Laissez-Faire

Contributors: DÓC, TOR.

This term, borrowed from French (also laisser-faire), means ‘Let (people) do (as they think best)’. This phrase expresses the ‘principle that government should not interfere with the actions of individuals especially in industrial affairs and in trade’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Much of the Government’s attitude to the Irish situation was determined by this fashionable philosophy of ‘political economy’ rather that by the facts. Ministers invoked the principles of laissez-faire, but in fact they did intervene, and often crudely. In the Government’s model of political economy, Ireland was an over-populated country where sub-division of land and dependence on the potato left peasant and landlord alike with too much idle time. Property owners should undertake the responsibilities of property. The lack of economic progress was seen as failure. Consequently, the solution to the Irish problem was to end the system of ‘easy existence’ by diversifying economic activity, stopping sub-division, reducing the role of the potato, and bringing men of energy and capital into the country.

In a period of crisis, such as the Famine, prejudice and fear were easily turned into policies. Ireland was caricatured for its poverty and seen as a possible threat to the economic prosperity of the United Kingdom. Britain was at this stage on the verge of industrial and imperial ascendancy and its leaders may have felt that it could be hampered by its closeness, geographically and politically, to an impoverished, over-populated, potato-fed, and priest-ridden Ireland.

Inquiries into the condition of Ireland in the nineteenth century focussed mostly on its poverty, its system of landholding, the size of its population and the backwardness of its agriculture, especially the continuing dependence on the potato. The debates that followed were shaped by the writings of some leading economists. One of the most influential doctrines was ‘political economy’; Adam Smith was its principal proponent; and he set out his principles in his influential book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. He believed that the wealth of a nation could be increased if the market was free from constraints and Government intervention was kept to a minimum. He applied the same principle to the relationship between the Government and the individual and he used it to justify individualism and self-help. Adam Smith’s ideas were complex, but they were often reduced to the simple slogan, laissez-faire, meaning no Government interference.

Smith’s ideological heirs included Thomas Malthus, Edmund Burke, David Ricardo, Nassau Senior, Harriet Martineau and Jeremy Bentham.These writers developed their individual and frequently contradictory interpretation of ‘political economy’. Bentham summed up his principles: ‘Laissez-faire, in short, should be the general practice: every departure, unless required by some great good, is certain evil’. Government ministers from William Pitt to Lord John Russell were inspired by this philosophy. Burke in a memorandum to Pitt on the duty of Government not to intervene during a period of scarcity assured the Prime Minister that even God was on their side.

Paradoxically ‘political economy’ existed in a period of increasing government action. Government intervention was frequent, piecemeal, and measured. In the case of the 1834 English Poor Law the Government intervened to reduce costs. When it suited Government, laissez-faire could be doctrine; when it did not, as in the case of the Corn Laws and the Navigation Acts, it was ignored. One of its main attractions was that ‘ministers could take whatever suited them from political economy and reject whatever did not’. During the Famine, political economy was invoked to justify non-interference in the grain trade, following the disastrous blight of 1846–7. It had the strong support of political economists in the Whig Cabinet including Charles Wood and the Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey. At the height of the distress, the writings of Smith and Burke were sent to relief officers in Ireland, and they were encouraged to read them in their spare time.

During the decades before the Famine, much attention was focussed on Ireland’s poverty and its fast-growing population. The problems of the country were being reduced to the fashionable Malthusian equation of a fast-growing population and heavy dependence on a single resource—the potato—that made vice and misery inevitable. Not even the most pessimistic observers thought a major famine was imminent and some were optimistic about the prospects of the country.

Official observers in Britain, many influenced by Malthus’s ideas, were pessimistic about Ireland. The Census returns and other Government inquires confirmed that the country was suffering the many evils of heavy dependence on one crop, extensive poverty, and a fast-growing population. It was perhaps convenient and pragmatic to see Ireland, in Malthusian terms, as a society in crisis. To see Ireland as an economy trapped in a spiral of poverty, and social disaster as inevitable, was convenient: it made the Government and its officials appear blameless.

Bibliography. T. R. Malthus, Occasional papers of T.R. Malthus on Ireland, population and political economy (New York 1963). J. M. Goldstrom & L. A. Clarkson (ed), Irish population economy and society: essays in honour of the late K. H. Connell (Oxford 1981). Joel Mokyr, Why Ireland starved: a quantitative and analytical history of the Irish economy, 1800–1850 (London 1983). Cormac Ó Gráda, Ireland: a new economic history, 1780–1939 (Oxford 1994).

Tomás O’Riordan