The author of this article agrees with the general view that the British are largely to blame for the mass starvation in Ireland in the mid 1800s due to the potato blight, but he says we typically blame the wrong Brits. We don’t go far enough back in history:
After the defeat of James II in 1690 a series of “penal laws” were passed by the Irish Parliament, dominated by the Protestant minority who had supported William III. The first, in 1695, took away the right of Catholics to bear arms. Another forbade Catholics to go overseas for education and prohibited them from teaching or running schools within Ireland. The most important however was the Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery (1704). This prevented Catholics from buying land or inheriting it from Protestants, or from leasing land for more than 31 years.4 At about this time the potato was introduced as a major crop. The combination of the legislation and the new crop was ultimately disastrous.
The penal laws, together with other legislation, created a set of powerful and perverse incentives. Because Catholic tenant farmers could not own land or hold it on anything but short-term leases, with little or no security of tenure, they had no incentive to improve their land or modernize agricultural practice. All the benefit would go to the hated alien class of Protestant landlords in higher rents or more expensive leases.
The potato made it possible to support a family on a very small piece of land, with a labor-intensive crop. This combination of legal institutions and the potato had the following effects. Irish agriculture did not improve or develop, but remained a subsistence, labor-intensive activity. The land was repeatedly subdivided since there was no incentive to improve production and profitability by consolidating farms, and a family could survive on a small area because of the high yield of the nutritious potato.
It is true that the government response to the potato famine was inadequate and often wrong-headed, and the protectionist Corn Laws made relief almost impossible. But the 17th century laws essentially laid out the kindling and stacked the dry wood neatly in place. The blight merely lit the match and the contemporary British response fanned the conflagration.
… laws that affect economic choice can have far-reaching and frequently perverse results. In particular, actions and laws that create the wrong kind of economic incentives can be truly disastrous and produce effects that are hard to reverse. The laws passed by the vengeful Protestant minority after 1690 created a set of institutional incentives in Ireland that continued to work for over a hundred years until they culminated in a disaster that was by then probably unavoidable.
It’s easy for us to see what was wrong with the 1690 laws, but we fail to see our own wrong headed approach to law today. We often use law to punish those who are economically successful- we don’t call it that, we call it ‘leveling the playing field,’ or redistributing wealth, or even ‘paying their share.’ We pass laws easily and lightly, because we fail to understand their far-reaching effects, or that all law is passed at the point of a gun. We use that gun against our neighbors far too lightly.