Summer Reading: Ruan O’Donnell on the Irish Famine

July 9, 2013 7:00 AM

While on vacation in the west of Ireland last month, I could not help noticing ruins of the so-called “famine cottages”: small stone buildings—typically single-room—that housed the region’s poor farmers and agricultural workers. Working on increasingly subdivided land as the Irish population exploded in the first half of the 19th century, these rural poor were heavily dependent on the potato as their main staple. They were the main victims of what remains one of the most devastating famines in history.

My interest in North Korea started with food issues—culminating in Famine in North Korea--so my curiosity was piqued. I picked up a short history of the famine by historian Ruan O'Donnell. O’Donnell is not an economic historian; for that perspective, classics such as Cormac O-Grada’s Black '47 and Beyond are more appropriate. But O’Donnell provides a very readable short introduction for those interested in a comparative perspective on famine. Three themes emerged from my reading of the book that are germane to North Korea: the roles of politics, ideology and trade in generating mass distress.

In Famine in North Korea, we follow Sen in noting that large scale distress was associated with an unaccountable political system.  The same can be said of the Irish famine. The 1800 Act of Union deprived Ireland of its own parliament, granting it representation through Westminster. Of course, Britain prior to 1918 was hardly democratic and Irish representation was doubly limited. First, the country was represented by property owners; the Irish electorate amounted to only about 120,000 voters. Although some sought to help their wards--including by assisting with immigration--others took advantage of the crisis to evict tenants. But the Irish representatives were also ultimately not politically pivotal for the main political battle lines between Whigs and Tories.  Even with the appointment of an Irish Lord Lieutenant in Dublin, politics in London was driven overwhelmingly by internal political issues and the relevant public was largely indifferent or even hostile to the growing evidence of Irish distress.

Which brings us to the role of ideology. A central theme in the literature on the Irish famine is how ideological proclivities contributed to indifference. In particular, three powerful ideological strands combined: a belief that the famine was an act of Providence, carried by the religious community; an effectively racist view of the Irish as lazy and culpable for their own problems; and—of most interest here—a poisonous stew of Malthusian political economy that saw the famine as an unfortunate but necessary way of addressing overpopulation and indolence. Particularly following the ascent of the Whigs under Russell in 1846, laissez-faire ideas carried by Charles Wood and Charles Edward Trevalyn at the Exchequer fundamentally limited the willingness of the government to respond At every turn, the question of costs and whether it was appropriate to intervene in markets that were manifestly failing held the government back from taking more aggressive action or led it to programs such as public works and poor houses that were not only degrading but ultimately ineffective. Think austerity on steroids.

Which brings us finally to trade. We argued in Famine in North Korea that trade played a crucial role in the North Korean famine. The collapse of imports from the Soviet Union/Russia meant that North Korea needed to find alternative sources of foreign exchange in order to import needed fuel and fertilizer. This in turn required a shift in a more outward-oriented direction, and in a hurry. The leadership—wedded to illusions of self-sufficiency and juche—failed to do so.

Trade operated in a somewhat different and even more perverse way in the Irish case, but the parallels are intriguing. As elsewhere in Europe, Britain protected agriculture; the conflicts over the Corn Laws broke at the same time as the famine. But elsewhere in Europe, evidence of the potato blight led political authorities to immediately lower tariffs on agriculture to increase foreign supply. Prior to the ascent of the Whigs, Peel did just this, and at some political risk, by undertaking direct purchases of foreign corn. But this effort was small and prevailing market forces produced extraordinarily perverse results. Ireland was exporting grain to Britain while commercial imports were swamping public imports at prices beyond what the Irish poor could afford; Peel's interventions did little to staunch rising prices. As in so many other famines the problem was not simply one of aggregate supply—there was plenty of food—but of distribution. The poor simply did not have the resources, particularly given the paucity of the relief on offer, to purchase the food that was available.

To bring this back to North Korea, the lessons are simple. Democracies—whatever their imperfections—are more likely to address signs of emerging food distress than authoritarian regimes and those with limited franchises. Second, ideologies--whether extreme liberalism or juche--blind otherwise intelligent humans from pragmatic solutions to problems. Officials could not see that crises demanded that the existing playbooks be thrown out in favor of the direct and obvious, such as expanding direct supply of food to the needy. Finally, trade relations need to be structured in ways that are conducive to expanding the supply of food. In North Korea, the failure was the inability to export to earn the foreign exchange needed to import. In Ireland, the problem was the failure to reduce barriers to trade quickly enough and then the unwillingness to make the public purchases that would have offset perverse commercial transactions, including the export of food and the import of staples at prices that the poor could not afford.


Cormac O Grada

Thanks for the plug. I think I remember reading FAMINE IN NORTH KOREA in draft for Marcus Noland.
The correlation between democracy and 'no famines' is very strong: I can think of very few exceptions. The causation is more problematic, though, because democracy is less likely to be viable in famine-prone economies.
Even where democracy is very much in the distance, as in North Korea, one might argue that outside pressures nowadays reduce the impact of famine.
Recent estimates of excess mortality in the second half of the 1990s (particularly that by two Belgian scholars in Population and Development Review in 2012) suggest levels as low as ONE-TENTH of that originally touted by Jasper Becker and other engagé commentators. ALL famine deaths are scandalous, but the point is that the Kim regime inflicted far less damage than was claimed.

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