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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Food as a Human Right: A Basis in Rousseau

The natural right to food unconditionally in society is based, I contend, on the assumption that it is because a person without food is in society that he or she is going without. In other words, were he or she in the state of nature, acquiring enough food would not be a problem. Rousseau makes this point in his Discourse on Inequality.[1]
                                                         Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)  Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Basing a human right to food on Rousseau’s philosophy risks the criticism that rights cannot possibly exist in the philosopher’s beloved state of nature, as rights depend on there being a government. However, Rousseau adopts wise Locke’s notion that one’s labor added to land makes it one’s property as a matter of right even without the institution of government. For my purpose here, it is enough to claim that a food-sustenance is a human right in political society. It is precisely on account of how that society differs from the state of nature than the human right is necessary only in society.
“As long as men remained satisfied with their rustic cabins; as long as they confined themselves to the use of clothes made of the skins of other animals, . . . ; in a word, as long as they undertook such works only as a single person could finish, and stuck to such arts as did not require the joint endeavours of several hands, they lived free, healthy, honest and happy, as much as their nature would admit, and continued to enjoy with each other all the pleasures of an independent intercourse.”
In other words, with people being limited in production or collection to their own needs, there is likely to be enough for all. From “the moment one man began to stand in need of another's assistance; from the moment it appeared an advantage for one man to possess the quantity of provisions requisite for two, all equality vanished.” From natural differences between people even in the state of nature, as soon as some people of superior strength and industriousness desire food enough for many, perhaps to sell or give away the surplus for money or power, more scarcity than is due to nature is apt to set in for other people not so constituted.
With more labor necessary to produce or collect a surplus beyond one person’s own needs, “boundless forests became smiling fields, which it was found necessary to water with human sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to sprout out and grow with the fruits of the earth.” With artifice being superimposed on nature’s provisions that otherwise are open to all, the output is skewed in distribution toward some.
Furthermore, with the economic interdependence that comes with society and an economy of different sectors and specialization of labor, the connection that everyone has to nature’s fruits is broken for many and fewer hands remain to work the land even though everyone must eat. “The more hands were employed in manufactures, the fewer hands were left to provide subsistence for all, though the number of mouths to be supplied with food continued the same.” The natural right to food as unconditional kicks in, and is due to, the fact that the must eat continues, being based on nature, even as instituting an economy puts the supply of food at risk for some. Hence, the right is natural because we must eat on a regular basis, even if people establish and superimpose an economy on nature’s fruits, distorting their relatively equal distribution. The right is a right because it is only necessary once society, including an economy and government, has taken people out of the state of nature.

On Securing the Human Right, See: "Should Charities Replace Government?"

1. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Harvard Classics, Charles W. Eliot, ed., Vol. 34 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1910).