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.

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.

Instead of giving food to the starving, the British gave them shovels to begin building roads. Lots of them. Often, the roads went nowhere in particular. Worse, they damaged good agricultural land. Kelly speaks of “decapitated hills and an ugly tangle of unfinished roads that made the once-lovely Irish landscape look like it had been strip-mined.” But it didn’t matter. If people were to be fed, the British reasoned, they would need to work, and building roads was the easiest way to put them to work.

To make matters worse, laborers were paid meager wages. Often a half-starved peasant would walk five to 10 miles, sometimes in the snow and icy wind, to do hard labor on an unnecessary road, only to find that in the end, the wages were often not enough to buy sufficient food.

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Don’t forget that in the 1840s only horse-drawn carriages and wagons would use those roads. Ireland, with its rural-based economy, had few carriages or goods to move by wagon in the first place, so the roads had little impact on development or economic growth. Trains were replacing carriages elsewhere, yet the British apparently never considered developing a network of rail lines in Ireland. Better harbors and canals were options as well, but somehow the money ended up going into roads.

Even worse than their lack of utility, the road building effort was ineffectual as a way to stave off starvation. Public works could not deliver cash quickly enough. Tragically, hundreds of thousands began to die. Eventually in a country of 8 million people, more than a million Irish would die of starvation and disease within a few years, and another 2 million, according to Kelly, would emigrate in “coffin ships” that had a mortality rate approaching that of slave ships. Many died in transit or upon arrival to Canada or the United States.

After a year or two of this, the British opted to do the once unthinkable: set up a network of soup kitchens around the country and feed people. They worked well for a few months. But so great was the English fear of government dependence that the kitchens were closed at the first sign of a decent potato crop. The starvation resumed.

All this happened 165 years ago, but politics and public policies have familiar rhythms. While the Irish starved, the Whigs and Tories, like the Republicans and Democrats today, debated far less important concerns. The leading newspaper of the day, The Times, acted as a mouthpiece for the government, publishing let-them-starve propaganda. The public was concerned about the starving, but ultimately they were more concerned about paying taxes.

Ireland’s misplaced road effort in the 1840s got me thinking. What other public works efforts have been so badly misconstrued as to do more harm than good, including wasting taxpayer money?

I can think of one clear-cut example: the highways built through the middle of America’s downtowns after World War II as a component of the Interstate Highway System. These concrete monsters tore apart vital street systems and neighborhoods in nearly every major American city. The highways became unwieldy objects that made downtown planning more difficult, including mass transit. Undoing the damage these highways have caused has taken decades, there’s still a long way to go. I bet more cities will follow San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Milwaukee in tearing them down, while other cities, like Seattle and Boston, will spend billions more to hide them underground.

It’s important to remember that spending on public works is not valuable per se. Infrastructure projects have to be designed and carried out well, and have a mission that is appropriate. If a yes can’t be given to all three of these conditions, they shouldn’t be built.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.