A letter to the Queen:
As the Regent knows a potato blight, known as phytophthora infestans, hit Europe in the years of 1845-1850. Ireland was hit particularly hard as a result of their primarily potato based diet. As the Regent also knows the British government was unable to provide adequate aid to sustain those left without means of feeding themselves. In 1845 the potato blight destroyed approximately 75% of their potato crop. This left them with little food and little planting seed for the following season. Thus in 1846 they received even lower crop yields. This obviously left even less seed for the planting in 1847. The irony of it all was if there had been adequate planting seed in 1847 the famine would have ended earlier since potatoes were barely afflicted that season. This unfortunate trend continued through 1849. The British government’s attempts to provide aid without disrupting our fervent policy of laissez-faire economics fell far short of the crop loses and thus helped little over the long term in terms of life lost. While it is undeniable that the aid proved to reduce the mortality rate, it is difficult to call the attempts a success in the face of over one million deaths.
While it seemed the logical choice at the time, our attempts at sustaining the Irish people mainly through imports of American maize and little local grain were misguided. At the time we feared the reaction of local merchants and import/export companies if we were to implement legislation removing the laissez-faire policy we have become so reliant on. However, in retrospect it seems that this temporary change to a government imposed mean price would have proved to be little detriment on the British economy while providing far more aid to the Irish people than could be achieved by the import of foreign grain.
Grain prices rose from approximately 10 pound a ton in 1840 to upwards of 19 pounds a ton in 1847. If the British government would have implemented a mean price and provided subsidies to the local gross distributors they could have provided significantly more aid to the peoples of Ireland. An article in the Economist stating, “paying people not what their labour is worth, not what their labour can be purchased for, but what is sufficient for a comfortable subsistence for themselves and their family…would stimulate every man to marry and populate as fast as he could like a rabbit in warren” summed up the belief of many Members of parliament. This belief, in retrospect, suggests that the Irish people must be fools or gluttons for their own demise. With this in mind and the popular belief that deviating from a strict policy of laissez-faire economics would ruin the British economy, the only logical reasoning for these beliefs was that there was some fear of the bourgeoisie rebelling against anti-laissez-faire legislation.
That’s not to say that this fear was completely unwarranted. It is undeniable that there would have been significant balking from the Bourgeoisie if such policies were implemented. Obviously, a temporary lapse from laisez-faire would not prove to be a huge detriment nor would it give way to a regression and certainly not a depression. The only conceivable way for this policy to harm the British economy overall would be the uprising of the merchant class. If this policy is to be implemented in the future to prevent such events that plagued the Irish people from occurring again we must find a way to appease the bourgeoisie enough for them to tolerate a temporary governmental intrusion on their business practices.
The most cost effective and amicable way to achieve this would be a governmentally imposed mean price for grain and a subsidy for those that trade within the British Empire. If the governmental mean price were placed at the maximum price before the hardships occurred it should be within the reach of famine stricken people that are being aided by the work programs. Along with this mean price subsidies would be provided to those that chose to trade within the British Empire while the export tariffs would be increased to pay for the subsides provided. The subsidies would only be provided to those distributors that did a certain percentage of their trade within the British Empire so as to discourage large exporters from maintaining a small percentage of their trade within the Empire to gain the subsidies.
By no means does this suggest a mutually exclusive relationship. A minimum of 70 percent of the companies trade must be within the Empire for them to qualify for subsidies. This would allow for continued external trade at a market-regulated price while still maintaining the purpose of the policy. In the best-case scenario the companies would be basically paying for their own subsidies through the tariffs on their foreign exports. Theses policies would encourage internal trade while still allowing those steadfast individuals who are determined to trade elsewhere to do so.
The other potential effect this could have is an insurgence of new grain production and distribution companies. Since the grain industry was an almost perfectly elastic market at the time, and any time of famine, anyone with the start up capital could invest in land and low wage workers, potentially emigrant Irishmen, and have a thriving company within the year’s harvest. In fact in a market with a governmentally imposed price, this type of business becomes even more appealing. The product is infinitely renewable with no external cost and the mean price will stay constant despite the influx of gross product into the market. In a laissez-faire economy this potentially large flood of product into the free market would drive the price down to a level that could not possibly result in profits for the producers. In a high demand market, such as this one, it is possible that a free trade economy could support the influx for a fixed number of years, but certainly not with any certainty. The current high demand provided for little chance of low returns on the product and an easily determinate profit as a result of the fixed prices. Both of these facts are another net of insurance this policy would provide for insurgent investors and producers. Theses policies would by no means halt the displeasure of the bourgeoisie but it would please enough of them to make rebellion an unpalatable choice.
If more of the governments funds allocated to Irish relief could be used to employ more Irishmen through the work programs, it would in turn allow exponentially more Irishmen to afforded grain at the newly regulated grain price. More money could also be provided to the soup kitchens to help the truly in famished and unable to work, as well as providing more medical treatment for the poor.
It is a possibility that most of the local distributors would abandon foreign trade in favor of the now cheaper local trade. If this were to occur it would become increasingly difficult to maintain the subsidies for distributors that kept trade within the British Empire since the source of funding would be diminished. Thus we must be very careful to balance the tariffs to be more of a nuisance than a hindrance. Concurrently, the subsidies would have to be relatively low, just enough to provide a noticeable spike in the bookkeeper’s records. While higher subsidies would keep the bourgeoisie even happier, it simply wouldn’t be prudent on an unfixed timeline such as a famine.
It should be stated that theses policies should not be implemented at the first signs of trouble. This would only serve to test our ability to pacify the merchant class when it may not even be necessary. Since this policy does entail some risk, it would be best not to make use of it until we have evidence that a famine is indeed upon us. Furthermore, implementing it any earlier would only serve to elongate the period of time in which the governmentally intrusion would be necessary.
The basic ideas of this policy are to keep grain in the country and affordable, save relief money for those in desperate need of it, and to help fuel the grain industry with minimal governmental intrusion. If all of these objectives are met then future crisis should be significantly minimized or possible eliminated.