You Cannot Eat Rights

There was a fascinating article in yesterday’s New York Times about the current controversy in India over how best to deal with the country’s hunger problem (HT: Matt Yglesias):

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).

4 Responses to You Cannot Eat Rights

  1. Teresa says:

    I agree with Matt Yglesias. Either issuing food coupons or direct payments would be better ways to solve the food shortage issue than giving “every Indian family would qualify for a monthly 77-pound bag of grain, sugar and kerosene.” Although, I tend to think that either of the options will produce government dependency, at least to some extent. I think the answer to the food crisis in India is that there needs to be a spur in growth in India’s economy – new jobs, better living conditions, better pay, etc. But, the vouchers or food coupons would be a temporary solution for now.

  2. restrainedradical says:

    I was betting you’d blog about this.

    The right to food is a God-given right and it may do some good if enforced by a government with a market-bias but most governments, and India in particular, have a government-bias which often does more harm than good.

  3. Elaine Krewer says:

    There’s a big difference between having a right to food (or clothing, or shelter, or any other good) and having a right to expect the government/taxpayers to provide it.

    A “right to food” simply means that neither the government nor any other institution (including private business) may stand in the way of someone obtaining food, or of someone providing food to another. In other words, the hungry should be able to obtain food and people should be free to provide it to them in any way they wish. Any deliberate action that deprives the hungry of food, such as artificially inflating prices or using food embargoes or blockades as a weapon, is wrong.

    While lots of Americans do complain about the SNAP/food stamp program (mostly on blogs where they rant endlessly about people allegedly buying steaks or junk food with their SNAP cards and driving away in fancy cars, etc.) it certainly is better than the system India has. Imagine the potential waste and fraud we would have if SNAP recipients could only patronize government stores or only receive specific commodities in a monthly allotment.

  4. Ivan says:

    The Indian system largely works in spite of all the corruption and mismanagement. It has relieved masses of Indians from the threat of starvation and malnutrition. A comparison with the India of 1971 or 1965 with that of today would show this. Whatever be the inefficiencies, most of us Indians are wedded to the ration system. It is not going anywhere as it underpins the peace and social stability of the Indian nation. Gujarat, although (or precisely because) it is the home state of significant numbers of entreprenuers is a socially backward state, mired in the caste and zamindari systems. This makes the very poor in that state and others like Bihar, much more vulnerable to exploitation. The solution in such cases is indeed to give them enough money and food over a sustained period to free them from dependecies on money-lenders and suchlike exploiters.

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