Front Page Titles (by Subject) 361.: THE PROPOSED IRISH POOR LAW  MORNING CHRONICLE, 17 MAR., 1847, P. 5 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III
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361.: THE PROPOSED IRISH POOR LAW  MORNING CHRONICLE, 17 MAR., 1847, P. 5 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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THE PROPOSED IRISH POOR LAW 
This is the first of two articles commenting on the “Bill to Make Further Provision for the Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland”; see also No. 362. Russell’s Bill radically revised the Irish Poor Law by allowing guardians, at their discretion, to provide out-door relief to the able-bodied unemployed when the workhouses were full. At the same time, the “Bill to Facilitate the Improvement of Landed Property in Ireland by the Owners Thereof, and Thereby to Afford Employment to the Labouring Classes,” 10 Victoria (8 Feb., 1847), PP, 1847, II, 137-64, continued the practice of extending loans to landlords. Mill’s unheaded first leader, which follows the parliamentary report, is described in his bibliography as “A leading article on the proposed Irish Poor Law, in the Morning Chronicle of 17th March 1847”
(MacMinn, p. 68).
among the many subjects of contemplation offered to an unprejudiced observer by any popular frenzy, one of the most worthy of thoughtful attention is, the theories which it developes. Though mankind in general do not usually act or feel by theory, they never go on long acting or feeling without a theory; they must have something to say for themselves, some weapon with which to face objectors; and though there needs but little—generally indeed some word or phrase is enough—to satisfy the utmost exigencies of the multitude in the way of a reason for the faith which is in them, there are almost always leaders or advocates who must have something more. All the reason on one side, and nothing but feeling on the other, never answered yet on any except religious questions. In politics the post of theorist to a popular movement is always filled, either better or worse; there are always people who take upon themselves to find doctrine and argument in justification of what other people are crying out for.
The present frenzy on the subject of Irish poor-laws has accordingly its doctrinaires; its men with an idea or two beyond that of merely pointing with their fingers to those who have something, and saying to those who have nothing, “up boys and at them”; men who aspire to a sort of philosophical theory. And it is important to consider what this theory is; for however little the actions of most people are consciously influenced by theories, they may depend upon it that the goodness or badness of their conduct is in exact proportion to the goodness or badness of the theory that is requisite for defending it.
The supporters of permanent out-door relief for Ireland have a theory which they very complacently oppose to all gloomy predictions respecting the effect of the measure on the character and habits of the Irish people. They say that their poor-law must be good not only for the immediate alleviation, but for the ultimate prevention, of distress, because it gives to the owners of property an interest in the permanent well-doing and well-being of the poor. This interest of the rich in making the poor well off is their staff of reliance for keeping all things right; and in this they are not single, for theirs is at present the doctrine of all modish philanthropists, and all political vendors of new wine in old casks.1 The grand arcanum is supposed to consist in a great fuss and bustle among the rich to make the poor moral, religious, and fat; except that the Court ladies and Lord John Manners are for making sentiment the primum mobile of all this stir, while the poor-law folks trust rather to the substantial influences of pounds, shillings, and pence.
This last view of the subject is that with which we are at present concerned. The well-being, even in a physical sense, of any but the hereditarily wealthy, cannot be made independent of their own qualities; if they are indolent and improvident, nothing that can be done for them by other people will enable them to prosper; nothing can improve their condition permanently that does not improve their opinions and conduct. This is so evident that it is admitted even by the poor-law advocates, ready as they have shown themselves to disown every doctrine of common sense and experience which stands in the way of their conclusions. Their theory therefore must be, that any conduct which it is desired to encourage is best promoted by taking away the motives to it from the person who is to be induced to practise it, and at the same time laying a strong motive for making him practise it upon the shoulders of somebody else. We remember in history no parallel instance of a practical bull, except that institution of our ancestors which supplied royal pupils with the needful stimulus to their studies by stripes vicariously administered on the back of a substitute.
Try the same principle on other things. There have been penal laws now for a long time, and crimes have not ceased; we are sometimes even told that they are increasing. Perhaps it is a wrong plan to punish the thief himself: we now propose every time a theft is proved at the Old Bailey to let the thief go free, and impose a handsome fine on the sheriff and magistrates, that they may have an interest in preventing thieving. The same plan will apply admirably to education. Parents or teachers should never allow the child to gain instruction and moral discipline by being left to feel any of the consequences of his own negligence or misconduct; much less let them presume to punish; but require them, on the contrary, to take all consequences off the child, and on themselves, that they may have the strongest possible motive to say to the child, “Don’t be naughty;” for of all power over the child except that of words they would, by the supposition, have divested themselves. The poor-law people, because the natural motives to industry and providence have not been sufficient to produce those virtues in the Irish peasantry, are for supplying the deficiency, not by strengthening the natural motives, and adding others to them, but by taking them entirely away, and arming the landlords with “O fie!” and “Don’t be naughty!” as a substitute. Really this plan of correcting A’s faults by making B smart for them, depriving B at the same time of every possible mode of restraining or educating A, is one of the most curious instances of unreasonable expectation on record. Pharaoh’s requisitions from the Israelites were nothing to it.2
There was a time when this doctrine was not quite so self-contradictory as it now is. About twenty years ago there was a rather general move among political economists and other thinking persons in favour of poor-laws, on a theory the same, at least in words, as that now assigned. They said that a poor-law gave the rich an interest in preventing any such degree of poverty as involved any danger of becoming chargeable on the parish, and that the English poor-law had long worked well, because the rich had really felt this interest, and had acted in consequence. In this we believe there was some truth; but what is it that was in fact meant? That the rich had exerted themselves to keep down population, and that it was desirable they should continue to do so. They did this in various ways: by preventing the building of cottages; by pulling down those already built; by discouraging marriages within the parish; by contriving that children should not be born within it; by throwing obstacles in the way of a labourer’s obtaining a settlement, and getting their work done as far as possible by labourers settled elsewhere. These are the things which landlords can do, in obedience to the pecuniary interest created by poor-rates, and these things, we sincerely believe, did contribute greatly in England, during the eighteenth century, to render the poor-law innocuous. Are these the things which the present clamourers for poor-laws desire to see done? So far from it, that no landlord can do any of these things without becoming an object of their unmeasured vituperation. There is nothing which a landlord can do to keep down the rates, with their good will, except to “employ the people;” that is, to go on paying the money, calling it not rates, but wages. The landlords must be made to “find work;” and pray, when they have found work, how are these so-called labourers, whose inveterate dislike to work we heard so much about even before the relief works had still further demoralized them—these people, who will now know that they are to be supported at all events—how are they to be made to do the work which has been found for them? No means have been found adequate to produce real work in circumstances at all analogous, except enthusiasm or the cart-whip. On which of these is our reliance to be placed from this time forward?
One other question. To how many more than the six or seven hundred thousand families now thrown or to be thrown upon public support is the obligation on the owners of property to find work for everybody considered to extend? We will make the extravagant supposition that there are the means of employing all this number, and that they may be employed so as to replace the expense of their maintenance, in improving the estates of the landlords—what is to be done with the fifteen or sixteen millions of people to whom, under such ample encouragement, the rural population of Ireland will assuredly have multiplied, twenty or twenty-five years hence? Is work to be found for the whole of these also at other people’s expense?—and for thirty or thirty-two millions in twenty or twenty-five years more? If not, where is the obligation to stop, or at what point shall the attempt commence to substitute some artificial check on the increase of population for the natural checks which are now going to be removed? But we proceed no further in this argument, lest we offend the susceptible philanthropists of the present time, who think they annihilate the laws of physical nature by refusing to hear of them, and who are really unlucky in having been born into so refractory a planet as this earth, instead of a world flowing with milk and water like themselves.
[1 ]Cf. Matthew, 9:17.
[2 ]See Exodus, 1:11-14 and 5:6-9, for the requirements of hard bondage and making bricks without straw.