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Here’s a letter sent a few days ago to the Wall Street Journal; in it, I make a point that I’ve made before [2] – but if a dangerous historical myth is repeated again and again and again, it’s no crime to repeat again and again and again a correction of that myth:

Reviewer Roger Lowenstein notes uncritically that when Wrong author Richard Grossman “writes about the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, he tells us … about the slavish devotion to laissez-faire that intensified its effects” (“Book Review: ‘Wrong,’ [3] by Richard S. Grossman,” Dec. 26).  Wrong.  Instead, what’s notable is Mr. Grossman’s (and Mr. Lowenstein’s) slavish devotion to an account of history that is malarkey.

As explained by historian Stephen Davies [4], after defeating James II in 1690, protestants subjected Irish Catholics to harsh restrictions on land ownership and leasing.  Most of Ireland’s people were thus forced to farm plots of land that were inefficiently small and on which they had no incentives to make long-term improvements.  As a consequence, Irish agricultural productivity stagnated, and, in turn, the high-yield, highly nutritious, and labor-intensive potato became the dominant crop.  In combination with interventions that obstructed Catholics from engaging in modern commercial activities – interventions that kept large numbers of Irish practicing subsistence agriculture well into the 19th century – this over-dependence on the potato spelled doom when in 1845 that crop became infected with the fungus Phytophthora infestans.

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

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

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market
Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030