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  • Originally published 09/07/2014

    Of Irish Famines, Slavery, and the libeling of laissez-faire

    Liberty and Power

    In a recent column for the Washington Post, political scientist Henry Farrell attempted to lay part of the blame of two notorious historical events on what he sees as a “laissez faire” mentality that operates at the expense of human suffering. The occasion for Farrell’s claim is a curious one. He employed an ill-worded and somewhat tactless review of a recent book about slavery in the Economist magazine to remind readers that the same magazine had made similarly callous remarks about the victims of the Irish famine.While his observation might carry some weight if it illustrated a standing pattern, his particular offense in the second case comes from a much older column – as in something that was published in 1847.If taking modern publications to task for the uncouth musings of long-dead editors sounds slightly odd, it might be similarly observed that the Washington Post is far from immune from an ignominious publication record as this racially charged 1902 headline attests:Turning specifically to the famine, a studious reader might also notice that Mr. Farrell seems to have a strange affinity  for flogging this 167 year old hobgoblin whenever the Economist’s masthead comes up for discussion. More problematic from a historical perspective though is the argument he attempts to extract from the episode:In both instances, The Economist’s deep-rooted fondness of laissez faire slipped into a shameful tendency to minimize the human costs of those at the wrong end of the system, whether it was those who suffered and were murdered beneath the whip of slavery or those who starved to death, in part thanks to The Economist’s own vigorous advocacy.A damning indictment of laissez faire capitalism, one might conclude, if only it were true! Unfortunately for Mr. Farrell, he has his 19th century politics confused, and confused badly at that.Consider the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. This hallmark of the very same 19th century “laissez faire” philosophy he derides as callous was actually carried to fruition as part of a conscious effort to relieve famine-plagued Ireland from the artificially onerous food prices that came about under Britain’s agricultural protective tariff regime. Now consider Farrell’s harsh depiction of free markets against the open humanitarian appeal of the following passage from an 1845 free trade speech by Richard Cobden, the chief architect of the Corn Law repeal: