Posted by: dacalu | 17 June 2011

Food or Sex

This is going to be a tough one; just so you know.

On the ride home from work, I was listening to a story about food subsidies in Mozambique.  The prices of food have been so high, and resources so low in the wake of the civil war, that the government imports large quantities of food and pays part of the cost.In other words, the government subsidizes bread and other basic food stuffs.  Last year, under economic pressure, the government stopped subsidizing bread, resulting in a 20% price increase and riots.  The government reinstated the subsidy, but will try to repeal it again this summer.

In short, too many people, not enough productivity to buy food.

That’s a problem – exactly the sort of problem that civil and economic policy is supposed to deal with.  It is also a very real ethical problem.  Christians have been commanded by God to feed the poor and the hungry.  This one is pretty unambiguous (Luke 14, Matthew 25, Romans 12).  Alas, the situation is complicated and large.  Are we to feed individuals or try to fix the system?  Well both, I would imagine, so let’s take a close look at the system and some of the ways it works.

Market Capitalism.  The general system of commodifying goods – giving them monetary value and buying and selling them – falls under the head of market capitalism.  It suggests that the best way to measure and account for the conflicting, conflating, and unpredictable desires of individuals is to…well account for them.  We use money as a measure of value and a way of trading at one remove.  I make wingnuts, someone else wants wingnuts, I want bread, someone else makes bread…  All straightforward, but it would be impractical to actually trade wingnuts for bread, so we set a monetary value on each and no-one has to walk around with their pockets stuffed full of hardware.  I think it’s a good system.  There are some drawbacks, but I’m not going to address them here.  Let’s say that market capitalism works.

Within this system, everyone generates wealth by working (or in rare cases, lives off the wealth produced by someone else).  We use this wealth to get what we want with the understanding that we can only get what we want (from among the commodities) to the extent that we have the wealth to get it.  Some get their wealth by working for someone else, some by selling their products and services, and some by renting out land and equipment.  All of it is wealth.  As much as I don’t like the inequalities made so clear by money – by quantifying wealth – I must admit in the end that I cannot blame the metric, I have to blame the underlying cause.  Money is not the root of all evil, but “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (I Timothy 6:10).  Mind you, money has the unfortunate effect of standardizing all value to one kind and decontextualizing need and desire into a single lump, but we’ll leave that for later.  People do work to get wealth and use wealth to get what they want.

The price of things goes up with the proportion of desire to availability.  More goods, lower price; more buyers; greater price.  Now, food prices reflect the work necessary to produce the food and transport it to where the buyer is.  If you live in the country, you can make your own food cheaply and won’t pay others large sums for it.  Indeed, in Mozambique, the rural people do not seem dependent upon food subsidies.  The cities are another matter.  If there isn’t arable land to be had, you are dependent upon food sold to you by others.  The price can get ridiculously high because people need to eat and will devote all available resources too it.  If the price gets too high, people start being willing to give up law and order.  This is a serious problem.  It was a problem in Rome for centuries (think “bread and circuses”) and it’s a problem in Maputo now.  So how can we deal with it?

The libertarians, and this includes the Tea Party in my opinion, seem to follow a personal-responsibility ethic.  If a group of people (be it an individual, a family, or a nation) outgrows it’s resources, they should bear the burden.  You can do so much work, you can provide so much wealth, and that’s the amount of food you can buy.  If that’s not enough, then you should starve.  Liberty means the ability to choose, even when the choice results in your own death.  We shouldn’t get in the way.

The liberals (“generous” ones) seem to follow a global-responsibility ethic.  No matter how large you grow (as an individual, a family, or a nation) you have a right to be fed by the people around you.  Everyone has an equal right to food, and for that matter to representation in the local government; power comes from inherent dignity, not from productivity.  Dignity means the right to be valued, even when that value constitutes a burden on others.  We shouldn’t give up on people.

I’m a liberal.

Still, I see a problem here.  Justice gets caught somewhere between the two camps when resources become limited.  In Mozambique, the community (the state) provided food subsidies in a very liberal way.  And then the state ran out of money.  Actually, they’re horribly in debt.  The people in the cities have come to think of the subsidy not as a gift, but as a right – as we would say in the US, an entitlement.  They felt a right to object, even violently, when the “right” was taken away.  I have doubts about whether the state did the people a service.  When the money ran out (as it was bound to in a country importing food with 21% unemployment), the people were unprepared.  Put more bluntly, it may be that there are now more people in Moputo to feed than their productivity can support.

It’s possible that money from elsewhere could be imported to temporarily solve the problem.  Perhaps this would work.  Mozambique is currently making huge strides economically.  Still, I think not.  Even if it might work in this case, there are many other cases where it would not.  There is something irresponsible about growing a population somewhere where they cannot support their own existence – where they cannot produce enough to feed themselves.  Just about every city in the world could be an example.  Few places make such a good case as Tucson and Phoenix, which consume far more water than can be locally acquired.

Generally I approve of cities.  Some import of goods is important to a productive and diverse society.  There is a line somewhere, though, I think.  When a country imports more than half of what it consumes – and must go into debt to pay for it, something has gone wrong.  As we become a more global community, and as the global population continues to increase, local populations will more and more be susceptible to starvation (due to natural disaster if not human malfeasance) when the market forces the price of food up.

If humans were the only concern, perhaps I could stay solely on the liberal side of things.  Once you introduce environmental concerns, I cannot.  Responsible stewards of the environment (planet, biosphere, Creation – depending on your outlook), live within their means.  They limit both production and consumption to have a minimal impact on the other organisms with whom they share space.  I want clean air and water.  I want diverse plants (rather than a single, planetwide strain of soybeans).  I want limited pavement and limited cities.  All of that means limiting consumption and yes, painful as it may be, limiting population.

You can keep the head count down through abstinence or contraception or abortion (not a fan of the last), but being a good steward – being a responsible consumer – means not outgrowing the limits of what you can produce responsibly.  50 years ago there was a big scare that we would simply outgrow production, that there wouldn’t be enough food.  New forms of agriculture solved that problem, but they didn’t solve the larger problem of responsible population growth.

What good will it do if I limit my consumption if that simply results in people elsewhere consuming more, having more children, and living off my productivity?  Total consumption will continue to rise.  They will get trapped depending upon my productivity and if I die or decide to start consuming more, they will be trapped. [It’s a tragedy of the commons.]

Apparently, we can feed everyone, as long as there are only so many people.  Or we can let people make their own choices and grow beyond the ability to support themselves.

I like egalitarian democracy, but where does that leave me if the populations least responsible about growth gradually comes to have more and more members?  The human dignity approach doesn’t address the issue of scarcity in any meaningful way.  That makes me less liberal.

I might become a libertarian…if only that were a solution.  The libertarian position uses selfishness as the primary motive for responsibility.  It fails to give any incentive for self-limitation other than allowing less productive people to die.  The majority still suffer from starvation, but at least the rich don’t have to deal with too many of them.

Only large crowds of hungry people have no respect for the law.  They’ll end up pulling down the rich too, because the rich depend on the productivity of cities; one reason the libertarian ideal has never been realized – at least not since urbanization.

Oh, and lest we forget, there is the whole idea of feeding the poor.  Mind you, what Jesus really said was that we should give all that we have to the poor.  Then we too shall be poor and don’t have to worry about the obligations of power.  For those of you unwilling to take that step, keep reading.

The picture looks somewhat bleak.  Must we choose between responsibility and dignity?  I think not, but the answer must come from questioning our fundamental assumptions.  Market capitalism has real benefits and it may be redeemable, but the sorts of free market strategies we have been using – particularly the commodification of all goods, the search for shorter and shorter term profits, the unwillingness to limit the accumulation of wealth – those will have to be carefully considered.

In the short term, feed the poor.  In the long term, ask why so many people are poor.  Recognize that democracy, capitalism, dignity, and responsibility are all inter-related.  And please, for the love of God (really) and one another, let us stop arguing as though liberty or dignity alone could solve our problems.  Don’t even get me started on fairness.  Instead, perahaps we could try prudence, temperance, and fortitude – those virtues that teach us our own choices and even our own lives are not the most important thing.



  1. Are you kidding? You asked for only one comment. Before I am lost in the shuffle.
    “Where there is a will- Hunger Project. Market Capitalism w/ responsibility.
    Tea Party is obviously of the small earth theory. Verbally Christian but not really.
    You are being kind to liberals.
    I think the Earth can take care of Herself. It may start over, but heck She has the time.
    (if you limit your consumption you get to die with a smile on your face.)
    I have never been able to tell a Tea-bagger from a Libritarian.
    Jesus could be right- It is better for all to die than that one child starve for no reason.

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