Foresight on Food Politics

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Nebraska Rep. Adrian Smith, R-3rd district, made headlines in late May when, while appearing on NPR’s “Morning Edition” to defend farm subsidies and President Trump's proposed cuts to food stamps, he refused to concede to the host's premise that food is a basic right. NPR Host Scott Simpson appeared incredulous that Smith wouldn't simply agree that Americans "are entitled to eat" and, by extension, entitled to government support in order to ensure they can.

Listen to the full interview here.

Why so perplexed, host Simpson?

From Jamestown founder John Smith's 1609 proclamation that those who will not work shall not eat, to today's Libertarian Party and the self-appointed heirs to political conservatism who believe government has no business in a task better left to family, church, community and private charity, America's political tradition has held that the right to food is, in fact, not a basic human right, on par with freedom to speak, freedom to worship as you choose and freedom from unfounded prosecution.

Yet for decades, that tenant has been actively attacked by political philosophers and government advocates.

In 2004, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations adopted by consensus the Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food in the Context of National Food Security. Those so-called Right to Food Guidelines offered member nations practical guidance on ways to implement a recognized basic human right to adequate food, both in policy and programming. "Because of its legally binding nature," the FAO says, "the realization of the right to adequate food is not merely a promise to be met through charity. It is a human right...." As a result, over the last decades, a number of countries have implemented constitutional amendments, national laws, strategies and policies to ensure the right to eat.

America, as well, has its new advocates for a civil right to be fed. In her 1971 Diet for a Small Planet, food activist Frances Moore Lappé wrote that on a planet awash in more than enough calories to feed everyone, hunger’s root cause is clearly not a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy. "An idea once heretical—that to address hunger we must talk about democracy, power and human rights—is now gaining traction," Lappe's daughter Anna echoed in 2011.

On the surface, it can have a certain logical appeal. Says Milwaukee food activist Will Allen, who believes neighborhood greenhouses putting unemployed and at-risk youth to work raising communal food can save both the food system and youth (even as they put grocery stores out of business), "As people feel more empowered in their own communities, no matter how poor and neglected, they become better citizens; they see the connections between their choices and the impact on those around them. Access to good, healthy food shouldn't be reserved for a privileged few. It should be a basic right."

At the heart of this new fight over a right to food is a deep and long-running philosophical split over the basic nature of rights. Russian-born political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, whose family fled the communist revolution of 1917 for England, drew the brightest line almost 60 years ago, when he first defined the two types of rights: A "negative freedom," or freedom from outside interference, which Berlin derived from the British tradition and which informs America's Constitutional Bill of Rights, and "positive freedom," which considers not what citizens are free from, but instead what they are free to do. In the light of positive freedom, it's understandable that food, as a necessity to life, would become a freedom to be ensured by the government.

Today's flirtation with positive rights reflects a distrust in the underlying assumptions that ensured negative rights worked to promote the common good, suggests David Meskill, a professor of history at New York's Dowling College. Negative rights rely on belief in Scottish economist Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand," which he argued in the late 18th century could be trusted to direct the selfish interest of the individual to ultimately benefit society as a whole. They also depend philosophically on John Stuart Mill's tweaking of Smith's invisible hand a hundred years later to include the need for beneficent guidance by educated elites to ensure selfish interests were properly informed. Both interpretations have now been jettisoned by positive-rights advocates who see the whole game as rigged by the powerful. Positive-rights advocates believe progress in free societies can't be assumed as a given any longer, Meskill argues, so both Smith's and Mill's hands-off attitude become a recipe for nothing but chaos and injustice. Only state action can be relied upon to correct the regular mass unemployment, unequal distribution of wealth, "externalities" of pollution and environmental damage and starvation that are bound to occur.

But the glaring problem in all those complaints about freedom to starve, wrote British professor of social and political theory Norman P. Barry 30 years ago, is this: "In all this there is scarcely any recognition of the obvious fact that no other economic system has remotely approached capitalism in its productivity and ability to satisfy consumer wants." Central planning not only depends on capitalist systems to develop the technology necessary to progress, but even the entire system necessary to price and value goods that's needed in the first place in order to redistribute them "fairly." In free-market economies, Barry argues, people aren't in the streets begging for food because the state has built and funded a communally-directed social security net, but rather because the state can freely siphon off and redirect a surplus produced only by the economic efficiency of the invisible hand.

Freedom is necessary to free thought, Mill wrote, and free thought is necessary to add to that store of knowledge, which is the basis of all other improvements, Meskill says. In the food system, we see evidence in that fact in the dramatic drop in global poverty over the past three decades, a drop led by free-market agriculture in poor and middle-income countries,” according to a March report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. That report, co-chaired by former Nebraska U.S. Rep. Doug Bereuter, shows that from 1990 to 2015, the number of people worldwide living in extreme poverty fell by more than 1 billion people. The percentage of residents in low- and middle-income countries considered chronically undernourished fell from 23 percent to 13 percent in the same period. Investments in agricultural development, the study says, “have been proven to be more than twice as effective at reducing poverty as investments in other sectors.”

Need a more specific instance? Look no further than Venezuela, writes Reason.com associate editor Ed Krayewski. "Under Hugo Chavez," he says, "Venezuela became an example for Western leftists of a 'progressive alternative to neo-liberalism is both possible and popular.'" Instead, this latest experiment in central planning earned citizens mass hunger, riots, mass arrests, protests and near collapse.

"Venezuela has faced countless shortages created by its centrally-planned economy...," Krayewski chronicles. "Between the brutal collapse in goods imports to pay Venezuela's bond debt and the endless hurdles to private sector food production," he quotes the Caracas Chronicles, "there just aren't enough of the right calories to go around."

Such is the price state control of food extracts when it pretends to guarantee a right for everyone to be fed. Says Krayewski, "Socialism considers agents of the state forces of good, who will, because of their benevolent nature, assure an allocation of resources that is 'just' and avoids the imposed scarcity of capitalism. But the opposite is true—scarcity has been the norm in the world history, with free markets pulling an unprecedented number of people out of poverty in the last fifty years. Free market capitalism 'solved' the scarcity problem by incentivizing innovators to create solutions. Malthusians predicted mass starvation and population decline in the early part of the 20th century. The green revolution in bio-engineered food prevented that. Today, leftists complain about genetically-modified organisms even as GMOs have helped not just feed people who would otherwise be starving, but provided opportunities for employment."

Listen to Rep. Smith's NPR interview:

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