The song is about an Irishman due to be transported to the other side of the world for stealing the corn from the ruling British aristocrat (Trevelyan) during the famine. One hundred years after the Easter 1916 rising, the song will ring out in France. I was reminded of the importance of both the famine and Irish independence when I recently reread Development as Freedom. The book is written by Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen. In the book Sen says “It is not surprising that no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy … Famines have tended to occur in colonial territories governed by rulers from elsewhere (as in British India or in an Ireland administrated by alienated English rulers), or in one-party states … or in military dictatorships …”. He says that what happened in Ireland in the 1840s killed a “higher proportion of the population than any other famine anywhere in recorded history”.
Development as Freedom prompted more thoughts about the Irish soccer team than those related to “The Fields of Athenry”. In the book, Sen explains the difference between “culminating outcomes” and “comprehensive outcomes”. One is about the level of economic development while the other is about how you get there. Sen’s perspective is similar to that of those sports commentators who stress the importance of how the game is played. Sen proposes a thought experiment. He asks the reader to imagine two identical outcomes. One is achieved under a democratic market regime where participants have the freedom to produce and buy what they want. The other outcome is achieved under a command economy where a central force determines what is produced and consumed. He asks which outcome is better. Most sporting fans will only say they prefer their team playing to a system while that team is winning. History suggests the Irish fans will accept any type of winning football but when they are losing they will complain about any imposed system.
As we start a new calendar year, and make decisions about sporting participation, the economists amongst us might consider Sen’s discussion of human capital in the book. Amartya Sen appeals for a wider definition of human capital than is sometimes presented in the economics textbooks. He wants to focus on human capability rather than human capital. It is easy to say that our participation in sport is an investment in our health. However, we might also engage in a sport to become someone different. To change ourselves. There is the character building part. It can promote change (individual and social). This is easier to see when we consider why parents get their kids involved in sport and other pastimes.
Sen notes that the human capabilities element was important to Adam Smith (Sen quotes a passage from Smith that would not be out of place in Bounce by Mathew Syed). However, he worries that it is being forgotten in the human capital literature. James Buchanan expresses similar concerns about the elements of character formation missing from the economic literature in his collection of essays published as What Should Economists Do?
I’m not sure if there is a need to guard against forgetfulness or amnesia in economics. And, if so then what should be done. Maybe the profession could use songs! Jane Jacobs (author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities), highlights the importance of song to the maintenance of Irish identity and culture during 800 years of British rule. She was not talking about “The Fields of Athenry” but it is probably appropriate that the song rings out at a tournament of one of the most democratic sports in the world. A sport that the British codifed and gave to the world.
It seems fair to say that the English sport is a more democratic one than the national pastimes of its former colonies. Soccer spread on the back of the expansion of the British empire. The result was a game the rest of the world plays while Americans play baseball (to paraphrase a Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist book title). Szymanski and Zimbalist contrast the motivations behind the spread of soccer while the owners of US sport teams were more concerned with protecting their home market. Some of the motivating forces for gaelic games militated (or militates) against them thriving outside Ireland (see Sport & Ireland by Paul Rouse for a more comprehensive account). Only this week did we see a situation where a club wanted a British Army side banned from the London championship (here). And, it is not that long since members of the British forces were banned from playing gaelic games (via Rule 21). Maybe that is why "The Fields of Athenry" will be sung without too much intended political significance.