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A Famine of Critical Thinking

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Here’s a letter that I sent today to the Wall Street Journal:

John Lahey alleges that the Irish potato famine was caused by “British laissez-faire policies” (Letters [2], April 8).  Not so.  This calamity was caused by British prohibitions on land-ownership by the Catholic Irish, burdensome taxation, and public-works projects that built roads that were useless for carrying goods and foodstuffs from places where they were abundant to places where they were in short supply.

The great 19th-century French economist, Jean-Baptiste Say [3], writing in the early 1800s, harshly criticized these British interventions: “What is lacking in Ireland is not subsistence but the ability to pay for it.  With landowners far away [in Britain], without capitalists who might introduce productive businesses, and with numerous government employees, ecclesiastics, and military personal to feed, heavy taxes to pay, and the ignorance resulting from so many evils, the Irish simply lack the means of improving their condition.”*

Doesn’t sound like laissez faire to me.

Donald J. Boudreaux

* Quoted on page 108 of Robert Roswell Palmer, ed., J.-B. Say: An Economist in Troubled Times [4] (Princeton University Press, 1997).