why an Irish Catholic might think the uprising was not a good idea. In the context of the Presbyterian rebellion in the North, likewise: look up the Monaghan Militia and their role in suppressing the Ulster rebels on King George’s behalf. (There’s a story, I can’t guarantee its accuracy, of an officer from England reaching the Crown forces in Antrim, before the decisive battle, and having it explained to him that the rebels had no consistent uniforms, and neither did the rapidly-improvised Crown militias. “But then how do we tell our own forces from the rebels?” “Oh, that’s easy. Our side are the ones speaking Irish.”

As for O’Connell’s “unwillingness to challenge the root cause of the system in Ireland” you do know about his leadership in the cause of Catholic emancipation, don’t you? Do you understand why he was called the Liberator?


Peter T 01.31.16 at 12:13 pm


easy. The gentry and aristocracy often outsourced the actual politicking to placemen, proteges and clients (for one thing, the nobility could not sit in the Commons). If really successful, these could work themselves up to patron status, although most never made it so far. Hence Canning, Fox, Burke and many others – including Disraeli.


EWI 01.31.16 at 12:18 pm

Stephen @ 100

In the actual, real-world Ireland, where post-1798 religious division was deliberately used as a tool to divide and control Ireland – the effects of which we are still cursed with – the establishment of a state based on non-sectarian lines (after all, the very basis of the United Irishmen) would have led to a much better outcome, wouldn’t you agree? This was the Republican case, and still is. O’Connell and his true heir, Redmond, were on the other hand concerned only with the interests of a narrow Catholic factionalism – as decreed by the bishops, of course, and only within the Anglophone and Anglocentric ‘Empire’. It’s not for nothing that Redmond’s power base, the A.O.H., were commonly described at the time as the ‘Green Orangemen’, and we’re lucky to have escaped the fate of being a mirror image of Northern Ireland.


Stephen 01.31.16 at 12:24 pm

PL Lawrence@95: thanks, that’s very informative. One thing I’m still puzzled by, though: William Cobbett in the 1820s was convinced that maize could be usefully grown for food in southern England, much as it is now, and wrote a book about it
which makes it plain that he expected a harvest of edible grain, even with the short English summer nights. Was he mistaken? Or were “modern” maize strains available in the 1820s?


P.M.Lawrence 01.31.16 at 12:48 pm

Stephen, I’m not sure of the precise northern limit of maize. I suspect that some strains could be grown in the West Country even in Cobbett’s day, and that there had been enough trial plots for him to have known about without his realising that the experiment(s) lacked wider applicability.

Trivia: it is because maize just isn’t an English, let alone Scottish or Welsh, crop in general that the word “corn” hasn’t lost its British meaning of “generic cereal requiring grinding (corning)”; many U.S. readers misinterpret terms like “Repeal of the Corn Laws” because they don’t know the different meaning. Also, hobbits running through a maize field in the Shire was one of two things I found jarring in the “Lord of the Rings” film scenes that were supposed to be ultimately based on a sort of idealised rural England (the other was the far too open plan/open field lack of hedgerows and/or dry stone walls in the Shire, though I am intellectually aware that much of that enclosure is relatively recent in England).


Bruce B. 01.31.16 at 4:13 pm

I will have more time for Cowen’s complaints about some historical associations of modern leftism sometime after he starts going on at length about how the experience of Flint, MI, shows the real-world failure of the long-held conservative/libertarian dream of urban management by democracy-shielded managers oriented toward fiscal soundness. When we’ve had a few years of him telling colleagues why this kind of result (replicated so many times) shows that modern minarchists must reject anti-democratic policies of short-term bottom line optimization, then I will begin to be ready to listen to him wank off about groups he already hates.


Bloix 01.31.16 at 4:35 pm

The extraordinary thing about potatoes is that they didn’t enmesh the Irish who relied on them into a system of commercial and social relationships with others.
Wheat is harvested once a year. The farmer needs either save or to borrow money to live on for most of the year. That means lenders. Wheat requires plows and plow animals, which means blacksmiths and farriers. The community needs to have social customs that allow for labor to be pooled for the harvest. The wheat, once harvested, needs to be stored. And wheat needs to be ground into flour – that means a miller.

Potatoes were planted in “lazy beds” by cutting up old potatoes with knife and sticking eyes an inch into the ground. They grew with nothing more than an occasional weeding. They could be left in the ground and dug up when needed – no storage required, and no milling. The only tool needed was a spade, or failing that a sharp stick. (I have seen farmers working potato fields in the Andes with sticks.)

When a wheat crop failed, all sorts of people felt the pain. When a potato crop failed, no one other than the farm family suffered. The Irish tenant farmers during the famine were utterly isolated. No one else relied on them for a livelihood, and therefore no one had a financial incentive to petition the government to save them.

You might think that the landlords would have suffered because of the loss of their tenants. But the rise of commercial agriculture serving the English market meant that landlords could do better by turning their land over to sheep and cattle. The deaths of their potato-farming tenants saved them the bother of evictions.


Ronan(rf) 01.31.16 at 6:24 pm

I’m not sure if it didn’t enmesh them into a system of economic and social relationships, so much as those relationships were dissolving under the weight of agricultural modernisation and growing social inequalities (most importantly amongst Catholics) . The system of commercial relationships and communal obligations was fairly complex, but largely dependant on the ability of potatoes to provide sustenance to the poor, and the growing Catholic middle classes to maintain social obligations to the poorer classes. All of which was coming apart in the preceding decades, and unravelled during the famine (although reading back, I think this isn’t necessarily contradictory to your point)


EWI 01.31.16 at 7:25 pm

Of course, there were a spate of subsequent rebellions in Ireland in 1848, 1867, arguably the Land War (which was a direct challenge to the landlord system) and then 1916. I know that ‘whoopsie’ and ‘complexity’ are the reliable go-tos for excusing horrific imperial policies (and not just in Ireland), but clearly the natives felt a different way and remembered for a long time.


Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 01.31.16 at 7:48 pm

106. My understanding is that while the tenants were growing potatoes to feed themselves, they also grew some cash crops and/or raised livestock to make enough to pay their rents. So they mostly lived off potatoes and buttermilk (selling most of the butter), instead of borrowing against a whole harvest. There still would have been some web of obligations. The poorest worked as labourers for others to earn their rent. In either case the potatoes could be tended in the time they had to spare from their main activities.
The Penal laws had mandated repeated subdivision of holdings in each generation (among Catholics & Dissenters) and even after the repeal of this part of the laws, other provisions tended to continue the same pattern. (Right up to 1965, lands which had once been tenant holdings had different inheritance rules.) Potatoes were the only crop which enabled all these smaller and smaller patches to feed the holders.


Rakesh Bhandari 01.31.16 at 7:50 pm

@106 quite interesting to trace social dynamics back to the physical or natural aspects of the production process.

What do people make of explanations that trace more analytical-individualistic thought patterns to wheat production as opposed to the dialectical forms of thought that come from rice-paddy agriculture (see for example Richard Nisbett Geography of Thought)? Or explain greater relative patriarchy as a result of a historic dependence on plough agriculture instead of hoe-based agriculture?

Such explanations seem technological and Marxist in that they build from the forces of production in interplay with the natural environment and then derive relations of production from that. There is a primacy to the forces of production that is different from a Marxism that would put primacy on the relations of production as for example Robert Brenner does in explaining the explosive development of the productive forces in England as the result of a historically contingent result of the resolution of class struggle in the English country-side.


Stephen 01.31.16 at 9:17 pm

EWI@102: if you really believe that Ireland’s internal troubles are due to “post-1798 religious division” I think you should look a little at pre-1798 history. If you believe that a non-sectarian state was “the very basis of the United Irishmen” you should have a look at what actually happened in the way of killing of Protestants by United Irishmen, and the Catholic Defenders with whom they were allied, in the south-east: and the killing of Protestant rebels by Catholics in the north-east. (Do I have to say that I do not approve of either?)

As for whether a state resulting from a successful 1798 rebellion, with essential support from an intensely anti-Catholic (look up La Vendee) and anti-British (by definition) French invasion could have led to anything desirable, well, our opinions may differ.


roger 01.31.16 at 9:24 pm

do we really need more then MAP Victoria @ post #2 ?


Stephen 01.31.16 at 9:27 pm

Eimear Ní Mhéalóid@109: when you write that “The Penal laws had mandated repeated subdivision of holdings in each generation”. are you sure? My impression – I may be wrong – was that the penal laws in Ireland, of course indefensible by modern liberal standards, had been modelled on the contemporary French penal laws against protestants; and that subdivision of tenancies in each generation, as opposed to the English system of primogeniture, was a matter of multicultural sensitivity, continuing traditional Irish customs among the Irish.

I do think that if the government, in the late 17th or the 18th century, had insisted in English-style primogeniture throughout Ireland this would have been regarded as intolerable oppression, and would have resulted in massive and unwilling emigration of millions of Irish who would otherwise have remained happily at home. I agree it might well have prevented the 1840s famine, but …


EWI 01.31.16 at 10:06 pm

Stephen @ 111

if you really believe that Ireland’s internal troubles are due to “post-1798 religious division” I think you should look a little at pre-1798 history.

And I think that you should (a) re-read what I actually wrote, and (b) look up the actual history of the United Irishmen. For the non-initiated: inspired by the Republican zeal which had liberated both the United States and France, an alliance of radical thinkers had put together an alliance of Established Church (Anglicans), Catholics and Dissenters with the intention of rebellion. Informers allowed Dublin Castle to strike first, arresting most of the radical leadership (mostly Protestants) and initiating a reign of terror in Ulster among the Dissenters. By the time Catholic parts of the country rose, in large part due to the over-late arrival of French aid, the other two legs of the stool had already been beaten (with the promotion of the Orange Order and the Act of Union as follow-up measures).

Now, I ask again: do you think that the British policy of playing off Catholics against Protestants in order to rule Ireland (a similar policy to that employed in India and elsewhere) was better than one which set aside those differences under a republican form of government?

(And the ‘Defenders’ and their like eventually morphed into the A.O.H., quite a different and sectarian tradition from republicanism, to which they were opposed – as mentioned above, they were Redmond’s support base).

Stephen @ 112

when you write that “The Penal laws had mandated repeated subdivision of holdings in each generation”. are you sure?

This is rather well-known, as one of the main provisions of the Penal Laws, and I’m surprised at your ignorance of it. And I think it’s safe ground in asserting that it certainly wasn’t put in place with the interests of Catholics and Dissenters (non-Anglicans) at heart, at all.


Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 01.31.16 at 10:27 pm

A notorious feature was that the eldest son could make himself the sole heir by converting to Protestantism.
(In fact, it seems I was wrong in thinking the land provisions applied to Dissenters.
I think by about 1780 partial repeal allowed land to be willed to a single heir. This was more relevant to the better off.


ragweed 01.31.16 at 10:33 pm

In all this interesting discussion of crops, webs of social obligations, and market development, I wonder what role Women’s productive activity played? In England, there is recognition among social historians that a lot of history and economics of early British industrialism missed the role of women’s income in peasant farm income – in some parts of England, spinning and knitting were half of a typical farming family income. This of course collapsed with the textile industry and was a significant but under-recognized contributor to rural poverty in the early 19th century. I have heard anecdotal tales, in literature, of similar experiences in Ireland (widows whose only income was knitting suddenly displaced by factory production). Is there any literature on this?


Ronan(rf) 01.31.16 at 11:29 pm

Afaicr, part of the increasing sub division of land in the late 18th early 19th century can also be explained by a combination of population growth and the Catholic relief act. The act encouraged landlords to grant more leases to increase their political power, which then created an expanded system of Catholic middleman who subletted their land to poorer tenants. That was then expanded by sub division within the family. (As I said afaicr. And that isn’t meant to imply the penal laws didn’t also play a part. It just helps explain its increase at that specific time )


Ronan(rf) 01.31.16 at 11:40 pm

Ragweed, I can’t really answer that with any sophistication. I’ve been reading kerby Miller’s “ireland and irish america” , which looks primarily at emigration but also adopts a broader scope so I’ll quote a relevant part (he references people like Mary Daly, particularly Joanna Burke, Rita Rhodes, Mary Cullen and David Fitzpatrick on the topic. Perhaps also timothy guinnanes “the vanishing irish” could be worth looking at)

“Several major themes and debates have emerged from this scholarship. First, with regard to the ‘push factors’ or Irish causes of female emigration, most scholars conclude that the reason comparatively few women left Ireland between 1815 and 1844 was that their status in pre-Famine rural society was relatively favourable. For example, although women’s waged labour was less varied, extensive, and remunerative after the Napoleonic Wars than during the relatively prosperous half-century prior to 1815, their economic contributions to their families’ incomes and welfare were still very significant and highly valued. Thus, despite the rapid mechanization and urbanization of flax spinning, which sharply curtailed rural women’s waged work in cottage industry, spinning for local consumption continued to earn crucial shillings in many poor households.
More important, female labour in waged fieldwork and in dairying, pig- and poultry-raising was vitally necessary on the multitude of small, semi-subsistence farms where tenants engaged largely in the production of potatoes and other tillage crops. Among farm labourers, who comprised the largest classes in pre-Famine society, women’s economic contributions were even more substantial. Mary Cullen estimates that the earnings
of labourers’ wives from spinning, farm work and, in hard times, begging accounted for at least 15 per cent of their families’ incomes, rising to over 35 per cent when their husbands lacked steady employment — as was usually the case.2
Also, prior to the Famine small farmers and cottier tenants commonly practised partible inheritance, which, coupled with the high value placed on wives’ wage-earning abilities, ensured ample opportunities for marriage — and at relatively early ages — for rural women among all but a small minority of affluent tenants, strong farmers and graziers, who practised impartible inheritance and restricted marriage through the dowry system. For instance, Kevin O’Neill’s analysis of the 1841 census data from Killashandra parish, County Cavan, an area dominated by smallholdings, indicates that on average farmers’ wives had married at the age of 21.7, labourers’ wives at 22.3.3 Furthermore, although the average marriage age was rising during the depressed pre-Famine decades (David Fitzpatrick estimates that the average marriage age of Irishwomen born in 1821 was 26.2), celibacy rates were low, relative to post-Famine patterns.
In 1841 only 12.5 per cent of Irishwomen aged 45–54 had never married.4 The result, most historians conclude, was that rural women were generally able, encouraged, and content to remain in early nineteenth-century Ireland, and so, prior to the Great Famine, Irish emigration to North America was predominantly (about two-thirds) male.5
However, nearly all scholars also argue that after mid-century, in the post-Famine period, 1850s–1920s, a great increase in female emigration occurred because the socio-economic status of rural Irishwomen deteriorated dramatically. High rates of mortality and emigration during and immediately after the Famine decimated the poorest classes which had practised partible inheritance and to whose economic survival women had contributed most heavily.
Likewise, after mid-century women’s wage-earning opportunities contracted sharply because of the continued deindustrialization of the Irish countryside and because economic pressures and demographic change caused major shifts from subsistence to commercial agriculture and from tillage to pasture farming, both trends coupled with a fall in the production and consumption of potatoes, which were increasingly replaced by bread and other store-bought goods in the farmers’ diets. Accompanying these economic changes was a shift among small-farm families from partible to impartible inheritance, which, linked to their declining wage-earning capacities, meant that women (and men) were not only obliged to marry less frequently and at later ages than in the pre-Famine past, but that their choices of marriage partners were determined and restricted by the dowry system, enforced by their fathers and reinforced by codes of female subordination and sexual repression purveyed by a patriarchal Catholic Church.
Thus, according to Fitzpatrick, ‘after the famine the daughters and wives of farmers steadily retreated from the process of production’; their socio-economic status declined commensurately, to the point where the dowry ‘may be treated as a fine for the transfer of a redundant dependent female from one family to another’.6 As a result, between 1845 and 1914 Ireland’s annual marriage rate fell from 7 to 4 per 1,000; by 1926 the average marital age had risen to 29 for women (to 35 for men), and nearly a fourth of Irishwomen aged 45–54 had never married.7
In addition, by eradicating customary, magical, and often female-centred expressions of popular religion, the increasing institutionalization of post-Famine Catholicism, within the confines of a male-dominated Church, likely eroded rural women’s traditional status in less tangible ways. The consequence of all these changes was massive post-Famine emigration by young, unmarried women, whose numbers equalled and often exceeded those of Irish emigrant males in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.8 “


Ronan(rf) 02.01.16 at 12:30 am

I should add that in the essay he disputes that the only interpretation is that women’s status in pre famine ireland was higher than in post famine ireland, and that increased emigration could equally plausibly be seen as a result of an increase in status (ie you they had more opportunities)


Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 02.01.16 at 10:22 am

Interesting stuff, Ronan. Also thanks for the link above to Brendán MacSuibhne’s article/review in the DRB which was really good.


SqueakyRat 02.01.16 at 12:56 pm

Many of the problems with relief mentioned here could have been avoided by simply giving the Irish poor money. Food was available and would have appeared.


Bloix 02.01.16 at 3:49 pm

@109 – one of the most astonishing facts about Ireland in the 19th c is the extraordinary rate of growth of population in the decades before the Famine. In 1780, the population was about 2 1/4 million. On the eve of the Famine, the population was over 8 million, the largest rate of increase in Europe. This explosive growth was not supported by industrial development or by improved agricultural methods. Instead, the millions of new mouths were fed by potatoes grown in tiny plots on what had been waste, and the hundreds of thousands of new families lived on marginal land in semi-illegal settlements.

When you write that “while the tenants were growing potatoes to feed themselves, they also grew some cash crops and/or raised livestock to make enough to pay their rents,” you’re correct as of 1780. But by 1845 there were millions of people who had no land for cash crops or livestock. They paid derisory amounts in rent (typically in arrears)and stood almost entirely outside the economic life of the country. As they starved in their hovels, the merchants and artisans of the towns were not concerned by the loss of their custom, because there was none, and the landlords – who did not need their labor – were benefited by the reduction in population. And because the dying spoke a different language and had a different religion from the landlords and political rulers, and were politically disenfranchised, they shared almost no institutions with the ruling class – they were socially and politically as well as economically isolated. In practical terms, their deaths posed the unpleasant problem of what to do with their corpses, but not much more.


Rakesh Bhandari 02.01.16 at 4:22 pm

@122. Very interesting. Why the unusually high rate of population growth?


Eimear Ní Mhéalóíd 02.01.16 at 5:11 pm

IIRC the Napoleonic Wars had created a great demand for tillage and thus for labour, and the population boomed. This demand collapsed after 1815 or thereabouts, encouraging a switch to pasture. Meanwhile a large portion of the land had been held on longish leases by middlemen, who rented out as many plots as possible at the highest rents they could get. Many of these leases came to an end not long before the Famine and the owners frequently had the land “cleared” of the sub-tenants who now had no rights. The population growth was apparently starting to level off somewhat but still reflected the earlier boom. I think most of this growth had been in rural areas – also emigration was already fairly substantial by European standards but from more rather than less prosperous areas.
Prior to 1829 tenants had often held their lands via that peculiarly Irish tenure, the lease for lives renewable for ever, which created a freehold estate and thus gave the holder a vote (if the lands were “worth” forty shillings). Voting was not secret so a landlord might have a suitable supply of voters whose votes he could effectively direct to his chosen candidate. The Catholic Relief Bill of 1829 improved many things but it also increased the franchise qualification (a sting to O’Connell and his ilk, for whom the “forty shilling freeholders” had often voted in defiance of their landlords’ wishes.) It certainly used to be said that removal of this incentive to give such leases (for the landlord) encouraged even further the consolidation and clearances but I don’t know if recent historical research backs this up.


Bloix 02.01.16 at 5:43 pm

@123 – yeah, good question. The explanations I have read do not explain the sudden sharp uptick in growth that occurred at about 1780 and continued right up to 1845. Either the reasons are things that were present before 1780 (early marriage age, land tenure laws and customs), were no different from other countries (Catholic emphasis on large families), or didn’t continue to 1845 (increased incomes due to British demand for Irish products during the Napoleonic Wars).


Ronan(rf) 02.01.16 at 6:57 pm

Eimear @ 120. No problem. I agree the essay is really good. He’s written a few more for the magazine which, although perhaps not as good (though they are as long), are well worth checking out.


Bartholomew 02.01.16 at 8:20 pm

122: ‘This explosive growth was not supported by industrial development or by improved agricultural methods.’

Not entirely. In much of the country population growth was driven by industrial development, the very rapid growth of a linen industry, mostly in the northern half of the country. In 1800, iirc, the value of industrial exports (textiles) from Ireland was as large as that of agricultural exports, and Ireland was the largest linen producer in Europe. The most densely populated county in Ireland just before the Famine was Armagh in Ulster, the centre of rural linen production.

What happened was that linen spinning was mechanized in the 1820s and the rural domestic production just collapsed. Perhaps a million people in the north and west were left on subsistence plots that were feasible with a cash income from cloth, but not at all without it.


Rakesh Bhandari 02.02.16 at 1:56 am

I am not sure what has been said about JS Mill and eugenics. I thought that Oliver Wendell Holmes was profoundly influenced by JS Mill, yet he wrote the infamous opinion in defense of sterilization in Buck v. Bell. Couldn’t he have justified this violation of individual liberty on the basis of Mill’s harm principle, i.e. involuntary sterilization is meant to prevent alleged harm that “three generations of imbeciles” has done to others. I am not sure that even Mill at his philosophical best could serve as as a safeguard against involuntary sterilization and coerced abortions once the science had become racist and prejudices virulent and popular.


Rakesh Bhandari 02.02.16 at 2:10 am

Oh goodness, this piece seems to turn this whole discussion on its head!

Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 39 (2008) 222–231
John Stuart Mill, innate differences, and the regulation of reproduction
Diane B. Paul a
, Benjamin Day b
a Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, 26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA
b Mass-Care, 33 Harrison Avenue – 5th floor, Boston, MA 02111, USA

just reading the piece now; here is a bit:

“That Mill was a passionate advocate of restraints on reproduction
might seem surprising, and perhaps even more so the link between
his willingness to intervene and the ‘radical democratic
dimension of his thought’ (Baum, 2003, p. 405)—the view that all
humans have the capacity to achieve autonomy (in the sense of
an ability to think for themselves), that a democratically organized
economy, society, and political system depends on their achieving
this capacity, and that the family plays a crucial educative role in
this process. One reason for surprise is that, as Hamburger argues,
we have tended to view Mill only as an apostle of liberty and to
ignore or explain away the many instances where, in the service
of his program of moral regeneration, he favored less tolerance
and greater control of behavior.

… But John Stuart Mill, who attributed virtually all human mental and moral
differences to education and training, considered reproduction by
those who could not adequately support and educate offspring to
constitute a crime against both their children and the larger society

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