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The right to food: Negative or positive?

  • Published at 10:25 pm March 27th, 2018
The right to food: Negative or positive?
Disturbing news reaches me that there is a discussion about creating a “right to food” in Bangladesh. This is an entirely disastrous idea, one that will make matters much worse. People having food -- of course, we all want that. But this is not the same as insisting that people have a right to it. What we define as a right is expanding in this world as we all get richer. Different parts of the United Nations have declared all sorts of things to be a right as it’s easy enough to do that when sitting in a nice air-conditioned auditorium. If everyone had something then great, let’s declare that to be a right. The first objection is a philosophical one and many will dismiss it as absurd pettifogging but it is still important. This is the distinction between negative and positive rights, largely associated with Karl Popper. A negative right is something that doesn’t cost anyone else to provide. Your right to free speech doesn’t impose any cost upon me. Your right to free speech is the same. This is true for all negative rights. We have no conflict of rights here, so there’s no reason to curtail any one of them.
If famine is a threat in some area, the answer is not that governments take months to charter shiploads of food. Instead, it is simply to give money to people facing the food shortage
A positive right, on the other hand, might be equally desirable but it does conflict with other rights -- simply because it costs something to provide. Say that we insist that adequate housing -- as some parts of the UN do -- is a right. Well, someone, somewhere, now has to pay for that housing for those who otherwise cannot afford it. It might even be correct that we should tax them to build it and personally I’m just fine with a tax-funded welfare state. But we do have a conflict of rights here -- you’re taking my money to provide that right for someone else. Maybe I don’t agree with the provision of housing. Or with the amount it’s costing, or even maybe I just want to note the fact that you’re taking my money to give it to others. Positive rights are not just quantitatively different from negative ones; they are qualitatively different, at which point the usual philosophic response is that positive rights, those which will cost others to provide, are not rights in the same sense as negative ones which cost nothing. Now, with regard to food being a right, one of the points being made in the discussion is that, in flooded areas, where there will be no crop until next planting season, rice traders are taking advantage by imposing higher prices. Food as a right would enable us to stop that, which is ludicrous -- when there is a shortage of something in an area then we want prices to increase. That’s exactly what sucks in supply from elsewhere. Those little charts at the beginning of every economics textbook about supply and demand really are an accurate representation of our world. Higher prices increase supply -- what do we want in those flooded areas? Higher supply, and therefore, we should have higher prices. We should also take note of the work of Amartya Sen on famine, the thing which won him the Nobel Prize for Economics. His family is from the Dhaka region. He was born in colonial Bengal, so not quite a national (he has Indian citizenship) but he is at least partially local and also an expert on the subject. And his considered opinion is that, in the modern world, famine -- the thing we wish to avoid -- is actually not a result of the absence of food; it’s the absence of effective demand for it. It’s about people not having the money to be able to buy food that is the problem. The solution is therefore obvious: Supply people with money to be able to buy food and we can leave the supply of it to those profit-hungry food traders who will pile in with that very desired supply. This is so commonplace now that the international food aid programs employ the same technique. If famine is a threat in some area, the answer is not that governments take months to charter shiploads of food. Instead, it is simply to give money to people facing the food shortage. There’s that basic philosophic problem with granting “rights” to something which must, by their very provision, impact the rights of others. This is true of housing, medical care, food, anything where someone else must be taxed to provide what will then be supplied for free. This does not, at all, mean that food should not be provided to the starving, clothing to the naked, etc. It’s just that we do indeed want to differentiate between those rights which cost nothing and thus all can enjoy in unlimited supply and those that just are going to be rationed in some manner because of the conflict in rights. Then there’s the implication of the supply of these “rights.” We do generally look to the government to provide at least the space in which we can enjoy rights and that’s just the wrong way to be providing those positive rights themselves. As long as people do have effective demand, that is the money to pay for that housing, food, clothing, then the market will provide them in much better and swifter manner than the direct actions of the government. Thus, the answer is to provide the poor and those afflicted by the floods, so that we can then perform our human duty in the most efficient manner possible.   Tim Worstall is a Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London. He also writes for the Continental Telegraph