Paul Ryan’s Irish Problem

Mitt Romney’s running mate is making the same economic mistakes that hurt his forefathers in the Great Famine, writes John Kelly.

Jose Luis Magana / AP Photo

Paul Ryan and his siblings are proud of their Irish famine-to-fortune history. They trace their paternal lineage to Ryan’s great-great grandfather, James Ryan, who fled the famine in Ireland for America in 1851, just after the worst of the catastrophe was over. But there’s something wrong with that scenario, and it is this: Ryan’s high-profile economic philosophy is the very same one that hurt, not helped, his forebears during the famine—and hurt them badly.

The Irish famine, widely regarded as the worst natural disaster of the 19th century, began when, between 1845 and 1850, repeated crop failures reduced the population of Ireland by a third. But crop failure wasn’t what caused the worst of it: a government economic philosophy called “Moralism” and speeches made in Parliament that are almost word-for-word like Ryan’s own speeches about his Republican budget are what made the famine catastrophic, causing needless deaths.

Charles Trevelyan, the British official who oversaw famine relief, was so intent on rooting out the “cankerworm of government dependency” from the character of hungry peasants that he ordered relief food be sold rather than given away. That decision was the single-most devastating one, increasing famine deaths multifold—and unnecessarily.

The words Paul Ryan used, last March, to introduce the Republican budget that eviscerates Medicare and other “entitlements,” had, to my famine-trained ears, an eerie echo to Trevelyan’s. Ryan declared that America was at an “insidious moral tipping point,” adding that “the president is accelerating this.” He went on to say that a capacious safety net “lulls able-bodied people”—I paused at the slightly archaic turn of phrase—“into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives. It’s demeaning.” Far better for the American character for the poor to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Ah, yes, those bootstraps again.

Trevelyan couldn’t have said it better—and didn’t. In his numerous speeches in Parliament, as the fate of the Irish deteriorated direly, he continued to pound that same theme Ryan used on the budget—a theme Romney picked up several days before his selection of Ryan (at conservatives’ strong insistence), by adopting that same language at public events: President Obama was encouraging a climate of “government dependence” by the poor, which Romney vowed to aggressively reverse.

Back in mid-19th century Parliament, Trevelyan wasn’t alone, just as Ryan and Romney aren’t now. Sir Randoph Routh, the head of the Irish Relief Commission, was such a fervent crusader for the free market that not even mass starvation and mass death failed to shake his belief. When a starving delegation from famine-struck County Mayo visited Routh’s office, he presented his guests not with food— but instead with a copy of Edmund Burke’s pamphlet Details on Scarcity, in which Burke explains how market forces deliver food more efficiently than the government. In Routh’s enthusiastic gifting of Burke’s book are shades of Ryan’s fervent profferings, for years, of the works of Ayn Rand. (To be fair, Ryan didn’t give copies of Atlas Shrugged to any starving peasants.)

Echoes from Irish famine past to U.S. present also exist on the immigration issue. Slightly more than 2 million desperately poor Irish fled their country for our shores—most Irish Americans, like Paul Ryan, had at least one ancestor in the steerage holds of those storm-tossed ships. They were greeted here with every bit as much contempt as the “illegal immigrants” over whom Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona is exercising such self-serving energy.

Congressman Steve King of Iowa and former Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado would have found many of their arguments against Hispanic immigration echoed in an 1848 article on Irish immigration in the American publication The Presbyterian Quarterly Review. The Review warned its readers that the Irish were taking jobs away from American workers and undercutting American wages. The magazine said the Irish showed no interest in learning American values and were a “reckless, vehement people” whose presence on “our shores” posed a threat to the virtuous, industrious America envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

And what about taxes? A Liverpool man who complained to his local newspaper that the Irish should stop asking British government for assistance amid the famine (even though Ireland was then part of the United Kingdom) would have felt right at home at a Tea Party meeting. “Audacius beggars!” the man wrote in a letter to the Liverpool Mercury. “You Irish! Every one of you ought to have a begging staff and cap added to your coat of arms!”

Whether 165 years ago across the ocean or now, in America, there’s a danger in the inflexible ideas of staunch ideologues, whether of the right or the left. The British government assembled some of the most able bureaucrats in Whitehall to oversee famine relief. But men like Trevelyan and Routh were free market ideologues, and ideology creates a form of tunnel vision that blinds the ideologue to context.

Yes, the free market is a very efficient instrument, but it runs on the profit motive, and in a period of crisis—whether 1845’s catastrophic crop failure or our current economic near-collapse—measures need to be taken—feeding the hungry, employing the unemployed—that, in the short run at least, won’t make anyone money.

And yes, welfare can create dependency, and in times of prosperity and a healthy jobs market, eligibility standards should be strict. But in time of crisis, an uptick in dependency seems a small price to pay it if helps prevent mass starvation—or even the lesser dread of mass unemployment, which we’re looking at now.

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Finally, there’s the treatment of immigrants. While immigration often does bring perils as well as benefits, demonizing an immigrant group can lead to permanent alienation that is bad for the host country and the majority culture. Members of the group draw inward and become a society within a society, and that leads to kind of problems that France, Britain, and the Netherlands are currently having with their Muslim populations. Doesn’t it make more sense to integrate the immigrants, to bring them into the national commonweal?

That strategy certainly worked with the Irish. The descendants of the people the Presbyterian Quarterly called “more animal than intellectual in nature” are now among the most prosperous, patriotic, and politically powerful of Americans. Some, like Paul Ryan, are exercising their privilege to aggressively promote the ideas over which their ancestors in Ireland suffered and died or fled. Now, with the power of his vice-presidential candidacy—and the sway his ideas have clearly held over the man who selected him—that power and privilege are intensified.

History instructs. History also has a very dark sense of humor. Irish history, especially.