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AN ESSAY SHOWING THE ERRONEOUSNESS OF THE PREVAILING OPINIONS IN REGARD TO ABSENTEEISM. - John Ramsay McCulloch, Treatises and Essays on Subjects connected with Economic Policy with Biographical Sketches of Quesnay, Adam Smith & Ricardo 
Treatises and Essays on Subjects connected with Economic Policy with Biographical Sketches of Quesnay, Adam Smith & Ricardo (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1853).
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AN ESSAY SHOWING THE ERRONEOUSNESS OF THE PREVAILING OPINIONS IN REGARD TO ABSENTEEISM.
Having had the honour to be examined in 1825 by a committee of the House of Commons on the state of Ireland, I ventured to contend, that the outcry against absentee expenditure was unfounded, that it was not really injurious, and that it had nothing, or very little, to do with the distress so long prevalent in the sister island. On being published, this evidence was received with a loud burst of reprobation. Had I written an essay in defence of robbery or assassination, it could hardly have met with a more unfavourable reception. “Illogical,” “drivelling,” “unprincipled,” “venal,” and “profligate,” were not, by any means, the worst of the epithets that were applied to it, and to its author. And yet, singular as it may appear, all this boisterous indignation was directed against a very obvious application of those free-trade principles which have since happily gained the ascendant. It had previously been established, and is now universally conceded, that gentlemen who consume nothing in their families but what is brought from abroad, are quite as good, as useful, and as meritorious subjects, as they would be did they consume nothing but what is produced at home. And such being the case, it will require a sharper eye than has yet looked at this subject, to discover the great injury which is said to be done by their going abroad. If free-trade be a good thing, absenteeism cannot be a bad thing. And those who join the chorus in favour of the former, had better, if they would have it supposed that they know anything of the matter, say as little as possible to the prejudice of the latter. The subjoined essay is taken, with no very material variation, from the Eighty-fifth Number of the “Edinburgh Review,” November 1825. It helped to stem the torrent of abuse, and has yet to be answered.
With very few exceptions, most of those who have inquired into the causes of the peculiar state of Ireland, from Sir John Davis and Mr Laurence, down to Lady Morgan and Mr Southey, have joined in ascribing a large share of the poverty and turbulence of its peasantry to the non-residence of the principal proprietors. It must be admitted, too, that this opinion seems, at first sight, to be as well founded as it has been universal. The wealth which is sent abroad to absentee landlords and capitalists, seems to be entirely lost to the country; and to occasion a proportional diminution of its means of supporting and employing the people who remain in it; at the same time that the inferior classes lose the various benefits derivable from the residence of the gentry, and the protection and assistance which, it is taken for granted, they would afford them did they live on their estates.
But after weighing these statements, and giving the subject a good deal of consideration, we confess that we see no grounds for joining in the clamour which has been so long and so loudly raised against absenteeism. The character of the people of Ireland, and the peculiar circumstances under which they have in other respects been placed, are quite sufficient to account for their degraded condition. And it will not, we think, be difficult to show, that the non-residence of the landlords is, if not entirely innocuous, of so very little importance, that it may safely be left out of view in estimating the causes of Irish misery.
Absentee landlords are said to be injurious, first, and principally, because they spend that wealth in another country, which, were it spent at home, would afford employment to a number of tradesmen, labourers, and industrious people; and, second, because the country is deprived of the moral benefits which would result from their residence, and the peasantry left to be fleeced and plundered by those who have no permanent interest in their welfare, and whose only object is to benefit themselves. We shall offer a few remarks on each of these heads.
With regard to the first, or the disadvantage supposed to be occasioned by the landlords spending1 their incomes in another country, it will not, we think, be difficult to show that it is all but imaginary. The rents of the Irish absentee landlords are said to amount to four, or four and a half, millions. We suspect that this statement is a good deal exaggerated; but assuming it to be accurate, the primary question is, how are these rents remitted to them? Now, as there is no excess of specie in Ireland, and Bank of Ireland notes do not circulate in England, it is obvious that they cannot be remitted except by exporting an equivalent amount of Irish raw produce and manufactures. Were the absentees to return to Ireland, there would be an increased demand for commodities, or labour, or both, in the home market, to the extent of four, or four and a half, millions. But it is plain that this increase of demand in the home market, would be balanced by an equal diminution in the foreign market. And unless it were shown that foreign merchants trade for smaller profits than the home merchants, we must be satisfied, on the first blush of the matter, that the expenditure of those landlords who reside in London or Paris, it is no matter which, contributes as much to promote industry in Ireland, as if they resided in Dublin or Cork.
It may be said, indeed, that the rents of the absentees are neither remitted in specie, nor in bank-notes, nor in Irish produce, but in drafts on foreign merchants, or bills of exchange. But what, may we ask, is a bill of exchange? Is it not an order addressed to an individual residing in another part of the same, or in a foreign country, directing him to pay a debt he has already contracted, or is about to contract, to the drawer of the bill, to some other party specified by him? Notwithstanding their liberality, the merchants of England would hesitate not a little, before they furnished the Irish absentees even with four thousand pounds, without receiving an equivalent, that is, without receiving four thousand pounds worth of Irish produce. This, then, is the manner in which absentee expenditure operates. The agent of an absentee landlord, after collecting the rents of his principal, say £10,000, buys a bill of exchange with this sum from an Irish merchant. And the latter, in order to supply his correspondent in London, Liverpool, or Paris, on whom the bill is drawn, with funds to pay it, must, for it is in no respect optional with him, go into the Irish market and buy £10,000 worth of the raw or manufactured products of the country, and send them to the order of his correspondent. Where, then, is the difference to Ireland, in so far as the demand for commodities is concerned, whether the landlord be or be not resident? When resident, he expends his rent partly on Irish produce, partly on foreign produce imported into Ireland in exchange for Irish produce, and partly on wages. And when he is not resident, his agent pays it away for a bill of exchange of the same amount to a merchant, who lays it wholly out in the purchase of Irish produce fitted for exportation. The products and services bought are not the same in both cases; but the same sum goes in both to reward Irish industry and labour. However it may be turned or twisted, it will be found, on analysing any case that may be presented, that this is the whole difference, in so far as expenditure is concerned, between a resident and a non-resident landlord. The one exchanges his income for Irish commodities, or their equivalents, which he brings into his house in Ireland, and consumes there; the other also, through the merchants, who furnish him with bills, exchanges his income for Irish commodities, which, or the equivalents for which, he brings into, and consumes in his house in London or Paris. And, therefore, unless the mere locality of consumption be advantageous, it follows that the expenditure of that portion of the annual revenue of a nation, which is sent abroad to absentees, contributes as effectually to the general advantage as the expenditure of any other portion of revenue. It is never, in short, by sending abroad revenue, but by sending abroad the capital by whose agency revenue is produced, that nations are impoverished.
Though rents were remitted to the absentees in specie, it would not affect the previous reasoning. Ireland has no mines of gold or silver. If she send these metals to England or France, she must previously obtain them in return for an equivalent amount of Irish produce: and the gain on selling it to the merchants of California or Australia, will be quite as great as any that could have been realised by selling it to the landlords, had they remained at home. At bottom, the notions respecting absentee expenditure, differ but little from those so long prevalent with respect to the balance of trade. It is now above a century since Swift, not in jest, but in good sober earnest, informed his believing and admiring countrymen, that they had only about £500,000 of cash; and that, “out of this scanty stock,” they had to remit a nett million a-year to England! Those who believe in the possibility of such a state of things, may conscientiously think, that the poverty, the everlasting agitation, and the assassinations which distract and disgrace Ireland, are owing to its beef being roasted, and its linen worn, in London and Paris, rather than in Dublin and Cork.1
We have sometimes, indeed, heard it alleged, that it is a mistake to suppose that absenteeism increases the exports from Ireland; that they take place because its principal products are well fitted for the markets of England and other countries; and that, while the foreign demand for Irish products is not increased by the non-residence of the landlords, the home demand for them is very much diminished. This, however, is one of those unlucky statements which contradict and confute themselves. Let it be supposed—which is certainly not the case—that the exports from Ireland are not augmented in consequence of the remittances to absentees: It is, on this hypothesis, sufficiently clear, that the imports which would otherwise take place of English and foreign produce into Ireland must be diminished by the whole amount of the bills drawn in favour of the absentees; for it would follow, were this not the case, that the latter must either subsist on charity or on the air! If, then, the absentees were to return home, and the same amount of Irish produce were to be exported, all the English and foreign commodities, on which the absentees subsisted when abroad, would henceforth be imported into Ireland; and there could not, under such circumstances, be any increase of demand, how trifling soever, in consequence of their return, for Irish produce.
It is said, however, that these statements prove too much. That the same reasoning which shows that the remittance of rents to absentees is not injurious, will equally show that a tribute may be paid to foreigners without injury to those who pay it! But the slightest reflection will suffice to convince any one, that remittances to absentees are not identical with remittances on account of tribute, but totally and completely dissimilar. Suppose that a quantity of linen is exported from Ireland to Liverpool on account of an absentee: If the absentee return home, this exportation will of course cease; but what will Ireland gain by its cessation? His rent may no longer be employed to purchase linen; but if not, it will be employed to purchase other articles, which he will of course consume in his own family. The fact of his being in Ireland or out of it, neither adds to nor detracts from the means of living possessed by other individuals. So long as those who consume, and the value of the products which they consume, continue the same, a change in the place of consumption affects themselves only. The case of a tribute is in every respect different. If the remittances to Irish absentees were put a stop to, those to whom they are sent would return to Ireland, and would consume them there. But if the same remittances were sent as a tribute to a foreign country, there would not, in the event of its ceasing, be any one to return to Ireland; and there would, in consequence, be so much additional wealth left in the pockets of its inhabitants. Nothing, therefore, can be more absurd and contradictory than the statements so frequently put forth by Irish newspapers and demagogues, comparing the remittances to absentees to a tribute, and complaining of the injury which Ireland sustains in sending abroad so large a sum, for which she gets no return. It is quite obvious that she gets an ample return. The remittances in question consist of the rents of land, or the profits or interest of stock belonging to absentees; and in making them, Ireland discharges a debt which is justly due, and which she would equally have to discharge were the absentees to return to their estates. Suppose that the rental of an Irish property amounts to £1,000 or £10,000 a-year, it is a matter of indifference to Ireland whether the owner consume annually £1,000 or £10,000 worth of Irish commodities and services in Ireland, or have an equivalent amount of them sent to a London or Paris merchant on his account. To talk of a return in either case is absurd; unless by return be meant the extinction of a debt due to the party, which is quite as easily and as effectually discharged in the one way as in the other.
But the opponents of absenteeism contend that this reasoning involves a fallacy; that the greater portion of the raw produce and manufactures which are sent to absentee landlords, would have been exchanged by them, had they remained in Ireland, for the products of the various Irish tradesmen, for which every opulent individual must always have a demand; but that, when they live in London or Paris, they employ them in paying the wages of English or French tradesmen, who consequently gain an advantage at the expense of those of Ireland. Plausible, however, as this statement may appear, it is altogether fallacious. Suppose that any given number of landlords, residing at present in Ireland, and laying out their incomes partly on English manufactured goods and colonial products, and partly on products of Irish art and industry, emigrate to England or France; and suppose farther, that the identical Irish commodities which they are in the habit of using in Ireland are sent after them to their new residence: In this case, it is obvious, in the event of the absentees taking their servants along with them, that the wealth of Ireland would be in no degree affected by the change in their place of residence. And what, in point of fact, is the value of the difference between this hypothetical case and the actual case of the absentees from Ireland or any other country? When the Duke of Leinster leaves Carton to establish himself in Carlton Terrace, it is probable that the same articles may not be used by him in London that he would have used had he continued in Ireland. But if not, the difference is immaterial; for such of them as are English or foreign must be obtained, directly or indirectly, in exchange for an equivalent amount of Irish produce of some sort or other. How idle, then, to accuse absenteeism of weakening the stimulus to industry, and lessening the demand for labour!
Absenteeism may, and indeed most frequently does, occasion a partial change in the species of labour in demand. But this is all it can do; and for anything that we can, à priori, know to the contrary, such change may be advantageous. Raw produce and linen are the articles in which it is at present most for the advantage of Ireland to remit rents to absentees. And, supposing them to return to Ireland, a less amount of their rents would be laid out on these, and a larger on other things. But this would not occasion an increase of the total demand for labour; for if, under such circumstances, more people were employed in one way, fewer would be employed in another. If a non-resident landlord lay out his rent in the purchase of corn, which requires the labour of 100 men for its production; and if, on returning home, he lay it out in the purchase of manufactures, also produced by 100 men, the aggregate demand for Irish labour is nowise affected by the change.
Not only, however, would the demand for labour not be increased, but there are ten chances to one that it would be diminished by a change like that now supposed. A greater number of labourers are almost uniformly required to produce £500 worth of corn, than to produce £500 worth of manufactured goods. Our readers are aware that Smith’s theory of the superior advantageousness of agricultural industry, is founded on this circumstance, or on its being supposed that, when two equal capitals are employed, one in agriculture and the other in manufactures, the former affords employment to many more individuals than the latter. And those who dissent from this theory do not deny the assumption on which it is founded; but contend that it is not by the number of people which different businesses employ, but by the nett profit which they respectively yield, that their comparative advantageousness is determined. The recommendation of a system that would certainly occasion a considerable diminution in the demand for labour, is, however, a pretty good example of the Irish mode of providing employment for a people.
But, though they will not bear examination, the prevalent notions respecting absentee expenditure appear, on a superficial view, natural and well founded. When a wealthy landlord resides on his estate, there is generally, in some contiguous village, a number of little tradesmen and manufacturers who work on his account, and who, it is alleged, will be thrown out of employment, and left wholly destitute, in the event of his removing to another country. This statement is founded on an entire misapprehension of the nature of profits. Those who clamour against absenteeism, take for granted that retail dealers, tradesmen, and manufacturers, live at the expense of those who employ them, or who buy their products. Certainly, however, they do no such thing. They are not so very dependent as they are believed to be by others and by themselves. They are not maintained by the demand of the public, but by their own wits and industry. Of these they cannot be deprived; and as they have supported them hitherto, they will support them in all time to come. The bootmaker, who sells boots at 50s., which cost him only 40s. of outlay, does not make the 10s. of profit at the expense of his customers. He produces, in a given time, a pair of boots equivalent to, or worth in silver 50s., while the various expenses to which he is necessarily put in their manufacture, amount, when rated in the same medium, to 40s. And his customers all do the same; they all make similar profits in their respective businesses; that is, they produce quantities equal to 50, by an outlay of 40. Consequently, in exchanging corn, cloth, or silver for boots, one party gains nothing at the expense of another. Profit is, in every case, the result of more being produced in given periods than is consumed in them. The advantage of exchanging one commodity for another, consists in its enabling labour to be subdivided, and commodities to be produced, in the best and most expeditious manner.
The various manufacturers and tradesmen employed by a resident landlord, give him a full and fair equivalent for what they receive. It is not their interest, but his own, which he has in view in dealing with them. It is obvious, indeed, that all that the total cessation of the demand for a particular class of commodities can do, is to force those who produced them to employ themselves in some other way. And this is seldom a very serious injury, and is sometimes an advantage. Shoemakers, for example, do not live upon shoes. They produce them only that they may exchange them for other articles. And if, in consequence of their being brought more cheaply from abroad, the demand for shoes made at home were partly or altogether to cease, the makers would directly set about the production of those other articles, or of something else which they might offer for them.
This principle is quite decisive of the nature and value of the opinion of those who contend that, when a set of opulent landlords leave one country for another, the tradesmen and manufacturers whom they patronised lose all the profit which they made in their dealings with them. But it has been shown that the profits made by these and other tradesmen consist, in every case, of the excess or its value, of the commodities which they produce in a given time over those which they necessarily consume in the same time. Whether they directly use these commodities, or exchange them for others, has no more to do with profits than with poetry or painting. If an agriculturist obtain, at the end of a year, a return of 1,100 or 1,200 quarters of corn, and if the various outlays necessary in its production amount, when reduced to the same standard, to 1,000 quarters, his profits will be 10 or 20 per cent.: and this whether he sells his corn or eats it—whether he casts it into the ground as seed, or leaves it to rot on the surface. If the popular opinions with respect to the source of profits were really true, it would inevitably follow, inasmuch as they take for granted that all producers make their profits at the expense of some one else, that no additions could be made to capital, and that the capital now in the world must be very soon annihilated! If such were really the condition of mankind, they would not, in an economical point of view, fare one whit better than a set of tigers in a cage. They would prey upon each other, till only one survived, and he would die of hunger! It is a radical mistake to suppose that the idea, that profits depend on exchanges, is only partially erroneous; it is without even so much as the shadow of a foundation.
This principle shows, also, the error of those who contend that, though absentee expenditure may not be injurious when the rents of absentees are paid in money, and that money is laid out in the purchase of Irish produce, it would be injurious were rents paid in kind, and were the actual produce of which they consist remitted directly to the absentees. But at bottom there is no difference between these cases; and we have supposed that rents are paid in money, only because such is the case throughout Ireland. Let it, however, be supposed that the rent, paid in kind, of a resident landlord consists of a thousand quarters of wheat, or a thousand head of cattle. He will, it is plain, exchange a part at least of these articles for such other Irish, British, and foreign products as he has occasion for. Suppose, now, that this landlord transfers himself and his family to London, and that the sacks of wheat or head of cattle which would have been delivered to him at his seat in Ireland are sent to him in this city: In this case he will, of course, exchange them, or some portion of them, for an equivalent amount of English and other produce. But in what respect is this change injurious to Ireland? Whatever may be the place of their residence, the landlord and his family consume the whole value of their corn and cattle; and it is most probable that their consumption of Irish articles will be very little greater when they are resident than when they are non-resident. But whether this be so or not, is not of the slightest moment. The people of Ireland have, in either case, exactly the same amount of produce to subsist upon; the only difference that can obtain being that, when the landlord is at home, they may have more wheat and cattle, and fewer goods of other descriptions, and conversely when he is absent. But if, through a change of demand occasioned by absenteeism, the supply, whether of raw or manufactured produce, should become deficient or redundant, capital would be drawn to the deficient, and withdrawn from the redundant branch, till the equilibrium of supply and demand was restored.
In the event, then, of a landlord becoming an absentee, it may happen that few or none of the articles produced by the tradesmen and manufacturers with whom he dealt can be advantageously exported to the country to which he has gone; and the demand for these will, of course, proportionally decline. But wherever this happens, what is lost on the one hand is gained on the other; for the demand for some other variety of articles is equally increased. It must also be kept in view, that while the effective demand of the country continues undiminished, so does the capital by means of which the articles required to satisfy that demand are produced. Throughout this discussion we take for granted that absentees take no part either of their own stock, or of the stock of their tradesmen, along with them. These remain where they were, and are employed to support and employ labourers when the landlords are abroad, as well as when they are at home. It may happen that some of the hands employed by resident landlords may be forced, on their becoming absentees, to engage in new employments, and even to migrate to another part of the country. But, in a general point of view, these changes are unimportant; and they might equally arise from opening new branches of commerce, or from the employment of new or improved machinery.
For the reasons now stated, a village built in the immediate vicinity of a gentleman’s seat, generally declines on his becoming an absentee. That, however, is in most cases anything but an injury. The inhabitants of such villages are very generally poor, needy dependants, destitute of invention, and without any wish to distinguish themselves. But when the proprietors are absentees, they are forced to trust to their own resources, and either establish some sort of manufacture, or resort to those manufacturing and commercial cities where there is always a ready demand for labour, and where every latent spark of genius is sure to be elicited. Although, therefore, it be certainly true that absenteeism has a tendency to reduce the villages which are usually found in the neighbourhood of the residences of extensive proprietors, it is not on that account prejudicial to the country at large, but the reverse. “Stock and labour,” says Smith, “naturally seek the most advantageous employment. They naturally, therefore, resort as much as they can to the town, and desert the country.”
It should, however, be observed that these statements are only strictly true when absentees take their servants along with them. When these are left behind they require to be modified. The modification necessary in such cases is, however, extremely unimportant. It applies only to that portion of the earnings of household servants which they receive in the shape of board. If a resident gentleman expend £400 or £500 a-year on the money wages of household servants, he has so much less to expend on produce. In the event, however, of his going abroad and leaving his servants behind him, this £400 or £500 will be expended on produce of one kind or other, and will afford employment in its production to the whole or the greater number of the discarded servants. All, consequently, that they lose, or rather all that is lost by the class to which they belong, is their board and lodging in the houses of the absentees. And it is to be observed that this effect is only, if at all, sensible at the commencement of a system of absenteeism, and hardly even then, if the country be advancing. But trifling as it is, this is the whole extent of the injury, in an economical point of view, which it ever directly inflicts on the population. And it is so very insignificant, and so evanescent, that, in a practical point of view, it is hardly worth adverting to.
But the declaimers against absenteeism have yet another reason for the faith that is in them. They cry out, do you mean to say that Paris, Rome, and Brussels are not benefited by the expenditure of English absentees? But if you admit that they are benefited, must you not also admit, that London and Bath derive a proportional benefit from the expenditure of Irish absentees? And if so, does it not follow that Ireland loses whatever they gain? While, however, we admit the premises, we deny the inference which it is attempted to draw from them. We concede that London and Bath are benefited, though in a small degree, by the residence of Irish absentees; but we deny that Ireland loses what they gain, or that she, in fact, loses anything by their non-residence. If the products sent from Ireland to England on account of absentees, were those which they make use of, they would have no occasion to enter an English shop, or to give an order to an English tradesman; and it is rather difficult to see how, under such circumstances, their residence here could be of advantage to any one. But in this, as in other cases, absenteeism has the same influence as an increase of commercial freedom, or a better distribution of the labour of the world. The products sent hither from Ireland on absentee account are not for the exclusive use of the absentees, and they, also, cost less than if they were raised in this portion of the United Kingdom. And the advantage, whatever it may be, which we derive from the residence of the absentees amongst us, depends wholly on this circumstance, or on the fact of the commodities imported to defray their expenditure being produced more cheaply in Ireland than in England. Were this not the case, we should gain nothing by their residence; for if, on the one hand, they increase the demand for certain descriptions of British produce, they must, by bringing an equivalent amount of Irish produce into our markets, proportionally lessen the demand for some other descriptions of our produce. It is farther plain that, whatever England may gain in consequence of the better division of labour caused by the influx of absentees, Ireland, instead of losing anything, is on her part an equal gainer. The entire income of the absentees continues to be expended in the purchase of Irish commodities. There is, consequently, the same demand for them, as if the absentees resided at home. It is only, as already stated, the products in demand that are varied. And those which are required to defray absentee expenditure, are those best suited to the productive capacities of Ireland.
Suppose, still better to illustrate this statement, that an Irish gentleman resident in Dublin, pays bills of £400 or £500 a-year to his coach and harness-makers, shoemakers, etc. If this gentleman come to London, he will have a like amount to pay to the same descriptions of tradesmen in this city. But, then, it is to be kept in view, that the £400 or £500 that were in the former instance paid to the Dublin tradesmen, must now be paid to the linen-manufacturers of Belfast, or to the producers of those Irish articles suitable to the English market, sent here on account of the absentee. And they have rather antiquated notions of national advantage, who contend that it is as much for the interest of Ireland to employ her capital and labour in the production of articles in which England has an advantage over her, as it is to employ them in the production of those in which she has an advantage over England. A century ago, an argument, if we may so call it, of this sort, might have worn an imposing aspect. But we should have thought, had not their late yelping (for it deserves no better name) proved the contrary, that even the professional agitators would have been inclined to use it at present with some misgivings.
It may, perhaps, be said that, even were it otherwise innocuous, non-residence has the disadvantage, inasmuch as absentees escape taxation at home, of increasing the weight of the burdens which fall on the resident population. It is easy, however, to see that the influence of absenteeism over taxation, depends in great measure on the description of taxes levied in the country of the absentees. If its revenue were principally raised by taxes on property or income, or on exports, absentees would not escape them, and their non-residence would not, in this respect, have the influence ascribed to it. In Ireland, indeed, the revenue is almost wholly raised by taxes on expenditure. But then it is to be borne in mind, that nine out of every ten of the Irish absentees reside in England; and being, in consequence, subject to the assessed and other taxes, from which Ireland is unjustly exempted, they contribute more to the revenue of the United Kingdom than they would do were they resident.
Hence, as regards taxation, absenteeism from Ireland is advantageous rather than otherwise. And in regard to the absentees from England, the far greater number reside abroad from prudential motives; from a desire to retrench, or, by living less expensively than they could do at home, to repair shattered fortunes, and to make some provision for their families or younger children. The savings of such parties are sure, in the end, to centre in England, and will much more than compensate for the trifling, and all but imperceptible, inconvenience which may be sustained in the meantime from their not contributing to the taxes on expenditure.
If it were attempted, as has been proposed, to obviate the inconvenience now alluded to, by laying a peculiar tax on the incomes of absentees, it would stimulate such of them as had it in their power to carry their property abroad with them. And in such case, absenteeism would be rendered a serious evil. The question would no longer regard the spending of income abroad, but it would regard the transfer to the foreigner of the capital by which income is produced; and such transfer cannot be made, without proportionally diminishing the power to support and employ labour in the country losing the capital, and increasing it in the country which acquires it. Voluntary absenteeism, under an equal system of taxation, is never injurious. But if an effort were made to obviate an imaginary evil by imposing special taxes on the incomes or properties of absentees, a real grievance would be created, mischievous alike to the public and the absentees.
In every point of view, therefore, in which this subject can be considered, it appears obvious, that in so far as the question of expenditure is concerned, absenteeism is not injurious to a country. On the contrary, it is in the majority of cases advantageous. Its tendency is to turn industry into those channels into which it is most for the public advantage that it should be turned, and eventually to increase the national capital.
With respect to the second branch of this inquiry, or that which regards the disadvantages which are said to be occasioned by the want of that valuable example and protection which a resident landlord is supposed to afford to his tenants and dependents, it is not so easy to arrive at any positive conclusion. An extensive landed proprietor has undoubtedly the means, provided he have the inclination, of doing a vast deal of good. “A man of family and estate ought,” says Johnson, “to consider himself as having the charge of a district, over which he is to diffuse civility and happiness, and to give an example of good order, virtue, and piety.” We, however, have not to deal with landlords as they ought to be, but with them as they really are. The question respecting the alleged superiority of resident over absentee landlords in promoting civilisation and improvement, must be decided by an inquiry into the conduct of each class, and not by inferences drawn from what that conduct ought to be. Are the estates of the absentees worse managed than those of resident landlords? Are their tenants poorer, and more exposed to oppression? Are they more turbulent, and more disposed to engage in illegal associations and enterprises? If they are, then non-residence is in so far injurious; but if not, not.
We may observe, in entering on this inquiry, that there are several circumstances peculiar to Ireland, which render the moral effects of absenteeism very different there from what they would be anywhere else. The estates of the landlords of England and Scotland have either descended to them through a long line of ancestors, or have been fairly purchased from the rightful owners. The persons living on these estates, and their proprietors, have almost uniformly professed the same religious faith; generally speaking, their interests have been identified; and the landlords have been induced, as well from a regard to their neighbours and dependents, as from a wish to promote their own views, to behave kindly to their tenants and labourers, and to conciliate their confidence and esteem. But the relation subsisting between landlord and tenant in Ireland, has, as every one knows, been entirely dissimilar. Almost all the landed property of Ireland has been repeatedly confiscated. Its area is reckoned at about twelve millions of Irish acres; and the Lord Chancellor Clare stated, that eleven millions and a half of that number underwent confiscation during the seventeenth century! It is, therefore, no exaggeration to affirm, that nine-tenths of the proprietors of Ireland are either the lineal descendants of those to whom this confiscated property was sold or granted by the Crown, or of persons who have purchased their estates from them. And besides this original stain or defect in their title, those who obtained grants of confiscated estates were almost all Englishmen and Protestants.
Under such circumstances, it was not to be expected that any kindly feelings should speedily grow up between proprietors holding their estates by such titles, and the people of the country. The landlords trusted to the power of England to maintain them in the possession of their property, and looked upon the people, either as avowed and dangerous enemies, whom they had grievously wronged, or as semi savages, whom it was almost hopeless to attempt to civilise. And, on the other hand, the people considered the landlords as robbers, who had possessed themselves by force and injustice of the property of others, as enemies of their religion, and as being at once the instruments and the badges of the dominion of England over Ireland. Nothing but discord and bloodshed, could have followed from the residence of such landlords. And because the residence of the English and Scotch proprietors on their estates has proved highly advantageous by introducing a taste for elegancies and luxuries, and diffusing a spirit of refinement throughout the country, can anything be more inconsequential than to argue that the like effects would have followed from the residence of the Irish gentry? The prejudices to which we have alluded, are now, indeed, very much obliterated. But before the residence of the landlords in Ireland can be of much advantage, they must learn to sympathise with the people; to take a deep interest in the wellbeing of their tenants and cottiers, and in the cultivation and improvement of their estates; and to repudiate an increase of rent, or of political influence, if it must be purchased at the expense either of the one or the other.
With respect to the estates of absentee proprietors, it will be found, though there are numerous instances of mismanagement, that, on the whole, they are better managed, and are occupied by a richer and better class of tenants, than those belonging to residents. And this is really what an unprejudiced inquirer would have been led, à priori, to anticipate. Had the absentee landlords remained in Ireland, habit might have rendered them insensible to the abuses with which they would have been surrounded; and might have tempted them to tolerate the debasing practices, and engage in the worthless pursuits, by which so many of the resident gentry have ruined their dependents and themselves. But having been generally resident in England, where many of them have estates, they have witnessed the various advantages resulting from the fair and liberal treatment of tenants, and have had an opportunity of becoming familiar with improved systems of husbandry, and with the best modes of letting and occupying land. And however little they may have cared for their Irish dependents, a regard for their own interests would naturally make them attempt to introduce into their estates in Ireland a system similar to that which has been productive of so much advantage in England. This presumption is so reasonable, and follows so directly from the premises, that it is not to be defeated but by conclusive evidence to the contrary. And none such is to be met with. Seldom, indeed, can any one truly say,—
“Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor.”
It would be a libel on human nature to suppose that landlords or others, when aware of the wide difference between them, should not generally prefer a good to a bad system of rural economy, or that they should not exert themselves to extend the sphere of the former and to circumscribe that of the latter. And though there are exceptional cases, experience shows that this conclusion is, on the whole, perfectly well founded. The estates of Earl Fitzwilliam, the Marquis of Hertford, and the Duke of Devonshire, for example, are in a high state of cultivation, and occupied by affluent and independent tenants. And admitting that it would be improper to found any general conclusion on such cases, it would be easy to produce many similar examples. Mr Tighe, the intelligent author of the “Survey of Kilkenny,” states distinctly that “in many instances absentees are the best landlords.”1 And Mr Wakefield, who is unfavourable to non-residence, but who is too candid to conceal or colour any fact that makes against his own views, corroborates Mr Tighe’s statement. When noticing the county of Roscommon, Wakefield says, that the large property belonging to the then resident proprietor, Lord —, was the worst managed he ever saw. “I found every where cabins of the most wretched aspect, infamous stone roads, very minute divisions of land, and a superabundant and miserable population. I do not recollect to have travelled through any estate in Ireland which presented such a scene of desolation; and nothing astonished me so much as the multitude of poverty-struck inhabitants, from whom I could learn little more than that the estate belonged to ‘My Lord,’ whom they loaded with imprecations.”2
We beg it may not be supposed that we mean either to say or insinuate, that resident Irish landlords are all of this description. Like other classes, they are of a mixed character, and can show some excellent specimens. But it is not to be denied that, speaking generally, they have done little to promote the proper cultivation of their estates and the comfortable condition of their occupiers, both of which are a disgrace to civilisation. And though all non-resident landlords be not Fitzwilliams, Seymours, or Cavendishes, there are certainly but slender grounds on which to give the preference to those that are resident.
It should be recollected, in fairly estimating the conduct of absentees, that a large portion of the property in Ireland belonging to them, is let on perpetual leases. The tenants are thus in fact the real proprietors. The superior has no power to interfere in the management of the estate; when his quit-rent is paid, he has no farther claim on the property. A large proportion of the extensive tract of country belonging to the Petty family is thus let on perpetual leases, at a rent which does not exceed a third or a fourth part of its real value. Lord Doneraile has an estate in Cork for which he gets £2,000 a-year; but Wakefield says that it is worth £18,000 a-year to the perpetual tenants. Lord Kenmare, one of the absentees, has an estate in Kerry which brings him £8,000 a-year; but it is let on interminable leases, and his Lordship’s tenants, who are the real proprietors, get a profit rent of three or four times that amount. Lord Powis, another absentee, has an estate in the same county, from which he gets £1,900 a-year; but it is leased for ever; and the real proprietors relet the estate for a large profit. The estate of the Chandos family, lately in the possession of the Duke of Buckingham, and many more, are in the same predicament. And when such is the case, is it at all surprising that the nominal owners should decline living on estates over which they have no control, and which really belong to others? When an Act was passed in the reign of Henry VIII., everyway worthy of the period, compelling absentees to reside on their properties in Ireland, under penalty of forfeiture, the Duke of Norfolk and the Earls of Shrewsbury, Berkeley, and others, made a voluntary surrender of large tracts of land to the Crown, rather than comply with the provisions of so oppressive a statute. Should a similar Act be now passed, it would most probably have a similar effect.
It may, however, be supposed, that when the real proprietors of estates are resident, they will be ready to remedy grievances of which an absentee must necessarily be ignorant; and that they will at all events protect their tenants from being plundered by their agents or others. But this, we are sorry to say, does not seem to be the case. On the contrary, there is good reason to conclude, that the tenants of absentee landlords are subjected to less fleecing and extortion than those of residents. An English nobleman or gentleman would spurn the idea of having the occupants or the rents of his estates determined by the magnitude of the presents, or (to call them by their right name) bribes, offered to his lady, his daughters, his mistress, or his agents. But this disgraceful practice is, or was very recently, excessively prevalent among Irish resident landlords. As a sample of the protection afforded by them to their tenants, Wakefield tells us, that when a late noble proprietor of one of the best estates in Ireland appointed an agent, he borrowed of him £20,000. The agent, who was a man of principle, and who wished it to be clearly understood how he was to be repaid, and whether he was to follow the usual custom, and extort presents and perquisites of all sorts from the tenants, asked his employer in what manner he wished him to act. “Get all you can!” was the short and shameless reply.1
It has been often contended, that the system so much practised in Ireland, and so much declaimed against, of letting large tracts of land to a principal tenant, or middleman, authorised to relet them in smaller portions to the actual cultivators, had its origin in absenteeism. But this opinion does not seem to have any good foundation. The English noblemen and gentlemen who acquired large masses of confiscated property in Ireland, found their estates in the possession of a crowd of poor, uncivilised, and disorderly occupiers, whom it was impossible to eject, and of whose customs and modes of occupancy they were wholly ignorant. Such persons had no resource but to let their estates to adventurers, who were ready to meet such a state of things, and to make the most of it.2 The system, once introduced, has been continued. But it is wearing out, and is not more practised at this day on the estates of absentees than on those of resident landlords. Neither do we think that the middleman system is justly chargeable with many of the mischiefs which have been ascribed to it. There can be no question, indeed, that the underletting and subdivision of farms has been a curse to Ireland. But this practice was mainly a consequence of the former Irish law of landlord and tenant, and would not have been materially amended by the annihilation of middlemen. If a British landlord were to let an estate to a middleman, without putting any stipulations in the lease respecting the mode in which it was to be managed, he would have himself alone to blame if the middleman adopted an erroneous system. But the law of Ireland was recently (1825) in so deplorable a state, that a landlord who had let an estate ceased to have any control over it. And the most important stipulations in leases were openly trampled under foot and disregarded by the tenants, without the landlord having power to eject them, or to protect his property from ruin.
On Mr Blake, an eminent Irish lawyer, being asked by the Committee of the House of Commons, in 1825, whether, under the law of Ireland, a landlord would experience much difficulty in devising covenants, upon the efficiency of which he could rely, for the prevention of sub-letting, he answered, “I think he would find difficulties amounting almost to an impossibility.”1 When speaking of the consequences of this system, and of its disastrous influence over the landed property of Ireland, a very intelligent witness, Mr Staunton Rochfort, a magistrate of Queen’s County and Carlow, stated to the Committee of the House of Lords:—“I have three farms which have lately fallen out of lease in the County Galway, of about 400 acres each; they were each let to one tenant originally, and when they fell into my hands, I found from three hundred to four hundred inhabitants on each of them. What to do with them I really do not know; they are absorbing all the produce of the land, and paying me nothing; and without resorting to measures which common humanity prevents—turning them all off—I know not what to do!”2 Had the law of Ireland been similar to that which fortunately obtains in Scotland, this miserable result would not have taken place, except by the concurrence of the landlord; for, according to the Scotch law, the moment a subtenant is admitted into a farm, or an attempt is made to subdivide it, whether among the children of the occupier or otherwise, the landlord is entitled to have the lease cancelled, and the tenants ejected. And in the vast majority of cases, the apprehension of such a result is quite sufficient to prevent any attempt being made to defeat the stipulations in leases.
But this is not all. While the law of Ireland was thus, on the one hand, ineffectual to protect the finest estate from being parcelled into potato gardens, at the discretion of the tenants; it armed, on the other, the landlord with power to commit flagrant injustice and oppression: For, in the event of a middleman who had received payment of the rents due to him by his subtenants, becoming bankrupt while in arrear to the landlord, the latter was authorised to distrain the goods of the cultivators, and to force them to pay their rents over again to him! And instances every now and then occurred, in which the whole stock and property of the cultivators of extensive farms were driven to the pound, and sold to pay a debt which they had already discharged! We doubt whether the law of Algiers sanctioned any greater abuse. And until it had been put down, it was idle to expect that there should be security or prosperity in Ireland.1
From what has been stated, our readers will not, perhaps, be disposed to wonder when they are told that, generally speaking, the inhabitants of those districts in which there are most resident gentry, are often the most disposed to disturb the public peace, by engaging in illegal associations and enterprises. On Mr Maxwell Blacker, a King’s Counsel appointed to superintend the execution of the Insurrection Act in the counties of Cork and Tipperary, being asked by the Committee of the House of Commons, in 1825, whether there were more resident gentry in the former than in the latter, he replied, “That is no clue at all to trace the disturbances; for the disturbances in Cork prevailed most in that part that is most thickly inhabited by gentlemen. I judge of that by the number of magistrates I had officiating at Mallow; the disturbances extended from thence to Limerick, and raged about Doneraile and Mallow, and yet that part is, I conceive, as thickly inhabited with gentry as any other part.”1 And on being asked, whether that part of Cork which was least inhabited by gentry was not the quietest, Mr Blacker answered, that the western part, where there are almost no gentry, was nearly quite tranquil.2 Major Warburton, a gentleman of talent and respectability, who filled for some years the office of chief magistrate of the county of Clare, was examined at great length by the Committee, and gave the following information with respect to the influence of the residence of the landlords over the tranquillity of the country.
“In those baronies in the county of Clare, where there are a great many absentee proprietors, have they not been the most tranquil during your residence in the county?—Upon my word I think they have, as far as I know the position of the absentee property.
“In those baronies where there are few or no resident gentry, has not the tranquillity which prevailed been greater than in the baronies in which there have been a greater number of resident gentlemen?—It has.
“Are there any resident gentry in the barony of Ibrickin?—Very few indeed.
“Has not that barony been completely undisturbed?—That barony has been quiet since I went to the county, except immediately in 1816.
“Was not the part of the barony that was then disturbed, the very part where the few resident gentry resided?—It was.
“And the other parts of the barony remained undisturbed?—Yes.”1
Innumerable statements to the same effect might be produced from this and other evidence. But we apprehend that the reader will be disposed to consider those now given, coming, as they do, from gentlemen who had the best means of obtaining accurate information, as sufficiently conclusive.
We are, therefore, entitled to affirm that absenteeism, or the non-residence of the proprietors in Ireland, has not had the effects ascribed to it; that it has not lessened the demand for labour; and has had but little, if any, influence in retarding the moral improvement of the people. The poverty and disorders of the Irish are ascribable to very different causes; to the recklessness and improvidence inherent in their character; the prevalence of the Roman Catholic religion, and the ascendancy of a hostile priesthood; the indolence and insecurity induced by a dependence on so cheap and so precarious a resource as the potato; the want (only recently supplied) of a compulsory provision for the support of the poor; the excessive subdivision of the land; and a long course of misgovernment. Absenteeism is but little, if at all, more prevalent in Ireland than in Scotland; and yet none ever supposed that it was injurious to the latter. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that, cæteris paribus, absentee estates are preferred by Scotch tenants. The clamour against absentee expenditure is, in truth, as worthless as can well be imagined. It has no better foundation than the belief in witchcraft, or in clairvoyance, or in the efficacy of sham sinking funds.
[1 ] It is to be carefully observed, that this discussion refers only to the spending of income, or to its outlay and consumption in housekeeping, and the expenses necessarily connected therewith. It must not be mixed up or confounded with anything else.
[1 ] It is singular how the palpable contradiction and absurdity of statements like the above did not make them be scouted by all reasonable persons, and awaken suspicions in regard to the alleged disastrous influence of absenteeism. But, instead of this, they were appealed to for a lengthened series of years, as if their authority had been unquestionable. In 1729, Mr Thomas Prior, the friend and correspondent of Bishop Berkeley and the Earl of Chesterfield, and a gentleman in other respects of great candour and good sense, published his treatise on “Irish Absentees.” Among other matters, it contains a list of the absentees, with an estimate of the sums annually remitted to each, the aggregate being £627,799, which, he says, is entirely sent to them in treasure; and then he adds, “This is so great a burden upon us, that, I believe, there is not in history an instance of any one country paying so large a yearly tribute (!) to another.”—(P. 20.) Mr Prior next goes on to show, that “the most sanguine do not reckon that we have £400,000 of cash now remaining (amongst us); and if so,” he reasonably enough concludes, “’tis impossible to subsist much longer under such a drain.”—(Loc. cit.) A sixth edition of this tract was published, with notes, in 1782, more than half a century after it had first appeared. And yet, notwithstanding the cash in circulation in Ireland had increased, in the interval, and in the teeth of this alleged drain of £628,000 a-year, from £400,000 to above £2,000,000, the statements put forward by Prior in the earliest editions are repeated, with a eulogy on their correctness, and on his sagacity and foresight! It would really seem, that in this, as in some other things, the universality and intensity of belief, have been directly as the folly and falsehood of the thing believed. Even so late as 1829, a right hon. gentleman was kind and considerate enough to commiserate the “discredit” we had “done to our logical powers,” by endeavouring to show the degree of weight to be attached to the statements of Prior, Swift, and others.
[1 ] Page 586.
[2 ] Vol. i. p. 274.
[1 ] Vol. i. p. 299.
[2 ] Minutes of Evidence taken before the Select Committee of the House of Lords, on the state of Ireland, 14th April 1825, p. 59.
[1 ] First Report, 1825, Minutes of Evidence, p. 39.
[2 ] Minutes of Evidence before Irish Committee, p. 302.
[1 ] We are glad to have to state, that the law with regard to the occupancy of land in Ireland is now, and has been for a lengthened period, in a much more satisfactory state than in 1825. Subletting, unless by consent of the landlord, is now illegal, and may be summarily punished; and no subtenant, provided he have not been surreptitiously introduced, can be called upon to pay rent to the landlord, which he has already paid to the party from whom he holds.
[1 ] Minutes of Evidence before Select Committee on the State of Ireland, printed 11th February 1825, p. 67.
[2 ] Ibid.
[1 ] Minutes of Evidence before Select Committee on the State of Ireland, p. 151.