Infrastructure Lessons from the Irish Potato Famine

Public works projects should only be built when they have a clear purpose, but the United States hasn't always followed this philosophy.
October 2013

I have long backed government spending on public works as a useful way to employ people and get stuff done in tough fiscal times. But once upon a time—and with dreadful consequences—the British drove this idea into the ditch. It was during the Irish potato famine a century and a half ago.

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As John Kelly tells in The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People, it was an anathema to the British to give any sort of direct aid to the poor. This was thought to cause dependence on government, to weaken self-responsibility and to hurt the workings of the free market.

“If the Irish people were taught to rely on government for a supply of food, it would become not only a great but a growing evil,” said then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Wood.

So even when thousands began to starve in Ireland in 1846 as a fungus attacked their potato crop, the English rulers in London were reluctant to do what might seem obvious: feed starving Ireland. Politically, it was as if the people in Mississippi or Minnesota had suffered a natural disaster and the federal government just stood by wasting time deciding whether and how to respond.

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