Drifting in and out of Socialism: The Case of Ireland

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National economic policy is generally thought to be set through an intellectual battle over social philosophy. Collectivists, with their ideology of greater government control, oppose individualists; with an equally comprehensive theory of limited government-and a nation's level of taxation, regulation, and government ownership is assumed to reflect the relative strength of these contending forces.

This model has tended to fit England and the United States, which have had a recognizable "left" and "right" in their politics. In most countries of the world, however, ideology does not play such a significant role: Politicians and parties are pragmatic, and government interventions have been adopted not to implement an overall philosophy, but through a day-to-day process of accommodation. And the movement in the other direction, toward less state control, is equally pragmatic. The politicians make what they think are reasonable ad hoc adjustments, without reference to theory or philosophy.

Ireland is a good example of a country with this kind of non-ideological politics. It has not had a meaningful left and right. Over the past century it has adopted socialist policies not because parties and leaders were convinced socialists (most of them were said to be "conservatives"), but because such policies were superficially appealing. In recent years, it has moved somewhat away from these policies and toward the principles of the free market. But this shift has not been the result of any party, faction, or pressure group.

So far as I could detect in weeks of searching, there are no prominent Irish think tanks espousing the cause of limited government. There are no politicians with an underlying skepticism of government action, no talk-- radio hosts critical of big government, no one who questions government welfare programs on principle. Names like Hayek and Mises, or for that matter, Jefferson, Thoreau, and Paine, are unknown in Ireland. Practically everyone accepts the general notion that government should be comprehensively involved in national life.

Yet despite this overwhelming pro-- government sentiment, and despite the lack of anti-government voices, there is a clear drift against government ownership and control in Ireland! This remarkable tendency cries out for explanation, especially since it is not unique. Many countries with a strongly left-- leaning public opinion are nevertheless moving away from systems of government control. They haven't reached anything like a genuine limited government, of course, yet the trend is significant.

The Potato Famine and the Guilt of Empire

The roots of pro-government sentiment in Ireland reach back many centuries. As an English colony from the days of Henry VIII, Ireland did not have the opportunity to develop strong traditions of self government and self reliance: The tendency was to look to the colonial government in England to solve problems. The potato blight and famine of 1845-49 greatly exacerbated that tendency. Although England did send considerable food relief, it was not enough to prevent wide-- spread suffering. For the rest of the century, English elites felt guilty about not having done enough for Ireland, and they instituted numerous relief and assistance schemes that, in their own country, would have been seen as unacceptably intrusive. Their policies included expropriations of lands (which were then practically given away to Irish tenants), and the development of numerous systems of public relief and subsidies. The result was that the Irish developed, as historian Mary Daly puts it, "a strong dependence on government assistance for everything from famine relief to land reform."

After independence in 1921, the new Irish government took the same paternalistic rate, especially under the leadership of Eamon de Valera in the period 1932-48. Motivated by nationalistic and anti-British sentiments, de Valera tried to create a self-sufficient Ireland. …