Conservative Theology

Why Food is NOT a Basic Human Right


One thing that is problematic in modern public policy debates has been the expansion of what are considered "basic human rights".  There are several reasons why unwarranted expansions in this area are problematic:

  1. It muddies the water as to what is a basic human right and why they should be basic rights.
  2. Most expansions of rights have put the government in the position of granting or removing rights, thus leading to a public perception that the government is the source of these rights.
  3. If rights come into conflict with each other too often, then the whole notion of rights itself breaks down, leading to the loss of all of them.

The third one is the one I want to concentrate on.  While it would have been more appropriate to our current concerns to say "why healthcare is not a basic human right", I thought that it would show how basic the case is if in stead I made the case why food is not a basic human right - some humans can live without health care, but no human can live without food.

So why is food not a basic human right?  Because a human right cannot be something that can be produced.  It must be something that is innately possible within an individual person.  More to the point, for something to be a right it cannot rely on someone else for its invocation.

For example, lets look at the freedom of religion and the rights of conscience.  Neither of these require anything from anybody in order for someone to express them.  Now, there may be some things that must be done to ensure that other people don't abridge them, but their normal operation does not entail any other party.

Take a look at the bill of rights.  These are all things that fall into one of two categories:

  • Tell what CANNOT be done
  • Tell WHAT ELSE must be done to do something

Neither of these require anything from the people for their normal function.  Congress "not making any law" means that congress should get out of the business, not into the business.  The right to a speedy trial, in fact, only applies if there is a trial at all. If the citizens do not wish to give a speedy trial, they can simply let them go free.  Thus, in no case does congress require that any item or service be rendered to any other person.  It merely restricts what restrictions can be placed, or identifies what must be done in the event that a government decides to pursue an end.  But never is the government requred to pursue that end.  In fact, if there were no government at all, the Bill of Rights would be followed exactly.

Nowhere in the Bill of Rights, for instance, is there a guarantee that criminals will be prosecuted.  Nowhere is there a guarantee that someone will be given food.  Nowhere is there a guarantee that a militia will be active.

Why not?

It's a basic feature of reality - that of limited resources.

Let's say, for instance, that we decide that having Widget X is a basic human right.  Therefore, in a new amendment to the bill of rights, each human being receives at least one Widget X is a basic human right.  However, let's say that, in this hypothetical example, that we have a population of 4 billion people.  Then,  after manufacturing 3 billion Widget X's, we run out of some resource essential for producing Widget X's.  Therefore, in this scenario, 1 billion people are not being given their "basic human rights". 

How, then, can it be a basic human right if there is a potential that it can't be delivered?  Does that mean that we must tear heaven and earth apart looking for the missing component to ensure basic human rights?  We might start that way, but soon, the economic burden of doing so will cause us to rethink this policy, and, instead one of two things will happen. 

First, we might decide that it isn't a basic human right.  The problem, here, is not just that there is a disagreement on what the basic human rights are, but that a right is bound up with the practical problem of delivering it.  That is, rights become rights when we can deliver them, and cease being rights when we can't.  Thus, no right is "basic", but rather they are all derived from our economic circumstances.  Therefore, someone may argue, for any right, that our economic circumstances are different, and we should have a different set of rights.  As you can see, our "rights" in this case are quickly shifting from being "basic" to being "arbitrary".  And thus, even if we retain the terminology, we lose the whole concept.

Second, we might conclude that it is a basic right, but that, since there is not enough to go around, we must decide who gets the right and who doesn't. Thus, the source of the right moves from God to the government.  These are no longer basic human rights, they are government-granted rights.  We then have a classed system - those with rights and those without.

Thus, the rights granted in the Bill of Rights, and, I would contend, anything properly called a "right", does not depend on an economic product to deliver.  That is, the right must, at least in theory, be deliverable without cost.  And, as such, you can read the Bill of Rights and see that it is consistent with a situation in which no government at all exists.

Thus, food cannot be a basic human right, because there is no way for the government to guarantee that there will be enough to go around.  Many countries survive on imports.  If their trade relations went south, then there simply would not be enough food to go around.  And declaring food a "basic right" wouldn't change that economic fact - it would simply de-value the idea of rights as a whole.

That doesn't mean that needs such as food and shelter and healthcare should never be touched by the government, it just means that the "rights" language needs to go.  This is an economic decision, not a rights decision.  It is a decision about allocating resources.  There is always an economic end to the amount of resources which can be put to something, and, if something should count as a "basic right", it should be impervious to that resource wall.

Since that is the case in the case of food, it is even more the case in the case of healthcare.  In any situation, there can always be more money applied at a problem.   At some point, the money runs out.  I have been the recipient of generous amounts of money, both from friends and from insurance, for the healthcare of my children.  But, even with the amount spent, more could have been spent.  The question is, where does it end?  If it does have an end, then the decision is an economic one, not a rights one.  If it did not have an end, then we would need to open up a new research department for every unknown illness encountered the moment it was encountered, and not wait for pesky things such as foundations and research grants.

Therefore, it is important for the preservation of the idea of rights, that rights not be bound up in any way with economic goods.  As soon as they do, the whole notion of rights will be swept away with a giant whooshing sound.

The problem with left-wing politics is that it falls apart as soon as you assume that the world's resources are finite.  The advantages of conservative politics is that the finite-ness of the world's resources are at its basic core.  This is why conservatives are often considered "heartless" - what we can do in reality is more important than we might want to do if we had infinite resources.  Conservatives focus on the "can" and "likely" to be done, while the liberals focus on the "wish" could be done.  Conservatives aren't any less likely to help others, they are just less likely to believe that there is an endless pool of resources from which the generosity comes.  And, I think, in the end, that makes us all the more thankful for the help we do receive, because we realize all of the other economic goods that the money could have alternatively been spent on.  I think about this almost every day.