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Sir Charles Trevelyan, the Irish Potato Famine and the inversion of reality. Not laissez-faire in Ireland under Trevelyan – the opposite of laissez-faire.

This post is written by Paul Marks and is posted on his behalf as he is not in a position to post.

Part of the story of Sir Charles Trevelyan is fairly well known and accurately told. Charles Trevelyan was head of the relief efforts in Ireland under Russell’s government in the late 1840s – on his watch about a million Irish people died and millions more fled the country. But rather than being punished, or even dismissed in disgrace, Trevelyan was granted honours, made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB) and later made a Baronet, not bad for the son of the Cornishman clergyman. He went on to the create the modern British Civil Service – which dominates modern life in in the United Kingdom.

With Sir Edwin Chadwick (the early 19th century follower of Jeremy Bentham who wrote many reports on local and national problems in Britain – with the recommended solution always being more local or central government officials, spending and regulations), Sir Charles Trevelyan could well be described as one of the key creators of modern government. If, for example, one wonders why General Douglas Haig was not dismissed in disgrace after July 1st 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme when twenty thousand British soldiers were killed and thirty thousand wounded for no real gain (the only officers being sent home in disgrace being those officers who had saved some of them men by ordering them stop attacking – against the orders of General Haig), then the case of Sir Charles Trevelyan is key – the results of his decisions were awful, but his paperwork was always perfect (as was the paperwork of Haig and his staff). The United Kingdom had ceased to be a society that always judged someone on their success or failure in their task – it had become, at least partly, a bureaucratic society where people were judged on their words and their paperwork. A General, in order to be great, did not need to win battles or capture important cities – what they needed to do was write official reports in the correct administrative manner, and a famine relief administrator did not have to actually save the population he was in charge of saving – what he had to do was follow (and, in the case of Sir Charles, actually invent) the correct administrative procedures.

But here is where the story gets strange – every source I have ever seen in my life, has described Sir Charles Trevelyan as a supporter of “Laissez Faire” (French for, basically, “leave alone”) “non-interventionist” “minimal government” and his policies are described in like manner. I must stress that I do not just mean sources such as “Wikipedia” (according to which the economic polices of General Perón were good for Argentina, and the failed communist, from each according to their ability – to each according to their need, experiment in the Plymouth colony in North America, in the early 17th century, never happened, despite Thanksgiving), I mean every source I have seen. Here is a quote from an article on the BBC website:

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.

It would seem odd for the creator of the modern Civil Service to be a roll-back-the-government person – but let us examine the theory in relation to what actually happened.

Let us test the theory that Ireland under Charles Trevelyan was a “laissez faire” place. Under this doctrine taxes would be very low – well were taxes very low? No, taxes were crushingly high – under the slogan of “Irish property must pay for Irish poverty” Irish Poor Law taxes, under the Act of 1838, (which had not even existed in the 18th century – the time of Edmund Burke) were pushed higher and higher – and the taxes were spread, although you wouldn’t know that from Wikipedia. As various “Poor Law Unions” went bankrupt the British government insisted that other Poor Law Unions that had not gone bankrupt, for example in the Province of Ulster, come to their aid – by pushing up their taxes. Thus taxes everywhere in Ireland became crushing. Taxes in Ireland had not been low before – indeed Edmund Burke had calculated that, relative to the wealth of the people, taxes in 18th century Ireland were much higher than taxes in England and Wales – but in the late 1840s under “laissez faire” Trevelyan taxes became much higher than they had been. The armed Royal Irish Constabulary, a national police force, perhaps more like a Gendarmerie, which had not existed in the 18th century, had its work cut out making sure these taxes were collected. And Charles Trevelyan insisted that the government education system, which also had not existed in the 18th century, not be neglected. The idea of perhaps spending the money devoted to the government schools on famine relief – well perhaps best not to mention that to him, even though Ireland had existed for many centuries without these government schools. Well, to a bureaucrat, children must be educated, even as they starved and died, just as dead men must be sent formal letters of complaint that they had not filled in government forms (no, I am not making that up) in relation to their relief work (even if they had not been paid – due to not filling in the correct forms).

Ah yes, the relief work. The endless “roads to nowhere” and other such schemes, Keynes did not invent these, but multiplier there was none. Charles Trevelyan was very determined that none of his relief projects should benefit the Irish economy (yes – you did read that correctly, NOT benefiting the Irish economy was his aim), that is why the roads tended to go from “nowhere to nowhere” and the other projects were of much the same “digging holes and filling them in again” type (much like the mad projects in France after the Revolution of 1848 – and yet no one calls them “laissez faire“). This was due to Trevelyan’s hatred, and hatred is not too strong a word, for Irish landowners – most of the anti-Irish comments that Irish Nationalists gleefully quote were actually directed at Irish landowners (most of whom were Protestants); Trevelyan hated them with a passion and attributed all the problems of Ireland to them (rather than to the Penal Laws, undermining the property rights of Roman Catholics and Dissenting Protestants, which had actually created the Irish “Peasant Plot” system over so many years – the Penal Laws had been repealed. but the system they created remained), no scheme must in-any-way benefit the accursed “gentry” (who Sir Charles seems to have regarded as close to being spawn of Satan). That the Whig Party itself was the creation of the aristocratic landowners does not seem to have carried much weight with Trevelyan – after all he was not working for the landowners, he was, at least in his own mind, on a mission from God (yes – God Himself) to set the world to rights. A Philosopher King – or rather a Philosopher Civil Servant, who treated the forms and regulations he created as Holy Texts.

None of the above is anything to do with “laissez faire” it is, basically, the opposite. Reality is being inverted by the claim that a laissez faire policy was followed in Ireland. A possible counter argument to all this would go as follows – “Sir Charles Trevelyan was a supporter of laissez faire – he did not follow laissez faire in the case of Ireland, but because he was so famous for rolling back the state elsewhere (whilst spawning the modern Civil Service) – it was assumed that he must have done so in the case of Ireland”, but does even that argument stand up? I do not believe it does. Certainly Sir Charles Trevelyan could talk in a pro free market way (just as General Haig could talk about military tactics – and sound every inch the “educated soldier”), but what did he actually do when he was NOT in Ireland?

I cannot think of any aspect of government in the bigger island of the then UK (Britain) that Sir Charles Trevelyan rolled back. And in India (no surprise – the man was part of “the Raj”) he is most associated with government road building (although at least the roads went to actual places in India – they were not “from nowhere to nowhere”) and other government “infrastructure”, and also with the spread of government schools in India. Trevelyan was passionately devoted to the spread of government schools in India – this may be a noble aim, but it is not exactly a roll-back-the-state aim. Still less a “radical”, “fanatical” devotion to “laissez faire“.

Paul Marks.

17 comments to Sir Charles Trevelyan, the Irish Potato Famine and the inversion of reality. Not laissez-faire in Ireland under Trevelyan – the opposite of laissez-faire.

  • James Hargrave

    The family background was somewhat more than you make out. Visit Wallington (and look in the stud book).

  • John B

    Yawn. Many words to express few thoughts… unmistakable sign of mediocrity.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Very interesting, Paul. Thanks.

  • Paul Marks

    Thank you John B. – I love you too sweetheart.

    Thank you for the correction James Hargrave – I know (vaguely) that the mother was from a well off background, but I know little of the father – other than that he was a Cornishman (a minister I believe).

    Julie – always glad to be of service.

    It is a very important subject – and I have only scratched the surface (someone is going to have to write a book on this – but will not be me). Somehow a policy of radically increasing taxation has been described as “laissez faire” and the very idea of limited government has been discredited – with the hostility increasing over time, as memory of the actual events died and just the accounts remained.

    Accounts of an supposedly evil policy of non interventionist free market “laissez faire” – with a minimal state leading to the “Irish genocide” of around a million dead and millions more people fleeing the land.

    In reality economic development in Ireland had been undermined in the 18th century by the Penal Laws – and although they were long repealed by the 1840s, the system of peasant plot farming remained in most of the island (although far from all of it).

    Taxes, relative to the wealth of the economy, were already higher in Ireland than England, Wales or Scotland in the 18th century (I have Edmund Burke to thank for that point – taxes relative to the wealth of the people).

    However, under the demented slogan “Irish property must pay for Irish poverty” an alarming increase in Poor Law taxes occurred – spreading all over the island after the Russell government demanded that Poor Law Unions that had not yet gone bankrupt must come to the aid of those that had.

    Trevelyan and others just did not seem to grasp that all taxes are passed on and hit the general economy – the idea that the property taxes would just hit the gentry and aristocracy was horribly wrong. The taxes were PART of the collapse of the Irish economy – although, yes, the crises was sparked by a natural disease (the potato blight).

    Why was food exported from Ireland at the very time of the mass distress? It was exported because so many people did not have the money to pay for the food – and they did not have the money to pay for the food (their own potato crop, on their plots, having failed) because the Irish economy was a shambles – and that that was partly due to the high taxation. The government make-work schemes (with all their hopeless bureaucracy) were there because “private sector” employment was not there – and it was not there, in part, because of the crushing taxes. Resources had been taken from Civil Society (which had been crushed) and taken by the state.

  • Matthew H Iskra

    I’m adding some of your phrases to my quotes file, for use later in the debates I never have. But I like to keep smart quotes that way I can pretend I am smarter than I am. I am especially endeared to the term “Philosopher Civil Servant”, but sadly most people won’t get the reference, what with “the classics” being 1960s TV these days and not the writings of the ancient Greeks.

  • Mark

    Not sure the point here but it’s Ireland’s present day problems that are real.

    Specifically the 100000 or so of euro debt for every man, woman and child. It’s a German colony these days and I, for one, will be very interested to see what political price the fatherland will extract for the coming bail out that nobody seems to want to talk about.

    As for Haig (who was Scottish in case anybody is interested) you really ought to understand that the battle of the Somme was a strategic victory, as Verdun was for the French. Overall, German casualties were about the same.

    In early 1916, the Germans were winning. By the end of 1916, they began to realise they could lose, one of the reasons they opted for unrestricted submarine warfare.

    The British army in 1918 under Haig took something like twice as many prisoners as all the other armies on the western front put together.

    He was not general Melchett (for those of you unfamiliar, a quick Google will enlighten)

  • Mr Ed

    The perils of breaching the Haig Convention. Mark is right, the Allies prevailed, but they denied themselves victory. I think Paul”s point is that the narrative of laissez-faire being to blame needs to be challenged, every time, and failure goes ruthlessly unpunished in the public sector.

    Current-day Ireland seems to be rather hopeless in terms of its economic prospects.

  • Paul Marks

    Mark – the strategic successes of the Allies in late 1918 were due to Foch (really due to the fact that French intelligence had broken German codes – and to the general internal decline of Germany due to a four year naval blockade and the follies of General Ludendorff’s “War Socialism” – see Ludwig Von Mises “Nation, State and Economy”).

    At the tactical level such British Generals as Plumer did very well in late 1918 (even General Rawlinson did well) – the role of General Haig in 1918 (as in every other year of the war) was passing the blame for defeats on other men (such as his old crony General Gough who Haig betrayed in early 1918 – not that Gough was any good anyway), and taking the credit (in the several different versions of his dairy – as well as in the official reports he had such influence on), for the work and sacrifices of other men.

    Blaming other people for his mistakes, and taking the credit for the work and sacrifices of other men was the trademark of Douglas Haig, over his military life (going back well before the First World War). He was a poor military tactician – but a brilliant office warrior, a master of official reports and operating in the military bureaucracy that the various reform campaigns had created.

    That being said – the order of Haig in early 1918 (with our backs to the wall, but trusting in the justice of our cause, we must fight on….) was inspirational.

    As for 1916 – even when Generals such as Earl of Cavan (Commander of the Guards Division) and Rawlinson (yes even Rawlinson – not a very strong willed man, to put the matter mildly) argued that a tactical plan was not sound – Haig would order it anyway (without going to see what such men were talking about). Haig was a man who needed to be kept away from tactical operations – which, contrary to his own claims, he largely was in late 1918.

    Of course the main contribution of Haig at the very end was to support London (the very politicians he had feuded with) in holding that the war must come to an end – BEFORE open victory was achieved. It is quite correct that more men would have died had their been a drive to openly defeat the Germans in 1919 – but then the myth that “Germany was not really defeated” would not have taken hold – not with a victory parade in Berlin and so on. Marshall Foch was left in despair “this is not peace – this is a 20 year truce”.

    Matthew – glad you got the reference, it is (of course) to the Philosopher Kings of Plato.

  • Paul Marks

    The discrediting of liberty, of limited government, is very much bound up with the terrible events of the late 1840s in Ireland

    Had “rolling back the state” (reducing taxes, government spending, regulations – and so on) really been to blame for the “Irish Genocide” of the late 1840s, a million people dead and millions more fleeing the land, then the left would be CORRECT to denounce a “roll back the state” policy – but taxes and so on were NOT radically reduced in the Ireland of the 1840’s, they were greatly increased.

    What has happened in the standard account of the terrible events in Ireland in the late 1840s is an inversion of reality – and it is very much relevant to this day.

  • The perils of breaching the Haig Convention. (Mr Ed, November 23, 2019 at 10:42 am)

    🙂 (Paul and I have debated our differences over General Sir Douglas Haig in other threads sufficiently that I’ll skip breaching that convention myself here, save to note that even mentioning him has so distant and indirect a connection to the rest of the interesting post that it is merely distracting.)

    The main post is interesting and I certainly do not know it is wrong. That it was Whigs (i.e. Liberals), not Tories, who ruled when the Irish famine arose is very much a fact. As anyone who knows Burke knows, the Whig narrative on Ireland was far from fact, so was apt to make their policy there bad. It is a period of Irish history I know less well than periods before and after – and Paul’s post makes me wonder if I know it even less well than I thought.

  • jmc

    Just a quick correction. The one million dead number from the Famine of the 1840’s is one of those made up numbers. Plucked from thin air. In the last 30 years. Created for political reasons.

    It just so happens we have reasonably accurate mortality statistics from the period courtesy of the 1851 census. Sir William Wilde, (Oscars father) a doctor, wrote a pretty thorough report as part of the 1851 census going into great detail about the census methodology, problems with previous census attempts, and especially morality tables.

    The actual number of people who died of starvation during that terrible decade was just over 20,000. Far less than some of the previous famines in the 18’th century. Very large numbers of people died from the diseases of malnutrition. Like diphtheria. But also from the various cholera and influenza epidemics which swept Europe during that decade. Wilde assessed those mortalities at around 500K for the decade.

    To put that number in some perspective the mortality rate in the worst hit areas of Ireland in 1847 were about the same as in the slums of London or Manchester at the time. Until the 1860’s Londons mortality rate was so high that its population increase was due purely to inward migration as its resident population rate of increase was actually negative due to its very high mortality rate.

    Reading Dr Wildes census report published in the early 1850’s is a very sobering experience. Even in the very formal language of government publications of the day the truly harrowing experience of the famine Dr Wilde obviously personally experienced shines through the very sober prose.

    The only academic paper I could find as a reference for the one million dead number is a rather supercilious piece of fluff written by some minor Irish academic at an even more minor university (UCD) whose gaeligoire prejudices were patently obvious at every turn. So utterly worthless as a scholarly work of research. But exceptionally useful as political propaganda.

    So always beware of the providence of historical statistics paraded about for political purposes. They are usually little more than made up numbers..

  • Paul Marks

    jmc – I hope I did not say “die for starvation”, disease was the big killer but disease hit people already weakened by their poor diet. They did not, in the main, starve to death – but they were so weakened that they died of disease.

    The economic collapse of the late 1840s was about more than the Potato Blight (terrible thought that was) – my contention is that it was the massive TAXATION (via the Poor Law taxes – but other taxes to) that flung an already weak Irish economy off a cliff. The urban death toll in the major cities in England was often a matter of water and sewers – not exactly a major problem in rural Ireland (where water is from the rain)

    By the way – saying that a million people died (not that they formally died of starvation – but they died as a result of bad policy) and millions more fled the land, is a “rather supercilious piece of fluff” is not something I would advice you to say to any Irishman.

    You may be correct that it was less than a million dead (although saying “20 thousand” is not good – you are just including people who formally starved to death, leaving out all the other deaths caused by the economic collapse due to bad policy) – but that sort of language is just not good.

    I am the least Politically Correct person you are likely to meet – and I reject such language as “the Irish genocide” – but “rather supercilious piece of fluff” over around (around – if not exactly) a million deaths, that is not good Sir.

    Your estimate is half a million deaths – I suspect that estimate is too low, but even if correct half a million dead people is rather a lot of dead people.

  • Paul Marks

    Niall – no it was not a distraction to mention General Haig.

    Charles Trevelyan helped invent the modern world – where doing your job well does not seem to matter, just filling in the correct paperwork and engaging in administrative activity (going to meetings and so on) is what matters.

    General Douglas Haig is a classic example of that.

    What battles did he personally win? None at all – he was never tactical command (contrary to his claims – going all the way back to the Sudan) in successful battles. What cities did he capture? None.

    His contributions were dreadful – for example ordering home (in disgrace) officers whose only crime was to order their men to stop Haig’s suicide attacks. Yet he was hailed as a great general – and given honours. And academic historians (who have never killed a single man in their lives) continue to defend this nonentity in unintentionally funny books such as “Haig: The Educated Soldier” (the “educated soldier” when he left Oxford without a degree, got James Edmunds [the same man who would much later write the vile “official history”] to do some of the training college work for him, and when General Plumer later forced Douglas Haig to actually sit exams in person – failed the maths paper, but used wire pulling tactics to stay an officer anyway).

    Fine a man can be a “fighting solider” who uses intuition (rather than book learning) to win battles – but Douglas Haig was NOT that – he was million miles from that. Nor did he learn – as the continuation of the Passchendaele offensive in 1917 shows. Haig had been on the Western Front for three years – three years. And he still did such things as put Gough in charge of key operations (rather than Plumer) and, insanely, carried on the offensive for month after month – long after it was obvious (to everyone – apart from Douglas Haig) that it was not going to take the German U.Boat sites.

    20 thousand British soldiers died and 30 thousand were wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (July 1st 1916 – Haig had been on the Western Front for almost two years “inexperience” can not be used as a excuse) – and Haig just sent home (in disgrace) the officers who stopped his suicide attacks in some sectors.

    How many more British soldiers did he want to kill on July 1st 1916? If 20 thousand was not enough, how many more? And what important city or vital military target was the operation supposed to take? Was there really a military objective at all? Or was it really disguised attrition warfare? If it really was attrition warfare, i.e. IF the bloodbath was ON PURPOSE – rather than “just” the result of gross negligence on the part of Douglas Haig, then General French’s “outbust” was correct – General Haig should have been put before a firing squad and executed. General French was no genius (far from it) – but he never killed vast numbers of his own men on purpose. If it was “attrition warfare” (an attack without a real military objective – in the knowledge that vast numbers of British soldiers would be killed) – then it was on purpose.

    I am not a party to any “Haig Convention” – I am sick and tired of these bureaucrats (in uniform or out of uniform) being treated as little tin Gods, just because they are brilliant at manipulating official reports and “official history”.

    They mess everything up and they are never held accountable for the damage and the deaths they cause. They are the modern world – and the modern world stinks. It is a world of endless “administration” and meetings – where men do not get things done (and are then REWARDED for their failure), and send other men to die in their place.

    Robert McNamara is another example – whether it is the Ford Motor Company, the Vietnam War, or the World Bank. The difference is that “scientific management” (i.e. endless meetings and report manipulation) just cost money in private business – in war (or famine relief) they cost human lives.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Britain went to war in 1914 with a tiny army and a tiny munitions industry. By the end of 1914 the British Expeditionary Force had suffered 90% casualties.

    As with any profession it takes time to get any good at it. Training takes time. Gaining experience takes time. The hardest skill to learn was that of staff officer. The “bloody red tabs”. The bureaucrats. For most of the war, the British army was short of these men. Meanwhile, away from the battlefield, It took time for British – and it might be added, American – industry to be able to supply the British army with the right equipment in the right quantities. This did not really happen until 1917. Unfortunately, in the meantime, there was a war to fight.

    In February 1916 the Germans began the Verdun offensive. Immediately, France found itself in a life-or-death struggle. As an ally Britain had to help, ready or not. That is why the Somme happened and why it was so bloody.

  • JohnW

    As recall from Robert Kee’s book on the famine, he claimed adequate food relief was provided but most people in Ireland died from typhus as they left their villages to obtain government food relief in towns unequipped to handle the sanitary problems arising from such large increases in population. Even Manchester, Liverpool and London struggled to cope with the huge increase in Irish immigrants.
    As for the export of grain – if Irish farmers were prohibited from raising capital from the sale of their produce at the best prices they could obtain then they would be unable to finance their productive activities the following year [the famine lasted four years but could have lasted for decades as far as anyone knew] and profitable producers would have shared the fate of marginal producers destined scrape a living below the level of subsistence.
    Not good.
    The hostility against land owners was part of a wider hostility toward aristocracy generally, especially with regards to their privileges, versus commerce.
    Perhaps the most eloquent and persuasive voice against laissez-faire and in favour of economic interference [“bread taxes” tariffs etc.] was Augustus Stafford O’Brien who is still regarded as a national hero in Ireland. By no means an ill-motivated character his 2 vol classic “The Battle for Native Industry” [1846] makes a well-researched and compelling case for interference. It is, of course, entirely mistaken lacking familiarity with Austrian Theories which only came to light 30 years later.
    Nevertheless he was a good man – a veritable giant compared to the pygmies who rule us today – and probably makes Trevelyan seem like a free-trader by comparison.

    It’s worth remembering before we seem too smug that if today’s families commonly had 9+ children and spent 75% of the family budget on food then we too would probably facing hunger at the mere prospect of a Labour government.

  • Paul Marks

    Patrick – I agree that experience takes time.

    That is why I pointed out that Douglas Haig had been on the Western Front for almost two years in July 1916 (the Somme) and more than three years by late 1917 (the p. offensive). Other men did indeed learn by experience – but Douglas Haig was not one of them.

    JohnW – yes the government food dole (or at least the way it was organised) may have actually killed more people than it saved. And the taxes that paid for it crushed the Irish economy – particularly in rural areas (as the Poor Law tax was on LAND).

    As for Irish economists – Richard Cantillon (back in the early 1700s) shows that Irish economists were NOT all bad.

    Indeed there were many good economists in Ireland in the 1840s (for example at Trinity College Dublin) who could have told Trevelyan that crushing Ireland with TAXES was not the answer.

    The idea that laissez faire is just about “free trade” is an Economist magazine view of the matter. It does not matter a Tinker’s curse what trade policy one has IF (IF) the country is crushed by taxes.

    “Irish property must pay for Irish poverty” was the motto of a madman. The sort of lunatic who believes that “a tax on the land is just a tax on the gentry”.

    The Irish could not afford to import food (not that much was about), or even to buy domestically produced food (some of which was exported) – because the local economy was crushed by taxes.

    I repeat – even back in the 1700s Irish taxes were harsher (relative to the economy) than taxes in England, Scotland and Wales. Hat tip to Edmund Burke for that point.

    And the Penal Laws prevented proper economic development in the 1700s (again hat tip to Edmund Burke).

    But adding a new tax (the Poor Law tax) and pushing that tax into outer space, was not going to make things better.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Paul, thus:

    ‘“Irish property must pay for Irish poverty” was the motto of a madman. The sort of lunatic who believes that “a tax on the land is just a tax on the gentry”.’

    It’s distressing to see that “wealth taxes” and even Georgist land taxation (a subset of wealth taxation) are being discussed here, including by some who think they are not on the Left and who, if their opinion actually warrants the depletion of pixel reserves, ought to know better. (The Dems, naturally, are all for it — at least the ones with the microphones who are trying to get a foot onto the Campaign Trail.)

    I really do see this in some unexpected places. Unfortunately, I don’t have any sources or links to offer.