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When Governments Fail . . .

the most vulnerable pay the price.

In the 1840s, the government of Great Britain failed spectacularly. The instance was the horrific blind dedication of the government to “free enterprise.” The result was the death of millions during the Irish famine.

From the history place:

As a devout advocate of laissez-faire, [Prime Minister] Trevelyan also claimed that aiding the Irish brought “the risk of paralyzing all private enterprise.” Thus he ruled out providing any more government food, despite early reports the potato blight had already been spotted amid the next harvest in the west of Ireland. Trevelyan believed Peel’s policy of providing cheap Indian corn meal to the Irish had been a mistake because it undercut market prices and had discouraged private food dealers from importing the needed food. This year, the British government would do nothing. The food depots would be closed on schedule and the Irish fed via the free market, reducing their dependence on the government while at the same time maintaining the rights of private enterprise.

In the face of millions going hungry, of deaths, of a natural disaster, the government of Great Britain remained passive – convinced by some miracle that the “free market” would feed the starving. Even more horrific, when the “free market” finally reacted, it was worse than useless:

. . . in Cork harbor, the long-awaited private enterprise shipments of Indian corn and other food supplies had finally begun arriving. Food prices dropped by half and later dropped to a third of what they had been, but the penniless Irish still could not afford to eat. As a result, food accumulated in warehouses within sight of people walking about the streets starving.

From the BBC:

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. The Irish viceroy actually proposed in this fashion to sweep the western province of Connacht clean of as many as 400,000 pauper smallholders too poor to emigrate on their own. But the majority of Whig cabinet ministers saw little need to spend public money accelerating a process that was already going on ‘privately’ at a great rate.

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New Orleans

Donna thought she’d be gone three days tops, maybe a week if she decided to go up to Memphis to visit her brother. It would be a little vacation – the hurricanes around Louisiana were always good for that. You crossed your fingers in hopes that the wind wouldn’t blow out too many windows or take your roof off and you’d go. Folks would visit friends in Mississippi or Texas and they’d all watch the weather and drink beer and laugh. No one ever expected to be gone more than three days. It just didn’t happen. You always came back. Everyone always came back.

Photo by Alice McNamara
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