— “Our vision of an opportunity society stands in stark contrast to the current Administration’s policies that expand entitlements and guarantees, create new public programs, and provide expensive government bailouts. That road has created a culture of dependency, bloated government, and massive debt.”
— “An evangelical sect that preached a passionate gospel of self-help… opposed public assistance on the grounds that relief deprived the poor of the incentive to change the behaviors that had made them poor — alcoholism, sloth, indolence, sexual promiscuity. Relieve the poor man, [the evangelists said], and you deprive him of the impetus to become self-reliant, self-disciplined, industrious, sober, and chaste.”
Can you provide the origin of each quotation? From what era and in what country?
The first quotation is from the Republican 2012 National Platform. The second describes the religious views of an evangelical sect called Moralists who dominated the British government in the 1840s as it grappled with the Great Famine in Ireland caused by the potato blight. The influence of the Moralists, whose philosophy meshed with laissez-faire economics, is described in John Kelly’s The Graves are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People.
Kelly recounts the vast suffering caused by the famine: A million Irish dead, two million fled abroad. Ireland’s population declined by more than a third between1845 and 1852.
The causes of the Irish catastrophe are complex and rooted in the long, troubled history of the Emerald Isle. Certainly over-reliance on the potato as foodstuff made the Irish peasantry vulnerable to crop failure. Historic British policy prohibiting Catholics, the vast majority of the Irish, from purchasing land led to a skewered landholding system in which the great Anglo-Irish landowners rented minuscule plots to Catholics, most of whom worked holdings of less than five acres.
Irish peasants subsisted on the potato because a farmer could grow triple the amount of potatoes as grain on the same small plot. A single acre of potatoes could support a family for a year.
In the mid-1840s the potato blight (Phytophtora infestans) appeared in Europe, soon spreading to Ireland. In some Irish districts, nearly all the crop was infected for several years. Thousands died of hunger; many more died of diseases that accompany famine.
An inadequate response by the British government made a bad situation worse. It took the government months to set up soup kitchens and enact emergency work relief programs, which were then suspended long before they could do much good. In the end, the government relied on a system of work houses, grim Dickensian institutions that the Irish shunned.
Britain billed the cost of the relief to the large Anglo-Irish landowners, who soon realized that it was cheaper to pay the fare of an Irish peasant to emigrate than to feed him or her, especially since those impoverished peasants could not afford their rent. Thus began the mass exodus to Liverpool, the United States, Canada, and Australia.
In The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), John Mitchel, an Irish nationalist of the era, charged the British government with a genocidal plot to depopulate Ireland.
Kelly disagrees, arguing that British ministers were well-meaning, God-fearing men trapped by their laissez-faire ideology and religious views of self-reliance. But he concedes that though their motives may not have been genocidal, the results of their policies were. “The relief policies,” he writes, “that England employed during the famine — parsimonious, short-sighted, grotesquely twisted by religion and ideology — produced tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. The intent of those policies may not have been genocidal, but the effects were.”
Last week, House Republicans, along largely partisan lines, pushed through a bill slashing billions from the food stamp program. “The wrong policies can destroy a person’s self-identity and lull them into a life of dependence,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said. “The right policies can lift people out of poverty and on a path to independence.”
During the potato famine a British minister lamented “the present habit [in Ireland] of dependence on government” as a reason to deny food relief for the starving.