We got so interested today in hearing from all the people who are phoning and e-mailing in comments about the “Raw Judicial Power” series that we forgot to finish writing today’s installment! Still, today’s “substitute” posting, the third in the "Thornton foreword series," does relate to the Raw Judicial Power series.
This is because the Great Famine in Ireland seemed to confirm Malthusian theory. Population had, evidently, outstripped existing food supplies. The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse — Famine, Disease, War, and Death — had consequently put in their expected appearance.
The irony is that Ireland was one of the few food exporting countries in Europe. The land provided more than enough to feed the Irish and the propertyless workers of England. Even in 1847, the worst year of the Great Famine, there were massive exports of food from Ireland. (Christine Kinealy, This Great Calamity: The Irish Famine, 1845-1852. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1995, 354.)
To Thornton, the Great Famine represented not a confirmation of Malthusian theory, but its refutation. As he had argued in 1846, "over-population" is caused by systemic poverty and lack of widespread ownership of capital, not the other way around. In Europe, the potato blight caused hardship, as small landowners who depended on the potato for their basic subsistence had to shift to more expensive foodstuffs.
In Ireland, with virtually no small landowning class and afflicted with "tenancy-at-will" (which meant that landlords could evict a tenant for any reason or none at all), the blight was a disaster of unprecedented magnitude. More than enough food was grown in Ireland to stave off the Great Famine, but it did not belong to the common people. They died by the hundreds of thousands as food was shipped out of the country.
Unfortunately, the British government paid no attention to Thornton's proposal for Ireland. As he complained in 1874 in his revision of the Plea, "The time for creating a numerous peasant proprietary in the summary mode suggested has, however, long gone by, and is not now to be recovered. How seldom, alas, does England, in respect of Irish reforms, take time by the forelock!" (William T. Thornton, A Plea for Peasant Proprietors. London: Macmillan and Company, 1874, 261.)
This might be something to keep in mind during the March for Life on Monday of next week.