I know the Irish famine was long ago and far away, but it’s still especially galling to me when someone with an Irish surname believes that the poor need the “incentive” of hunger and homelessness to make them go to work. But Paul Ryan’s “poverty” speech in Ohio yesterday amounted to that. He echoed what the English said when they continued to export food out of Ireland while a million Irish starved to death.
What, then, were the ideologies that held the British political Ã©lite and the middle classes in their grip, and largely determined the decisions not to adopt the possible relief measures outlined above? There were three in particular-the economic doctrines of laissez-faire, the Protestant evangelical belief in divine Providence, and the deep-dyed ethnic prejudice against the Catholic Irish to which historians have recently given the name of ‘moralism’.
Laissez-faire, the reigning economic orthodoxy of the day, held that there should be as little government interference with the economy as possible. Under this doctrine, stopping the export of Irish grain was an unacceptable policy alternative, and it was therefore firmly rejected in London, though there were some British relief officials in Ireland who gave contrary advice.
The influence of the doctrine of laissez-faire may also be seen in two other decisions. The first was the decision to terminate the soup-kitchen scheme in September 1847 after only six months of operation. The idea of feeding directly a large proportion of the Irish population violated all of the Whigs’ cherished notions of how government and society should function. The other decision was the refusal of the government to undertake any large scheme of assisted emigration. …
… There was a very widespread belief among members of the British upper and middle classes that the famine was a divine judgment-an act of Providence-against the kind of Irish agrarian regime that was believed to have given rise to the famine. The Irish system of agriculture was perceived in Britain to be riddled with inefficiency and abuse. According to British policy-makers at the time, the workings of divine Providence were disclosed in the unfettered operations of the market economy, and therefore it was positively evil to interfere with its proper functioning. …
… Finally, we come to ‘moralism’-the notion that the fundamental defects from which the Irish suffered were moral rather than financial. Educated Britons of this era saw serious defects in the Irish ‘national character’-disorder or violence, filth, laziness, and worst of all, a lack of self-reliance. This amounted to a kind of racial or cultural stereotyping. The Irish had to be taught to stand on their own feet and to unlearn their dependence on government.
Of course, the biggest reason so many Irish had been reduced to living on little else but potatoes — and on nothing when the potato crops failed — was that the upper classes had rigged the system to keep the Irish Catholic peasants from ever being upwardly mobile.
Back to Paul Ryan — Ed Kilgore wrote,
In other words, Medicaid and food stamps will be block-granted, which in the former case will (along with the repeal of ObamaCare) eliminate health insurance for 31 to 37 million poor people, and in the latter eliminate food assistance for a mere 10 million. And since Medicaid, food stamps and the earned-income-tax-credit (extremely unlikely to survive a Romney administration attack on â€œtax loopholesâ€) were key working-poor supports underlying welfare reform, itâ€™s unlikely welfare reform will exactly thrive, either.
And so, the entire Romney/Ryan â€œpovertyâ€ strategy is basically to consign poor people to the bracing independence of relying on an unimaginable boom in jobs that will supposedly be produced by tax and spending cuts.