Late last night I had one of those curious, even alarming experiences when, reading a fine work of history, quite suddenly you chance upon a passage that would seem an almost exact description of current attitudes had it not been written more than fifty years ago and in relation to events that took place nearly 120 years earlier. In her masterpiece, The Great Hunger, Cecil Woodham-Smith looked closely at the chilling human catastrophe of the Irish famine of 1845–46, and (among other things) the underlying causes, character, and consequences of the misery. If—purely for the prevention of widespread starvation in Ireland—Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel’s correct and brave decision in the autumn of 1845 to repeal the protectionist Corn Laws had not created such a damaging political firestorm in England, it would now be far better understood, and it might have had a slim chance of working. Yet, as Woodham-Smith put it:
His purchase of Indian corn proved the decisive factor in relieving the distress of 1845–46 [albeit far too little, too late], but the subsequent value to Ireland of Peel’s boldness, independence and strength of mind was unfortunately outweighed by his belief in an economic theory which almost every politician of the day, Whig or Tory, held with religious fervor.This theory, usually termed laissez faire, let people do as they think best, insisted that in the economic sphere individuals should be allowed to pursue their own interests and asserted that the Government should interfere as little as possible. Not only were the rights of property sacred; private enterprise was revered and respected and given almost complete liberty, and on this theory, which incidentally gave the employer and the landlord freedom to exploit his fellow men, the prosperity of nineteenth-century England had unquestionably been based.The influence of laissez faire on the treatment of Ireland during the famine is impossible to exaggerate. Almost without exception the high officials and politicians responsible for Ireland were fervent believers in non-interference by Government, and the behavior of the British authorities only becomes explicable when their fanatical belief in private enterprise and their suspicions of any action which might be considered Government intervention are borne in mind.The loss of the potato crop was therefore to be made good, without Government interference, by the operations of private enterprise and private firms, using the normal channels of commerce. The Government was not to appear in food markets as a buyer, there was to be “no disturbance of the ordinary course of trade” and “no complaints from private traders” on account of Government competition.
See what I mean? Woodham-Smith was writing in a modern Britain that had seen the immediate and obvious benefits of the introduction of the National Health Service, comprehensive unemployment benefits and better old-age pensions, improved public housing, and the alleviation of poverty in the industrial north and elsewhere such that everyone could by then at least own a pair of shoes. Almost incredibly this was not the case before World War II. Today, however, as we drag ourselves out of the worst recession in living memory, certainly the worst since the Great Depression, could Cecil Woodham-Smith ever have imagined that essentially the same principles of laissez faire going hand-in-hand with deep suspicion of central government, that she described in relation to the disastrous English policy towards Ireland in the mid-1840s, would be so constantly, consistently, and stupidly enunciated by both political sides through the current general election campaign, in which the bogus hold-all term “middle class” is whenever possible snatched up like a precious jewel from the dustbin, more often than not as a convenient way of roundly ignoring the plight of America’s hopelessly impoverished working class, and armies of the destitute unemployed? That there should even be a debate about the timid character of the federal government’s regulation of the American banks, for example—those unbelievably ordinary utilities that have gradually been allowed to spin out of control so that they still not only possess the power to exploit in the short term, but also to obliterate, whole industries simply by mistake, not even ill-judgment, although that too is a terrible problem, and have moreover the sheer nerve by implication hotly to defend their right to exercise that judgment badly by taking unsustainable risks—raises the question whether our politicians, economists, and policy-makers have learned, or even have the capacity to learn, anything at all from the economic disasters of the past two centuries. It is almost too depressing for words, but I suppose you could argue that there is in this at least a tangible benefit to be gained from the careful study of history.