What Happens When Governments Fail?

In a democracy, the role of government is to serve the people, not just the rich and powerful or the dictates of a close-minded ideology. Throughout the relatively recent development of democratic societies, the consequence of governments neglecting or ignoring this imperative has invariably resulted in negative – and sometimes tragic – consequences.

An early textbook example of this phenomenon was the Irish Potato Famine.

This year marks the 170th anniversary of the end of this terrible chapter in history. The famine kicked off with the failure of the Irish potato crop in the fall of 1846. A fungus that began in the Americas quickly spread worldwide. When potatoes were harvested, they immediately turned into an inedible mush. The fungus caused dietary problems in many places, but nowhere were the effects more devastating than in Ireland.

Why? Because historians estimate that in the western – and poorest – region of Ireland, the average male farmer or day laborer consumed more than ten pounds of potatoes every day. Mixed with buttermilk, this combination – much like beans and corn in the new world – provided the nutrients necessary for a healthy, if monotonous, diet.

The first ten months of the crop failure caused widespread hunger, but not a massive wave of deaths. England’s Tory government ordered shipments of corn from across the Atlantic to be distributed to the Irish free of charge. Unfortunately, that government fell and was replaced by Britain’s first liberal coalition. In those days, “liberal” meant two things: first, the extension of voting rights and secondly, the imperative that government not interfere in the dynamics of the “free market.”

The new prime minister called for a halt to the free distribution of corn to the Irish peasantry. The food was sold – at a discount – to grain merchants and the Irish assigned make-work jobs whose wages were to be used to buy corn. Unfortunately, the government did not foresee that, in the face of widespread hunger, the price of food would become increasingly inflated, while the wages for Irish laborers remained fixed.

The outcome? The “wages” were not sufficient to cover the cost of nutrition. By 1850, more than half the people of Ireland had either died of starvation – thousands of them expiring on the site of the so-called “famine roads” that were supposed to weave the country together – or fled to other countries.

As was said of Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster was turned into a man-made catastrophe by government ineptitude.