All Commentary
Tuesday, April 1, 1986

The Right to Food

Dr. Pasour is Professor of Economics at North Carolina State University at Raleigh.

People in the U.S. and throughout the world now have a heightened awareness of the age-old problems of hunger and poverty. It has been estimated that 460 million people throughout the world today suffer from acute malnutrition. At the same time, capacity to produce food is at an all time high in the U.S. and throughout the highly developed countries. Increasingly, questions are being raised about the apparent injustice of this coexistence of hunger and affluence.

The movement to provide more food to hungry people throughout the world has increased significantly since the early 1970′s. The 1974 World Food Conference in Rome took what many regarded as an essential first step. The conference adopted an objective that within a decade no child will go to bed hungry and that no family need fear for its next day’s bread. In the same spirit, a “Right to Food” resolution was introduced in both houses of the U.S. Congress in 1975. This resolution declares that every person in the U.S. and throughout the world has the right to a nutritionally adequate diet. The resolution has received the official sanction of various religious groups. Members of the Lutheran Church in America, for example, have been exhorted to contact their Representatives and Senators to “urge its passage.”

The concerned citizen cannot be oblivious to his neighbor’s condition. The fact that a problem exists, however, does not imply that all possible solutions are either feasible or right. What should be the attitude of the morally sensitive person toward this (or any other) “Right to Food” resolution? Do we, as individuals, have an obligation to support this legislation? More generally, what should be our stance toward world hunger problems? What can we as individuals do to alleviate the hunger problem facing half a billion people throughout the world?

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the “Right to Food” resolution. In doing so, the legitimacy of the right to food by citizens in the U.S. and in other countries will be discussed. The distinction between public and private charity will be stressed. Finally, limitations of charity as a long-run solution to hunger and poverty will be described.

The Concept Examined

There can be no universal right to food. The concept of the right to food cannot be supported on either economic or moral grounds. First, consider the economic implications of the right to food. The right to food basically involves the problem of income distribution. Food is man-produced. Proposals which assume a right to food (or income) by individuals within or outside the U.S. imply that there is no relationship between the incentives of food producers and food production. Many of the countries in which the hunger problem is most acute have attempted to ignore this relationship.

The right to food is fundamentally no different than a right to housing, clothing, and the like. Thus, there can be no economic bill of rights assuring everyone a specified level of “necessities,” since dividing income differently will affect the output of goods and services and, consequently, the amount of income to divide. That is, the more equal the income distribution, the less enthusiasm there will be on the part of individuals to engage in wealth-producing activities.

Food and other goods must be produced before they can be distributed. This is just as true for a highly developed modern economy as it was for Robinson Crusoe. The absurdity of the concept of “Right to Food” is obvious in the case of a Crusoe economy. The same basic problem remains, however, for a modern economy. There is no way to legislate prosperity for all.

The recent bankruptcy of New York City is a predictable outcome of an attitude by public officials which holds that “we will not be constrained by economics in caring for our citizens.” The minimum wage provides another good example of attempting to increase incomes by ignoring economic principles. Increases in the minimum wage cannot be used as a device to insure a minimum amount of income for all. Instead, the evidence in scores of examples has shown that the effect of an increase in the minimum wage is to eliminate jobs for marginal workers — not to increase their income.

Though a policy which is not feasible from an economic standpoint could hardly be moral, there are other moral objections to any universal right to food. Any right to a given level of food must be at someone else’s expense. Granting individual A the right to food (or any other good) means that an obligation is simultaneously being imposed on person B to provide the food since food must be produced to be consumed. Any right for one individual which imposes an unchosen obligation on other individuals can hardly be regarded as a moral right. This point is closely related to the distinction between “public” and private charity.

Public vs. Private Charity

Charity by its very nature implies a voluntary, freely chosen act. However, the “Right to Food” resolution involves not private charity but an involuntary gift of food (and income) from people who are not disposed to provide such aid. The “Right to Food” resolution involves the use of the state’s power to collect from individuals more than they are willing to contribute privately. Any individual is now free to contribute privately as much as he chooses for domestic and foreign relief agencies. The “Right to Food” resolution means, however, that individuals should be forced to contribute more to such work than they freely choose.

Support of legislation to coerce individuals into performing or abstaining from particular actions is inconsistent with the Judaeo-Christian concept of freedom. Blue Laws, prohibition, and anti-pornography provide other recent examples of legislation attempting to coerce individuals into particular modes of behavior. Freedom involves choice, not necessity, but means little if man is not free to choose — to choose good as well as evil. Thus, it is difficult to understand why a religious imprimatur should be placed on legislation intended to coerce individuals into supporting a particular activity. Such legislation will inevitably restrict the individual’s freedom of choice.

The act of supporting legislation affecting income levels on moral grounds raises a host of questions — theoretical and practical. Numerous groups, some preponderantly low income (e.g., elderly) and some preponderantly high income (e.g., doctors and lawyers), use or attempt to use the power of the state to affect their incomes. What moral basis can one use to determine whether the income of a particular individual or group is too high or too low? The Aristotelian idea of a “just price,” meaning anything other than the competitive market price, has long been discredited. The idea of a “just wage” determined administratively is just as spurious. The market provides only the objective basis for determining what the wage of a particular individual should be.

In reality, the incomes of most groups are influenced by the political process. Decisions to increase school teacher salaries or the level of social security benefits for the elderly, for example, are made in the political arena and reflect the political power of their individual constituencies. However, we have no objective basis apart from market forces for determining the “just” level of income for these or any other groups.

The fact that individuals or groups have no moral basis for attempting to coerce other individuals into involuntary acts does not mean, of course, that the hunger problem is not worthy of our attention as individuals. We cannot be oblivious to problems of hunger and malnutrition within the U.S. or in less-developed countries. Private charity is an important activity and can often play a key role in alleviating distress. Unfortunately, the impulse for private charity and the individual’s concern for his fellow man is being reduced by the progressively larger role of “public charity.”

Right to food resolutions also have a pernicious effect in fostering expectations which, aside from problems of economic scarcity, are incapable of being fulfilled. There is no way to assure everyone the right to a nutritionally adequate diet or to insure, as proposed at the Rome Conference, that “no human being’s future and capacities will be stunted by nutrition.” Nutrition problems exist in all countries for persons at all income levels. All parents know that providing the proper food does not guarantee that a nutritious meal will be eaten. Interest in “Weight-watchers” and other diet programs indicates that practical difficulties associated with eating properly (even when food is abundant) are not limited to children.


For most of the world’s hungry people, however, the basic problem is to obtain enough food. The question is not whether the plight of hungry people should be alleviated, but how. If the “Right to Food” resolution is not the proper approach toward alleviating hunger, what should we as individuals do? There is certainly a key positive role for private charity. Such aid can perform a valuable role in providing temporary relief in case of earthquakes, floods, and other disasters.

Western “imperialism,” lack of resources and weather are being used as scapegoats by many underdeveloped countries to hide the effects of their own mismanagement. The advantage of abundant resources can easily be negated by government policies (as in Jamaica). On the other hand, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan demonstrate the fact that resource-poor areas can develop when economic incentives are present. The fact that Russian farmers produce 25 percent of their food in private plots worked by farmers in their spare time provides additional evidence of the effect of economic incentives on output.

The only long-run solution to low income and hunger is to increase the output of the people involved, since wages depend primarily on the productivity of labor. For a given economic system, the productivity of labor depends on the amount of resources, including machinery and equipment available to work with. Increasing the ratio of capital to labor requires incentives to invest and produce. Yet, many of the underdeveloped countries fail to provide the climate for economic development, with an overt hostility toward a system of economic incentives.

Attempts to avoid the “mistakes” of a market economy through comprehensive central planning in “Third World” countries are almost certain to impede economic development. There are no short cuts to economic development or panaceas to solve low-income and hunger problems. Capital formation requires time, and hasty decisions adversely affecting investment by domestic and foreign investors can affect the lives of a country’s inhabitants for decades to come. The shortages, “bottlenecks” in production, low emphasis on output of consumer goods, and the like in Russia and other centrally directed economies are predictable results of relying on central control instead of the market in organizing economic activity. The typical person has little appreciation of the way in which the price system of a market economy provides information to market participants. For example, the amount of information required and number of decisions involved in getting a loaf of bread into a consumer’s hands is staggering to contemplate.

Though charity may alleviate some temporary distress problems, the only long-run answer to world hunger and low income lies fundamentally within the countries themselves. Neither private nor “public” charity is an effective substitute for basic political and economic reforms. Good intentions are not enough. “Right to Food” resolutions, whether passed or not, are likely to have a harmful effect on development efforts, since they divert attention from the basic problem. If enacted, such resolutions may also impede long-run development by enabling developing countries to adopt policies which discourage capital formation both from within and by foreign investors.

  • E. C. Pasour, Jr. is professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at North Carolina State University. He is coauthor with Randal R. Rucker of Plowshares and Pork Barrels: The Political Economy of Agriculture (Independent Institute, 2005).