Contemporary sketch of starving peasants in Skibbereen by James Mahoney (Wikipedia/Public Domain)
Contemporary sketch of starving peasants in Skibbereen by James Mahoney (Wikipedia/Public Domain)

The Economist is going through a firestorm of criticism because it reviewed a book on slavery and suggested it was biased for taking the slaves’ side. The Economist furthermore suggested that slaves’ accounts of cruel treatment from their masters were an unreliable guide to reality because:

Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment.

The Economist has since apologized for this review and withdrawn it. Even so, its extraordinary blindness to how real life economic power relations work is reminiscent of the magazine’s beginnings in the 19th century, when it fulminated at the very idea that the British government should do anything about the Irish famine that was happening on its doorstep. After all, it was the peasants’ own fault that they were starving.

… the people, rapidly increasing, have been reduced, by acts for which they are chiefly to blame, to a sole reliance on the precarious crop of potatoes. It would be unjust to Ireland – it would be a neglect of a great duty which is imposed on us at this time – if we did not point to this calamity, assuming as it does this aggravated form, as in a great measure the natural result of that crime which has precluded the people from other available resources. That the innocent suffer with the guilty, is a melancholy truth, but it is one of the great conditions on which all society exists. Every breach of the laws of morality and social order brings its own punishment and inconvenience. Where there is not perfect security, there cannot be prosperity. This is the first law of civilization.

In both instances, The Economist’s deep-rooted fondness of laissez faire slipped into a shameful tendency to minimize the human costs of those at the wrong end of the system, whether it was those who suffered and were murdered beneath the whip of slavery or those who starved to death, in part thanks to The Economist’s own vigorous advocacy.