Inside the drab district hospital, where dogs patter down the corridors, sniffing for food, Ratan Bhuria’s children are curled together in the malnutrition ward, hovering at the edge of starvation. His daughter, Nani, is 4 and weighs 20 pounds. His son, Jogdiya, is 2 and weighs only eight . . . And they are hardly alone: India’s eight poorest states have more people in poverty — an estimated 421 million — than Africa’s 26 poorest nations, one study recently reported.
Sonia Gandhi [leader of the ruling Congress party], is pushing to create a constitutional right to food and expand the existing entitlement so that every Indian family would qualify for a monthly 77-pound bag of grain, sugar and kerosene. Such entitlements have helped the Congress Party win votes, especially in rural areas.
To Ms. Gandhi and many left-leaning social allies, making a food a legal right would give people like Mr. Bhuria a tool to demand benefits that rightfully belong to them. Many economists and market advocates within the Congress Party agree that the poor need better tools to receive their benefits but believe existing delivering system needs to be dismantled, not expanded; they argue that handing out vouchers equivalent to the bag of grain would liberate the poor from an unwieldy government apparatus and let them buy what they please, where they please.
The food controversy in India is indicative of a lot of state vs. market political disputes. Creating a “constitutional right to food” sounds like a great idea. What kind of heartless person thinks the poor should go hungry? In practice, though, what the right to food appears to mean is that, instead of being given a coupon that can be used to get food at one of many private shops, one is given a coupon which can be used to get food only at corrupt and inefficient government-run stores:
The food system has existed for more than half a century and has become riddled with corruption and inefficiency. Studies show that 70 percent of a roughly $12 billion budget is wasted, stolen or absorbed by bureaucratic and transportation costs.
Paradoxical as it might sound, creating a constitutional right to food will lead to more people starving than if the Congress party adopts the voucher plan.
When I first read this story, I was hard pressed to think of exactly why it is that Ms. Gandhi and her supporters are resistant to the voucher plan. As far as I can tell, much of the opposition seems to be based in anti-market bias:
Many social advocates, suspicious of market solutions, say that such reforms prove that the system can be improved. But pro-market advocates say that issuing either food coupons or direct payments would circumvent much of the corruption and allow recipients more mobility and freedom of choice.
In the comments to his post on the subject, Matt Yglesias gets called a “market fundamentalist” because he says that the India government should replace its current system “with something more like America’s SNAP (”food stamps”), a system that would distribute either money or coupons rather than food, and then let poor people buy the food themselves” (because, you know, hardcore libertarian types are huge fans of food stamps). The reality, though, is that some on the Left seem to adhere to a kind of antimarket fundamentalism, in which the market is viewed as being something inherently dirty or sinful.
Another possibility, though, is that the real motivation here is political. As the article notes, the current food entitlements “have helped the Congress Party win votes, especially in rural areas.” Does giving people a 77 pound bag of grain inspire more political loyalty than giving them the money to buy an equivalent amount of food? I don’t know, but if the article is any indication, some in the Congress party at least *think* this is so, which may color their views of the scheme (there’s also the fact that, from a political point of view, creating opportunities for corruption is a great way to make friends).