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new internationalist
issue 221 - July 1991


Let them eat nothing
Duncan Smith on the human cost of economic
orthodoxy - and the search for an alternative.

Laissez-faire economics in action during the 1847 potato famine. Plus ca change? In 1729 Jonathan Swift published his most savage satire against oppression in Ireland in A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burden to their Parents and to the Country. The proposal was to fatten the children before eating them. It is hard to imagine where his scorching anger would have led him had he lived to experience the 'Great Hunger' which gripped Ireland from 1845-49.

Before the famine broke out there was horrifying poverty. The census of 1841 showed that half the rural population lived in 'windowless mud cabins of a single room' and subsisted almost entirely on potatoes. Then in the autumn of 1845 the potato crop was wiped out by disease.

England was, at this time, ruled by politicians and economists with a fanatical belief in Free Trade and laissez-faire. A disaster was clearly foreseen but after a miserly distribution of Indian Corn and soup it was concluded by the Whig Government that the 'right course was to do nothing for Ireland and to leave things to the operation of natural causes'.

Consequently racketeers made profits and the export of food from Ireland continued because the starving had no money with which to buy it. Nearly two million desperate people fled the country to escape starvation. No-one knows how many starved to death but scores of thousands died, uncounted, in their cabins, in ditches and by the roadside.

Shortly afterwards Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, wrote 'I have always felt a certain horror of political economists since I heard one say that he feared that the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kill more than a million and that would be scarcely enough to do much good'.

This is a terrible story but we have no cause to be selfrighteous. Millions are now starving in Africa and elsewhere at a time when we have just squandered billions of dollars in a battle to control an oilfield. It is generally assumed that though nations may form alliances for particular purposes it is normal for them to compete ruthlessly in the economic sphere and that laissez-faire is, like the weather, a natural phenomenon beyond human control.

In fact, our economic system is human-made. It was formulated by Adam Smith and his successors only two centuries ago. Before then most economic systems took some account of human relationships. For example, usury was a crime in the eyes of the Church until the sixteenth century. But since the Industrial Revolution competition, private enterprise and the worship of growth have become a quasi-religion. The only major attempt - in the Communist countries - to establish a different system has foundered on the rock of human nature.

This shows that people are more than pawns and that a system based on rigid authoritarianism cannot last. But it does not mean - as some on the Right would like it to mean - that we are 'at the end of history', that the triumph of Mammon is complete. Nature, for a start, is hitting back after years of disregard and abuse during the rush to industrialism. Air and water pollution are rampant. The 'greenhouse effect' and the depletion of the ozone layer are at last being taken seriously. Unregulated and indefinite growth based on finite resources is clearly a nonsense and unless we can use these more economically and equitably Gulf-type wars over water, energy and raw materials will proliferate.

Equally important is the moral pollution caused by the exaltation of greed, selfishness and acquisitiveness implicit in the present system. Economists regard people as factors of production rather than as human souls, profit takes precedence over needs and a fifth of humanity lives in abject poverty because they have no purchasing power.

Even in the so-called 'developed' countries there are huge disparities of wealth. Resources, both nationally and internationally, have been steadily transferred from the poor to the rich. Such gross injustice inevitably leads to an increase in crime, fraud, drug-taking, guerilla-warfare, envy and despair.

Worldwide there is a great hunger for change - for some form of new age which gives people moral values that will give their lives real satisfaction. Such spiritual yearnings, however, are liable to fade like morning mist unless they are supported by a system of economics which embodies their aspirations. And to do that means you have to challenge orthodox economics head on.

The person who did so most effectively was Fritz Schumacher. It was largely his inspiration which, when the Economic Summit met in London in 1984, led a group of admirers to organize The Other Alternative Summit (TOES) to challenge orthodox thinking. This led to the formation of the New Economic Foundation, a charity whose mission is to 'develop a new economics that will change the economy to one that is sustainable, socially just and with a high quality of life for all'. An enormous task but one which is beginning to show results.

The Other Economic Summit is this year back in London from July 15-16, 'shadowing' the official Economic Summit. Leading activists from the Third World and from Europe will tackle subjects ranging from the money system to 'greening' management to international trade.

The New Economics may not be getting the mainstream media coverage it deserves but it has done much to create pathways that avoid the errors of both communism and capitalism. It is naturally open - and of interest - to everyone who is hungry for change.

Duncan Smith is a member of the New Economics Foundation. The Other Economic Summit 1991 is being held at the Central Hall, Westminster, London, July 15-16. For details phone 071 377 5720.

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