Classical Economic Theory and Policy during the Great Irish Famine*


This paper aims to clarify the relationship between classical political economy and the Irish policy of the Whig government, including the former’s influence on the latter, during the Great Irish Famine. The paper focuses on the political economy of Nassau William Senior (1790–1864) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). Classical political economy of the time is often accused of utterly failing to prevent mass starvation in Ireland.
The paper argues that, in order to assess this assertion during the Great Famine, it is crucial not to oversimplify as one unified group of Whigs the statesmen and mandarins in the Whig government who planned and managed the relief measures, and the classical political economists who offered broad-scale ideas and advised on policy. Mandarins were not always able to grasp precisely and practice effectively what political economists prescribed, nor did they necessarily intend to do so.
The paper concludes that, concerning the Irish relief measures, the influence of classical political economy has been overestimated.