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Page 57. - Mountifort Longfield, Lectures on Political Economy 
Lectures on Political Economy, delivered in Trinity and Michaelmas Terms, 1833 (Dublin: Richard Milliken and Son, 1834).
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Potatoes appear to be in very bad repute among political economists. Some even hint that the poverty of Ireland is in a great measure to be attributed to the use of this food. The reader may form some idea of the horror with which they have been viewed, by looking to the Index to Mr. M‘Culloch’s edition of Smith’s Wealth of Nations, where, under the title “Potatoes,” he will find a reference for the “rapid and alarming progress of potatoes in France.” Such language would be more applicable, if they eat men instead of feeding them. Something however may be said to vindicate them from the charge of creating or aggravating the poverty that prevails in Ireland. The strongest objection which is urged against the use of potatoes arises from the impossibility of storing them from one year to another. “The whole crop must necessarily be exhausted in a single year; so that when the inhabitants have the misfortune to be overtaken by a scarcity, its pressure cannot be alleviated, as is almost uniformly the case in corn-feeding countries, by bringing the reserves of former years into the market. Every year is thus left to shift for itself.” This is undoubtedly a disadvantage, which, however, I think is compensated by the utility of potatoes as food for cattle. This use, as it were, stores them up for succeeding years; and in times of scarcity, when potatoes rise in price, it then becomes unprofitable to feed cattle with them, and the portion usually devoted to this purpose is drawn out as a reserve to satisfy the wants of the population.
In the three years terminating the 5th January, 1826, the annual average number of swine exported from Ireland to Great Britain was 74,000. Besides that large number of swine, there were exported 340,000 cwts. of bacon and pork. The immense quantity of potatoes which was consumed in fattening those animals, formed a resource out of which the wants of the human population could have been supplied had a scarcity occurred. Although potatoes cannot easily be hoarded or exported, yet pigs can; and potatoes may be considered as the raw materials of which pigs are manufactured. But whatever be the staple food of the people, if the nation is poor, a dearth will occasionally occur; and if we look to the history of England, or of any country at a time when it was as poor as Ireland is now, we shall find that dearths and famines were more frequent there, and more tremendous in their effects than they have been in Ireland during the last thirty years.
A second objection is, that on account of the bulk and weight of potatoes, a scarcity can never be materially relieved by importation. Now, in the case of a poor country with a perfect freedom of trade existing between it and a rich one, which has a similar soil and climate, as in the case of England and Ireland, this immobility of potatoes is rather an advantage to the poorer country. If a scarcity here cannot be relieved by importation, neither can it be aggravated by exportation. If potatoes could easily be transported from place to place, the latter event would most frequently take place. Their price would necessarily rise to the same height in both countries. But prices rise faster in proportion to the scarcity, in a rich than in a poor country, and therefore whenever there was a scarcity common to both countries, exportation would take place from Ireland to England.
It is said that people who live chiefly on butcher’s meat and corn, would probably enjoy a greater quantity of other articles, so that it would be possible for them in times of scarcity to make such retrenchments as might enable them to elude its pressure. Mr. M‘Culloch also observes, that so long as potatoes are used only as a subsidiary species of food, their introduction serves to improve the condition of the labourer, and they frequently afford him additional means of support when there is a failure of the corn crops. Now I do not understand how potatoes can afford additional means of support to corn-fed people in times of scarcity. Where are the potatoes to come from? They surely are not grown as a reserve for years of scarcity, to be thrown away in years of ordinary plenty. The ordinary cultivation will be the ordinary consumption, and there will not be an additional supply of potatoes to compensate for a deficient harvest of corn.
As to the possibility of eluding the pressure of a scarcity of provisions by a retrenchment of other articles, that (putting importation out of the question) is impossible. A single family may do so, but an entire population, however wealthy, cannot. In this respect the poorest and the wealthiest countries are on an equality. If the supply is deficient one fifth, the consumption must diminish one fifth. If the population is wealthy, prices will rise very high to enforce that diminution of consumption. If it is poor, a smaller rise of price will produce the same effect, and that is all the difference. The demonstration of this is obvious.
What gives an appearance of plausibility to the common declamations against the use of potatoes is, that they confound the custom of living chiefly upon potatoes with the poverty which introduces that custom. And then it is argued that people who live upon Bread and beef, can more easily purchase articles of furniture and of clothing, and will form a richer and more comfortable population than those who have the means of procuring nothing more expensive than potatoes. This is true. But the question is, whether the use of the potato produces poverty, or aggravates its evils, or the contrary. On this head the principal complaint is that it is a cheap, and wholesome, and palatable food, and consequently produces an inconvenient increase of population, and that this increase of population lowers the wages and depresses the condition of the labourer. Also it is said to be favourable to the comfort of the population, that the price of subsistence should bear a high proportion to the price of comforts and decencies, for that then the number of those who enjoy such comforts and decencies will bear a high proportion to the number of those who possess but the means of a bare subsistence. And it is said that the introduction of such a cheap food as potatoes, prevents the existence of that high proportion. I shall consider separately those arguments, which indeed are not very consistent with each other.
It is certain that in any given state of the population, the cheapness of food, arising from a facility of production, cannot be injurious to the inhabitants. It will not lower their habits, nor depress their condition, but it will have the directly contrary effect. The real wages of their labour do not depend upon the price of provisions, but upon the value of the articles which their labour produces. Of that sum, the less is required to purchase food, the more will remain to purchase other things. The labourer’s condition will be the more elevated, and he will find it the easier to provide the comforts and decencies of life for himself and his family. But it is said, such a state of things cannot last. The facility of procuring food will produce a redundant population, inconsistent with the prosperity of the labouring classes. But admitting that the population will increase with great rapidity, what injurious effect has this on the condition of the labourer. Even upon the principles of the anti-populationists, it only affects him by creating a difficulty of procuring food, by increasing the cost of production, and thus raising its price. The necessity of resorting to inferior soils, so far as it is not counteracted by agricultural improvements, reduces the wages of labour as measured in provisions; but other consequences of an increase of population, are, a better system of a division of labour, increased facilities of conveyance, improvements in manufactures: all these increase the command of the labourer over all the conveniences and decencies of life. Thus, if food is too cheap in comparison with articles of clothing and furniture, an increase of population is the remedy. An increase of population produced by cheapness of food cannot therefore be deemed an evil, unless a man is prepared to maintain, that cheap food, which would otherwise be a good, is an evil, merely because of its tendency to increase the population, and that an increase of population, which would otherwise be a good, is an evil, merely because of its tendency to raise the price of food.
It is an advantage to a country to be supplied with cheap food, when that cheapness results from a low cost of production. But the poverty of a country may also be the cause of provisions being cheap. They are then cheap, not because they are easily produced, but because the labour which produces them is of little value, and is sold cheap. Unfortunately this is the chief cause why potatoes are so cheap in Ireland. Many circumstances have thrown difficulties in the way of employing capital in Ireland. Either from natural disposition or education, the Irish labourer is a bad workman. Property and life are not adequately protected, and notwithstanding the low wages of Irish labour, it is not found a profitable expedient to employ it in manufacture. However, the influence of those causes is probably on the decline. A fuller protection will be afforded to property and life, capital will flow in, the Irish will become more industrious, more skilful, more honest workmen, and will receive a better remuneration for their labour. When this takes place, potatoes will rise in price, as the labour employed in their production will become more valuable. Dearness is only an evil when it arises from the quantity of labour employed in production, but when it arises from the high price of that labour, it is an indication of prosperity. On the other hand, when cheapness of provisions is caused, not by the low cost of production, but by a low price of labour, it is a symptom of poverty, but it alleviates that evil, although it indicates its existence.
Another charge is brought against potatoes, which, if it were well founded, would indeed be a most serious one. It is alleged that the potato crop is irregular, uncertain, and extremely liable to failures. As a proof of this it is asserted that in bad seasons the price has frequently risen to three times the price of ordinary years. I believe that at the commencement of the present century, wheat was nearly three times its present price. That, certainly, does not frequently occur with respect to potatoes: in my own experience I never knew it to take place. While writing this, a book was sent in to me, and the wrapper about it was a sheet of a report made in 1818, on the cause of the typhus fever which had then lately been raging in Ireland. This report attributed the origin of the fever in certain parts of Ireland to the sufferings of the peasantry, arising principally from the dearness and scarcity of food—potatoes, it said, being at the time the fever appeared, from 3½d. to 4d. a stone. The report proceeded to state the abatement of fever in the following year, which led some to think that the epidemic had worn out. But the framer of the report attributed this beneficial change to the comfortable condition of the peasantry—potatoes, it said, being then only 3d. a stone. If a variation in the price of potatoes, in the proportion of 3 to 1, was of frequent occurrence, a variation from 4d. to 3d. would not have been spoken of, as if those prices were the extremes.
But the variations which take place from year to year are not entirely to be laid to the blame of the potato. Our customs and husbandry are the principal cause. First, in many parts of Ireland, potatoes are not a regular marketable article. It is the custom for every labourer to take from a rood to an acre of land, on which he plants potatoes for his own family. Thus, at the commencement of the season, each person is entrusted with the entire store destined for his own consumption, or at least with a very great part of it. It is evident that in a year of scarcity this custom has the effect of preventing that rigid economy which otherwise would mitigate the scarcity, by spreading the deficiency over the entire year. Any single husbandman may happen to have a bad crop in a good year. A scarcity, therefore, in his little store does not alarm him, nor prevent him from dispensing the usual supply of potatoes to himself, his family, and his pig. Were he obliged from the commencement to resort to the market for food, the rise of prices would indicate the scarcity, and would enforce a timely attention to economy, and thus prevent the occurrence of a dearth.
Those little husbandmen, too, are necessarily bad farmers. They have no selection of land in which to plant their potatoes; they are obliged to put up with any land they can get, and from want of capital they are unable to lay out a sufficient quantity of manure upon the land. So hardy is the potato, that in ordinary years it yields a tolerable crop, and it ought not hastily to be reputed a variable crop if it fails in bad seasons, when badly cultivated upon land in which it ought never have been planted.
The potato, when properly cultivated, suffers less from unfavourable weather than any kind of corn. Excessive drought or excessive wet are its only enemies, and of all inclemencies of the weather the effects of those can best be remedied by agricultural skill and capital. With proper drainage the potato will bear rain and wind that will lodge, or rot, or blight half the corn in the country, and in years of drought they can be watered without much expense. It is probable that the present generation will witness the general introduction of machines for this latter purpose.
I have merely alluded concisely to the arguments that may be urged in defence of potatoes, because I think that the presumption is entirely in their favor. He who argues against them should make out a very strong case. Providence has bestowed upon the world a prolific, wholesome, and palatable vegetable. These qualities must insure its general cultivation in all countries adapted to its growth. And it is a hard matter to believe that the introduction of this plant should naturally and almost inevitably introduce general distress. It would be a singular instance of permanent national unhappiness, being introduced by any thing except a course of irreligion, vice, or folly.