Free-market idolatry never dies – no matter how many die in its name

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The potato harvest of 1845 looked to be a bumper crop. Drills all over Ireland bulged with tubers, by then the main form of subsistence for millions of tenant farmers, especially in the impoverished western portion of the country.

Today, it’s difficult to fathom the degree to which the Irish once relied upon the potato. In a land dominated by English overlords and divided and subdivided into tiny holdings, a peasant family could produce enough potatoes to feed a family of six for an entire year on a half-acre of sandy soil. By some estimates, Irish laborers of that era consumed an average of 14 pounds of potatoes a day.

Not only did potatoes grow in abundance, they were highly nutritious, supplying a full complement of minerals, vitamins, and carbohydrates when eaten whole. Add a little buttermilk – as the Irish did – and you had a complete, albeit monotonous diet. Ironically, even though Ireland was perhaps the poorest part of Europe, its peasants were actually healthier than their English and Continental counterparts who relied almost exclusively on bread as a dietary staple. Despite extreme poverty and political and cultural repression, the potato allowed Ireland’s population to swell to more than 6 million by the mid-19th century – more people than live there today.

This year marks the 160th anniversary of the onset of Irish Potato Famine, known to those who survived it simply as The Great Hunger. It began in September 1845 when a blight spread by an air-borne fungus wiped out nearly all of that year’s potato crop and then continued to blacken and destroy Irish potatoes for the next four years. By then what had started out as a natural calamity had been compounded, as is so often the case, by the callousness of ideologically blinkered politicians and “reformers.”

Despite the crop failure that first winter of 1845-46, few Irish died. Hearing reports of what was happening, the Tory government of Prime Minister Robert Peel decided upon direct government intervention. Peel was certainly no friend of the Irish, but he could see a humanitarian crisis brewing if nothing were done. In addition to calling for repeal of the Corn Laws – tariffs that kept the price of imported grain high – Peel ordered several shipments of Indian corn, or maize, to Ireland to be distributed to the poor. His hope was that the combination of cheaper grain for those who could afford it and free grain for those who couldn’t would hold the wolf at bay until the crop recovered.

Alas, Peel’s government fell in July 1846, and was replaced by a Whig government under Lord John Russell. The Whig party was “liberal,” which in those days meant that it subscribed to a strict laissez-faire theory of economics. Ironically, one of the main causes of Peel’s downfall was his attempt to repeal the Corn Laws – a laissez-faire position, if there ever was one. However, in this case repeal would have inconvenienced England’s wealthiest citizens and so, laissez-faire be damned.

One of the new government’s first actions was to order Charles Trevelyan, the young man overseeing England’s famine response, to end the distribution of free grain. Not that Trevelyan disapproved of this action. Giving the starving Irish food would, he predicted, make them “dependent” on the government. It was also “unfair” to private enterprise. As an added bonus, Trevelyan also turned back the grain shipments ordered by Peel but still in transit.

Henceforth the Irish would have to “earn” money laboring on public works projects – principally the construction of useless roads – in order to buy the grain they needed from private factors operating according to the strict rules of supply and demand. Not surprisingly, those rules guaranteed that in a country stricken by famine the price of food would rise – precipitously. The wages paid to the Irish, however, did not.

The result was a cascading disaster, a kind of rolling blackout of malnutrition, disease, and death. Spiraling food prices meant that the Irish could buy less and less grain with the money they earned breaking rocks and laying roadbeds, which meant that they got weaker and weaker, thus earning less (they were paid by the mile, mind you), thus eating less, getting weaker, and so on, until finally thousands of Irish men, women, and children simply dropped dead at the abandoned heads of what today are still known in Ireland as The Famine Roads.

Tens of thousands succumbed elsewhere to the diseases that travel in the wake of starvation –typhus, dysentery, and cholera. Thousands more died on so-called Coffin Ships awaiting clearance to land in Canadian ports. To make matters even more miserable, Irish landlords – almost all of them absentee English property owners or members of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy – began evicting tenant farmers and seizing the land to pay the taxes England was now levying on Ireland to underwrite England’s “generous” relief efforts. (“Let Irish property pay for Irish poverty,” was the way Trevelyan put it.) By the later years of the famine it was not uncommon to happen upon an entire family lying dead behind a hedge on the land they used to farm, mouths stained green from the grass they tried to eat in their final hours of desperation. So many died that there were, in some districts, not enough of the living left to bury the corpses, which then became fodder for pigs, wolves, and wild dogs.

In the end, more than a million Irish – half of them children – died of starvation or its effects between 1845 and 1850. A million and a half more fled the country, forming the basis of today’s Irish diaspora. If you are one of the 50 million or so Americans who trace all or part of your ancestry to Ireland, you can probably credit the Great Hunger for driving your forebears to this country.

In the 1840s, laissez-faire was still a relatively new economic theory and the English politicians who clung tenaciously to its tenets even in the face of monumental suffering might be extended a measure of forgiveness. But there can be no such measure of sympathy extended to the large number of vocal, and surprisingly influential disciples of the ideology who populate every level of American government and media today.

If God is the word we assign to the being or belief that forms the basis of all of our values, then it is not too far-fetched to describe this blind faith as free-market idolatry. The contemporary free-market idolaters among us are the strident advocates of privatization and the wonder-working effects of “free trade” and globalization, of mindless deregulation and the wholesale sell-off of the nation’s natural resources. They are the union-busters at Northwest Airlines and Wal-Mart and their apologists in the business press, and all of the Grover Norquists and Grover Norquist epigones and their shadowy network of neo-fascist billionaire backers bent on “reforming” America’s already inadequate social safety net by overturning the New Deal.

One would think that laissez-faire would have been thoroughly discredited by the Great Hunger or by its later inability to provide an answer to the systemic crisis of the Great Depression. Yet laissez-faire has not been relegated to the dustbin of outmoded ideas like mercantilism or the divine right of kings or trial by ordeal. It is still with us, still exerting its noxious effects. Just in time for the opening of Mardi Gras weekend, for example, a panel of neoconservative economists, journalists, and politicians on Forbes on Fox (a grinning Steve Forbes was one of the panelists), that network’s weekly business magazine, tucked into a discussion about why New Orleans’ recovery has been so painfully slow.

The verdict? Government intervention. Forget about all those billions promised by Bush for reconstruction that have yet to arrive. Forget about the tens of thousands of residents left homeless, their jobs and businesses utterly destroyed. Only let federal and state officials step back and the “free market” will work its wonders. And if there is any public funding, let it go only to businesses – not to private individuals – and the benefits of private enterprise will trickle down for all.

Just like in Ireland.

Closer to home, laissez-faire thinking is behind Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s call to privatize government services, hand out school vouchers, deregulate the utility industry, and hand over management of state-owned land to local panels sure to be dominated by developers and speculators. The discredited ideology also infects the St. Paul Pioneer Press’s editorial staff. A couple of weeks ago, the paper published an unsigned opinion dismissing fears that the opening of a non-unionized Target Superstore, which will include an on-site grocery, might depress wages for unionized grocery workers in St. Paul. Stuff-and-nonsense, the editorial declared! In all cases, the “free market” is the best arbiter of who should earn what. In the same editorial, the staff took a sideswipe at living wage ordinances, claiming that “market after market” shows that where such ordinances are adopted low wage jobs disappear.

This last assertion was particularly disingenuous and reveals much about the intellectual dishonesty and magic thinking of the free marketeers. For one, there are no studies that I know of demonstrating that living wage ordinances have driven out low-wage jobs in the handful of localities where these ordinances have been passed; in making this argument, the Pioneer Press was simply offering up a variation on the equally unsubstantiated claim that minimum wage laws cause employers to cut back on hiring. Secondly, since living wage ordinances are only directed at businesses that receive some kind of city funding, talk of a “free market” is ludicrous on the face of it. Public financing, whether in the form of direct grants and subsidies, or indirect in the form of tax-increment financing, represents a blatant form of government interference in the market. But I guess if it is your friends in the St. Paul Greater Chamber of Commerce at the receiving end of government handouts, that’s okay under some special dispensation clause of laissez-faire economics.

As with a neurotic compulsion, the persistence of a misguided and destructive ideology like laissez-faire is interesting for what it reveals about the inadmissible impulses and fantasies of its followers. With its glib dismissal of the human cost of economic dislocations, laissez-faire aligns itself readily to the pietism that is one of America’s major ideological underpinnings. Pietism is that strain of Protestant theology, clearly on display in our non-denominational suburban megachurches, that says, in effect, that when you come right down to it all that really matters in life is personal salvation, which can be purchased solely by faith without having to bother with any of that good works stuff. Get right with Jesus, and you don’t need to do anything to help the poor, who are, hell, unworthy anyway. At the same time, laissez-faire has a glossy “scientific” sheen to it, somewhat like the pseudoscientific theories of race formulated in the 19th century to rationalize imperial colonialism. For malefactors of great wealth – and their courtiers – laissez-faire is a great smokescreen behind which to hide greed and naked exploitation.

Laissez-faire is as invalid today as it was 160 years ago when it helped bring Ireland to its knees. Its survival into the 21st century has little to do with economics, or even reality, and much to do with it being an ideology perfectly suited to George Bush’s core constituency, those people he once famously described as “the haves and the have-mores.”

As for the poor and the hungry? Well – let them eat potatoes.

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