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I’m pleased that the Wall Street Journal today published my letter challenging the myth that the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century was caused by laissez-faire policies.

Mr. Bill Hudson, though, e-mails me to ask if I’d “forgotten that Ireland was over populated then.”  “Doesn’t this over population,” asks Mr. Hudson, “in part explain the famine?”


In offering this answer I seize the opportunity to mention chapter 16 of Tom Bethell’s wonderful 1998 book, The Noblest Triumph.  This chapter is entitled “Why Did Ireland Starve?”  (Since posting my letter a few days ago, several people have written to remind me of this chapter in Bethell’s book.  I’d forgotten about this particular chapter.  I’ve just re-read it; it’s superb.  Bethell, too, explains that the Irish potato famine was in no way the result of laissez faire policies.  He highlights the role that insecure property rights played in creating this tragedy.)  Here’s Bethell writing on page 246 (footnotes excluded):

Overpopulation was not the problem.  In the mid-nineteenth century, Ireland had more cultivated acres per capita than Holland, Belgium, England, Scotland, and Sweden.  More people per square mile lived in England and Wales (272) than in Ireland (251).  In the eighteenth century, the Irish population was only half its 1840s total, yet there had been famine and misery then.  Oliver Goldsmith had described the scene in his “Deserted Village,” set in his native Ireland.  In short, as Joel Mokyr said, “the [overpopulation] hypothesis is not confirmed by the evidence.”

Once again, more generally, overpopulation is an awful explanation for starvation and economic misery.  It’s an explanation that appeals to popular prejudices reinforced by economics ignorance.  But it fails big-time.

If overpopulation were a sufficient condition for great economic privation – or a condition that makes economic privation much more likely than otherwise – then the obvious question arises: Why are people in Manhattan so prosperous?

I know from experience that my asking this question will prompt some readers to say “Oh that’s a crazy question, because Manhattan is part of a larger country” – to which I then reply “And why is that fact relevant?”  Any reflection on why it’s relevant will reveal that Manhattanites are fed (and clothed, and shod, and consumer-electronics-ed, and on and on and on) because they can freely trade with other Americans and almost-freely trade with billions of other people across the globe.  Manhattanites would indeed starve if they had to grow and raise food on the island of Manhattan (or even in all of New York City).  Of course, they don’t have to do so.  They feed themselves by producing other goods and services which they ship to people outside of Manhattan.  Those shipments are then converted by trade in to food, drink, and the gazillion other goods and services consumed in such abundance daily by Manhattanites.