Petty Considerations

Sadly, most proposals for rescuing Ireland’s economy north and south are all too orthodox and in thrall to recent fads. Perhaps the work of one of the founding figures of economics can serve as spur to a more vigorous slaying of sacred cows.

I refer to William Petty’s Treatise of Ireland, from 1687, which proposed ‘a Perpetual Settlement of Ireland, with a Natural Improvement and Union of England and Ireland’. This would be done by ‘Transplanting a Million of People (without Distinction of Parties) out of Ireland into England : Leaving in Ireland onely enough Hands to manage as many Cattle as that Countrey will feed’

Petty’s prose deploys a cool rationality and impartiality sadly lacking from today’s interested bunfights. And he was prepared for all comers, anticipating and dismissing their objections with a steely logic.

Petty, A Treatise of Ireland, 1687. (2)

The fourth Objection, that this Transplantation and Change of Trade amounts to an Abolishment of the Irish Nation: Which will be Odious to them, and not compensable by all the Benefits abovementioned.


1. That this Proposal was intended for an Union of the two Nations, which is a real Blessing to both, according to that of Faciam eos in Gentem Unam : Whereas the Curse of a Civil Warr is, to divide one intire Nation into two Nations: As the Irish Commotions Anno 1641 actually did. Now if the two Nations be brought into one, the Name of the lesser Nation must needs be abolished, whilst the Thing and Substance is exalted. For

1. In this Case the Irish Names of Lands and Men are lay’d down, and English taken up in their Rooms.
2. The Cabineers of Ireland, which are Ten to One of all the others, will be removed out of their wretched Beastlike habitations; unfit for making Merchantable Butter and Cheese, and the Manufacture of Wool and Linnen out of the best Materials.
3. They will be set upon more pleasant and profitable Imployments in England.
4. They will be entertained there with greater Variety of agreeable Objects and Exercises.
5. They will be nearer the King, who hath a Kindness for them, with full Liberty of Conscience.
6. They will be safe from any Re-Conquest, which may be fatal to them.
7. They will be ingrafted and incorporated into a Nation more Rich, Populous, Splendid, and Renowned than themselves, for Letters, Arms, and other Atchievements.
8. This Transplantation will make the People of Ireland to be a real Addition (whereas they had been hitherto a Diminution and Counterpoize) to the Power of England, and for above 500 Years a vast Expence of it’s Blood and Treasure.

If the ESRI came up with something even one-tenth as sensible as this, they’d have to run into the bathroom and kill themselves.

As Peter Sutherland noted recently, “We have limited talent in this country and we have to apply it.” This enjoins us to learn from the likes of William Petty, who strove to improve the lot of the Irish people.

His was no dreary specialism. He was, as Michael Perelman notes, ‘one of the dozen founders of the Royal Society, as well as a naval engineer, professor of music, scientist, inventor, assistant to Thomas Hobbes, cartographer, pioneer in public health and demography member of Parliament, leader in the conquest of Ireland, an adviser to the King, and a notorious land pirate who accumulated hundreds of thousands of acres of confiscated Irish land’, though I suggest we ignore the last bit, since making tidy sums out from land acquisition and associated activities has never been a block to devising economic solutions to Ireland’s problems.

Also, he was the only economist to resurrect someone from the dead. Peter Bacon, on the other hand, who devised NAMA, claims to be ‘an economist not a moralist‘.

5 Responses to “Petty Considerations”

  1. 1 coc February 16, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    Was he serious? It has a hint of “A Modest Proposal” about it. Number 6 is a particularly excellent observation.

  2. 2 Hugh Green February 17, 2010 at 6:25 am

    In fact, A Modest Proposal was written as an attack on Petty. Number 6 is very fine indeed: we will expel them all from their country so as to save them the bother of us grinding them into the dirt once again.

  3. 3 Eoin February 17, 2010 at 11:51 am

    Apparently Mary Coughlan has similar ideas about the desirability of removing educated people out of Ireland in this interview available here:

  4. 4 Conor McCabe February 26, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    Funny thing is, the broad strokes of Petty’s plan were undertaken by the Free State government. About one million emigrated, and cattle export was central to the government’s excuse for an economy.

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February 2010

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