December 17, 2003

Chris Bertram Reads About the Potato Famine

Chris Bertram is reading Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom, and has come to the part about the 1840s Potato Famine in Ireland:

Crooked Timber: Famine in Ireland : I’ve just reached Amartya Sen’s chapter “Famines and Other Crises” in Development as Freedom . He has some discussion of the great famines that depopulated Ireland from 1845 onwards. The potato blight had destroyed the crop but the Irish peasantry lacked the resources to buy alternative foodstuffs which continued to be exported:

ship after ship — laden with wheat, oats, cattle, pigs, eggs and butter — sailed down the Shannon bound for well-fed England from famine-stricken Ireland. (p.172)

Sen argues that cultural alienation (or even hostility) meant that

very little help was provided by the government of the United Kingdom to alleviate to destitution and starvation of the Irish through the period of the famine. (p. 173)

Interesting, because Natalie Solent , who has been writing about famines recently links to an essay in the National Review Online by the awful John Derbyshire on the subject. Derbyshire asks why the

British government did not organize adequate relief, or prevent the export of foodstuffs from Ireland while Irish people were starving.

and answers

it was not within the nature, philosophy or resources of Anglo-Saxon governments to do such things in the 1840s.

Contrast Sen, who knows the facts:

… by the 1840s, when the Irish famine occurred, an extensive system of poverty relief was fairly well established in Britain, as far as Britain itself was concerned. England too had its share of the poor, and even the life of the employed English worker was far from prosperous …. But there was still some political commitment to prevent open starvation withing England. A similar commitment did not apply to the Empire — not even to Ireland. Even the Poor Laws gave the English destitute substantially more rights than the Irish destitute got from the more anemic Poor Laws that were instituted for Ireland.

So contra Derbyshire, who is probably just making it up as he goes along (but then gets quoted and circulated around the network of misinformation that is the blogosphere) it was “in the nature” of Anglo-Saxon governments, even in the 1840s to do “such things”. Just not for the Irish or the Indians.

Sen also provides us with this striking portrait of Edward Trevelyan

the head of the Treasury during the Irish famines, who saw not much wrong with British economic policy in Ireland (of which he was in charge), point[ing] to Irish habits as part of the explanation of the famines. Chief among the habitual failures was the tendency of the Irish poor to eat only potatoes, which made them dependent on one crop. Indeed, Trevelyan’s view of the causation of the Irish famines permitted him to link them with his analysis of Irish cooking: “There is scarcely a woman of the peasant class in the West of Ireland whose culinary art exceeds the boiling of a potato.” The remark is of interest not just because it is rather rare for an Englishman to find a suitable occasion for making international criticism of culinary art. Rather, the pointing of an accusing finger at the meagreness of the diet of the Irish poor well illustrates the tendency to blame the victim. The victims, in his view, had helped themselves to a disaster, despite the best efforts of the administration in London to prevent it. (p. 175)

Blaming the victim, bad choices, poor diet — I’ve heard those explanations before somewhere. And cultural alienation from those suffering from acute poverty? Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose

Two comments. First, this is an example of a market economy working as designed. A market economy is (under proper assumptions about information, decreasing returns to scale, competition, et cetera) a mechanism for maximizing a weighted sum of individuals' utilities. What your weight is depends on your wealth: the richer you are, the higher is the weight the market gives you in its utilitarian calculus. If your wealth is zero--which it is if you're an Irish tenant farmer during the potato blight--then your weight is zero, and so the market blithely ships "wheat, oats, cattle, pigs, eggs and butter" down the Shannon to Merrie England.

Second, there was, IMHO, an important other consideration keeping the English Establishment from doing anything. Consider Benjamin Jowett's report of his conversation with economist Nassau Senior: "How many people will die in the potato famine?" "A million, and that is not enough." The British economists of the time were haunted by the ghost of Thomas Malthus, and believed that Ireland's population had to fall back to a level that could be sustained given Ireland's (relatively low) agricultural productivity. In Nassau Senior's estimation, huge numbers of Irish had to die of starvation, and attempts to feed the Irish in the short run simply pushed those starvation deaths off into the future.

Needless to say, Nassau Senior and company were totally wrong in their analytics...

Posted by DeLong at December 17, 2003 07:36 PM | TrackBack


Derbyshire is indeed terrible. I've seen him not merely misdirect but just make up allegations. Any decent magazine would fire him.

Posted by: Steve on December 17, 2003 08:32 PM


Britain's loss was America's gain (and Canada's, and Australia's, and even Brazil's).

Mass emigration should generally be taken as a sign that the home economy is dysfunctional.

Posted by: bad Jim on December 17, 2003 09:20 PM


Ireland has had a policy of allowing people who have a single grand-parent with Irish citizenship can reclaim Irish citizenship.

This policy has resulted in Ireland having a net return in population, with the grand children of those forced to leave returning at a greater rate than those current residents choosing to emigrate.

Having taken advantage of this opportunity myself, and then spent time in Ireland in ever increasing amounts, I can tell you one thing about the famine, as it's percieved by the Irish today. As a tourist, you will hear that it was a British policy that caused literal starvation to stalk the hills, with pitiful tales related. But once you get to know the people, spend some time with them, then you get the way they really feel.

And they feel that the people that inflicted that upon their relatives cannot be forgiven, because the crime was committed by those without souls.

It's a cold hard fact that the tourist's tales, told for pay and sympathy, are no where near as harsh as the family tales told to children, and the British remain to this day unforgiven.

The closest thing I could find to relate to it, as a cultural emotion, would be slavery in the United States.

Rwanda will have some interesting issues in 150 years.

As an aside, how should a country deal with a situation where a representative of it's government causes something like this? I suspect the British should make a public proclamation of responsibility, and attempt to address the factual reconstruction of what the decisions actually were. And then attempt to not do that again. That seems like it would go a long way towards adressing the bad feelings if a country that was victimized by this sort of behavior felt that it's oppression, and the resultant suffering of innocents, ended up being something that caused the oppressing country to create political switches that resulted in that offending country never actively using "terror famine" again.

But, that's just me.

Posted by: David Glynn on December 17, 2003 10:23 PM


Off the top of my head, I recall that in the early 1840s, the city of Boston spent an average of $47,000 -- close to $900,000 in modern-day dollars -- per year to help support the impoverished, ill and insane. (The rise and fall of the penitentiary and reformatory in the early 19th century being an interest of mine.)

I also have trouble understanding why Derbyshire insists that governments of the time would not ban or regulate exports. In the 1790s, the Senate took up that exact question pursuant to considering how best to regulate trade with European nations. The government regularly inspected (under federal law!) exports such as coffee, sugar, tea, oil. etc.; the government had the power to judge them unfit for export if, for example, the shipping containers were damaged.

However, it's late -- perhaps I'm simply just not understanding what he's trying to say.

Posted by: Watchful Babbler on December 17, 2003 10:45 PM


Nice post, thanks!

Posted by: Mats on December 18, 2003 12:26 AM


BDL wrote, "...decreasing returns to scale..."

*Decreasing*? Where is that used?

Posted by: Stephen J Fromm on December 18, 2003 12:33 AM


anybody interested in this has to read Cormac O Grada's various books amd articles on the famine in Ireland. A brilliant economist, a great historian and wonderful person as well.

Posted by: tadhgin on December 18, 2003 02:58 AM


>>Decreasing*? Where is that used?

In the Arrow-Debreu calculations. It's surprisingly hard to get a proof that equilibrium outcomes of free market exchange are Pareto optimal in the presence of increasing returns (I'm not saying it's not possible because I bet it is, but it's certainly not the way it's usually done).

Posted by: dsquared on December 18, 2003 03:07 AM


Re: Nassau Senior

My recollection from reading about this many years ago is that Ireland on the eve of famine had a population of about 8 million - a number it has not approached since.

Posted by: Dave L on December 18, 2003 04:03 AM


So the Irish too refused to eat cake, huh!?

I vaguely recall reading about a phenomenon that I gather puzzled the economists of the time:

When the potato got scarce and therefore more expensive, demand went up for a beverage called "rot gut whisky" -- if I recall correctly.

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on December 18, 2003 05:11 AM


Derbyshire's bullsh*t "explanation" is exactly like an animist's explanation of why rocks don't move about on their own: 'It's not in the nature of a rock to move.'

Posted by: John Stein on December 18, 2003 05:49 AM


I am assuming the Irish farmers who raised "wheat, oats, cattle, pigs, eggs and butter" were well-fed during the famine. Did this cause much unrest within Ireland? Was it a class division -- where people in a village were starving and other people in the same village were well off -- or a regional thing?

Posted by: Jeremy Osner on December 18, 2003 06:15 AM


On the subject of famines, can I recommend Alex De Waal’s ‘Famine Crimes’? An excellent, contentious book, which devotes much of its first chapter to a discussion of Sen.

One of De Waal’s theses is that Sen’s refutation of the Malthus/Senior explanation of famine (which Sen mischievously labels ‘FAD’ or ‘Food Aggregate Deficit’) was in fact anticipated in all essentials by the British Raj’s Famine Codes instituted in India (from, I think, 1861 onwards). It seems reasonable to assume that the recent Mutiny had had a lot to do this; perhaps also the change in governing institution, from the East India Company to the Indian Civil Service.

And he further points out that the Famine Codes were anticipated in all their essentials by at least one surviving manual of government from pre-Raj India. A very interesting point, with a lot of implications: one of which is that British administrators in India, some of whom would have done Political Economy as part of their Greats courses, could in fact use their understanding of classical economics to evolve an analysis of famine that went strongly against Malthusian orthodoxy. Furthermore, their policy response combined price controls, anti-profiteering measures, public works, welfare and other extensive interventions in the workings of the market. It would be interesting to know how much impact this had on economics as it was taught back in British universities.

It’s also worth noting that the motive force behind Parnell’s Land League was fury at the famine, and fear in the early 1860s that there would be another famine- hence the Land League slogan ‘Never Again’, and hence the British agrarian reforms of the 1860s. Again, when faced by effective political pressure, British Imperial administrators became pragmatic interventionists pretty damn quickly.

Posted by: Dan Hardie on December 18, 2003 08:04 AM


"I am assuming the Irish farmers who raised "wheat, oats,
cattle, pigs, eggs and butter" were well-fed during the famine."

Not necessarily. It was common practice to pay the rent in produce.
Generally, the peasantry lived on potatoes and a little butter-milk
and maybe a few vegetables; the landlord took the rest. And you'd
prefer to go hungry one year, and hope for better times, than to
fail to pay the rent and thus be evicted; because then you very
likely did face starvation.

Posted by: The Shamrockshire Eagle, editor and sole proprietor of on December 18, 2003 11:02 AM


>>I am assuming the Irish farmers who raised "wheat, oats, cattle, pigs, eggs and butter" were well-fed during the famine.

There's an important difference between a "farmer" and an "agricultural labourer".

Posted by: dsquared on December 18, 2003 11:37 AM


There's an important difference between a "farmer" and an
"agricultural labourer".

Well, there is, but the difference wasn't well-developed in the
Ireland of that time. It was normal to rent to what would normally
be a "landless peasant" enough land to grow potatoes to feed himself
and his family, and take most or the whole of what he produced
working on the landlord's land as rent for this potato patch.
But the ordinary tenant farmer tended to be depressed towards this
condition de facto, as rents rose to eat up all or most of what
he could produce besides the ubiquitous spud. True, some tenant
farmers were relatively prosperous, but most were not that far
above the poorest.

Posted by: The Shamrockshire Eagle, editor and sole proprietor of on December 18, 2003 11:49 AM


I'd take issue with Sen's characterisation of famine & poor relief in Ireland. There was relief to the poor (Indian maize, or " Peel's brimstone") and public works (although many of the starving were in poor shape to perform).

Unfortunately, as relief was largely only eligible to the destitute (don't want those paddy welfare queens, oh no) those seeking relief left their farms (lowering agricultural production) and went to the workhouses. Transfer of population also spread disease - about 90% of the victims of the famine died of disease, rather than starvation alone (albeit those who died of disease were weakened by malnutrition).

The availability of relief was cut back sharply after Peel lost power to the Whigs in 1847.

Best economic historians of the famine are Joel Mokyr & Cormac O'Grada.

But yes, Derbyshire is talking out his ass.

Posted by: Tom on December 18, 2003 04:05 PM


I think this is unjust to Nassau Senior in at least two respects:-

- he was concerned about the chronic problems in Ireland even before the famine hit; and

- his analytics were not so much "totally wrong" (which suggests flaws in his reasoning) as incomplete, i.e. omitting behaviours that were possible - however, in many cases in "Wages" he at least hints that he thought of possibilities and then decided they didn't fit the situation; this makes it more a failure of observation than of analysis, and not so unworthy since he didn't have the benefits of hindsight.

I think Nassau Senior took the view that keeping hold of the food exports wouldn't have been enough to stop the famine anyway, i.e. that it wasn't an analogue of the Bengal famine that Amartya Sen looked into. Right or wrong, the judgment rests on the facts more than on the analysis.

It's also worth pointing out that while it was probably Senior that Jowett reported, and it was definitely someone of his school, it isn't absolutely certain that it was Senior since there were so many of his school.

My own personal feeling is that the inability to buy food made a lot more difference since the economy was partway between cash and subsistence; peasants needed far more emergency cash reserves than their chronic situation had needed, and they couldn't make that jump.

Oh, and I suspect that David Glynn's current information is the type tailored to an audience, sincere folk memory and all, and the generic stuff he first heard was more authentic. See Jim Duffy's work and talk on the famine issue on the wikipedia site for some detailed discussion (which my own oral tradition bears out - my mother thought of Irish emigrants to the USA as essentially economic refugees, not quite up to politicals who emigrated to France).

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on December 18, 2003 06:48 PM


I further recall, though vaguely, that the economists finally figured that potato supply and prices went so bad that rot gut whisky became a more viable alternative in an attempt to get as close as possible to a minimum daily calorie intake, which obviously was not sustainable at individual level, but it did have an impact on aggregate demand for rot gut whisky.

I had read this stuff during before-internet times and I can't recall the source and I can't find material on this on internet either.

Maybe I am confusing events and places, times, etc.

Posted by: B.S. on December 18, 2003 07:21 PM


I wonder whether the fact that potatoes are usually propagated by cuttings (rather than by seeds)contributed to the blight and famine. In ten or twenty years one individual plant could populate enormous areas, without any genetic diversity. (This is pure speculation on my part.)

According to Needham (I think) the introduction of yams and potatoes to China led to an enormous population increase, because as a second crop (rather than as a staple) it made it possible for people to survive the failure of the rice crop. When I was in Taiwan in 1984 one guy (who had lived in Germany) really disliked the idea of using potatoes as "a rice substitute", though he liked potatoes fine "as a vegetable". (In Taiwan very good French fries were made with yams).

So potatoes are in no sense the villain, but dependency on a single crop was (along with government policy, of course).

Potatoes played a big role in Germany, Russia, and Poland, but I don't know the details.

My late ex-father-in-law, who was of Irish descent and lived in Idaho, would not allow a bad word to be said about the potato.

"Potatoes" -- that's the "e" that Quayle was thinking about. The poor bastard -- being ridiculed for what's basically a slip of the tongue, instead of for dozens of much stupider things he did!

Posted by: Zizka on December 18, 2003 07:22 PM


>>It's surprisingly hard to get a proof that >>equilibrium outcomes of free market exchange >>are Pareto optimal in the presence of >>increasing returns (I'm not saying it's not >>possible because I bet it is, but it's >>certainly not the way it's usually done).

Here's my undergrad economics viewpoint (so there's probably something wrong with it). If the increasing returns are external to the firm (ie. each firm's output depends on the output of the industry as a whole), then there's an externality. Firms won't take into account the benefit their expansion of production will have for other firms in the industry, so the sector will end up being too small. If the increasing returns are internal to the firm, then a competitive equilibrium is impossible. If firms are price takers and they face a downward sloping average cost curve, then they can always increase profits by increasing output. This can't be an equilibrium, so you end up with firms making their production decision taking into account its effect on price. Since increasing returns lead either to an externality or imperfect competition, the resulting allocation can't be efficient.

The question is then why you need decreasing returns, rather than just excluding increasing returns?

Posted by: D on December 18, 2003 07:27 PM


I wonder whether the fact that potatoes are usually propagated by cuttings (rather than by seeds)contributed to the blight and famine. In ten or twenty years one individual plant could populate enormous areas, without any genetic diversity. (This is pure speculation on my part.)

That is absolutely correct. That is what happened (although there was more than one variety). If one is really interested in the topic, one can consider Peru and its vast genetic diversity of the potato. This diversity prevented catastrophe due to potato blight in the past. Western scientists recently went into Peru to learn why potato blight hasn't wiped out the crop. For reasons that are unclear, the blight got out and is decimating Peruvian potatoes. Oops.

BTW, in Brad's Uni they are studying a cousin of potato blight, Sudden Oak Death, that is devastating the forests just north of Berkeley (and out Hwy 9 toward Santa Cruz). It will be similar in its effects as Chestnut blight.

Sorry, but the thread danced around enough that I thought I could go slightly OT.


Posted by: Dano on December 18, 2003 10:31 PM


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