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John Boehner, the 61st and current Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Photo by: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

GOP economic policy compared to British one that caused Irish Famine

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John Boehner, the 61st and current Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Photo by: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Irish famine, in which Britain's "unflinching fidelity to an economic ideology" largely contributed to the historic tragedy, is being used as a warning to the GOP for its unyielding strategy to have Obamacare repealed.

The Republican Party refusal to approve further government funding unless Obamacare is substantially repealed has resulted in the first shut down of the federal government in 18 years. But the GOP is playing a dangerous game, warns Richard S. Grossman a Professor of Economics at Wesleyan University writing in The Hartford Courant.

"Republicans should take a lesson from history, which has shown time and time again that such ideological crusades, when applied to economic policy, can have disastrous consequences.”

Grossman is also a visiting scholar at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. His book, "Wrong: Nine Economic Policy Disasters and What We Can Learn from Them," will be published later this year by Oxford University Press.

"Consider the Irish famine, one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the 19th century, which left roughly 1 million people — or about one-ninth of Ireland's population — dead and led an even larger number to emigrate," Grossman writes.

"Britain's prime minister at the outbreak of the crisis, the Conservative Party's Sir Robert Peel, immediately took steps to alleviate Irish suffering: sending experts to study the fungus, promising to provide any chemical that would combat it at government expense and arranging — without Parliamentary authorization — a large shipment of corn from the United States to stave off the worst effects of the crisis. Peel also undertook the politically dangerous task of repealing the Corn Laws, a longstanding and substantial tariff on imported grain, in order to make food cheaper.

"Peel's repeal of the Corn Laws helped Ireland's poor by lowering the price of imported grain but was unpopular with the landed aristocracy, farm owners who preferred high grain prices and were the mainstay of the Conservative Party. By repealing the tariff, Peel alleviated the famine but alienated his party's political base, which cost him his job.

"Peel's replacement, the Liberal Party's Lord John Russell, was adamantly opposed to any government interference with the workings of the grain market: Thus, while supporting the repeal of the Corn Laws, Russell opposed Peel's other actions, notably importing grain from the United States. Commenting on Peel's response to the famine, Russell wrote: 'It must be thoroughly understood that we cannot feed the people. It was a cruel delusion to pretend to do so.'

"Russell was the leader of the world's wealthiest industrial democracy of the day, and yet his ideological commitment to not intervening in markets led him to spurn policies that were proven lifesavers. Can we imagine even the most pro-free market political leader today sacrificing lives to demonstrate his or her loyalty to an economic ideology?

"Sadly, the response to the Irish famine is not the only example — historical or contemporary — of an ideologically based policy that had tragic consequences."

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