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THREAD: The problem with saying “food is a human right”.

1) The modern language of “rights” is fraught with difficulties. It’s better—and more Catholic—to talk about our obligations. “Rights” tend to focus on what others must do, while obligations focus on what *we* must do.
2) When it comes to food, Catholics have two obligations:

1. We cannot deny someone *access* to food.
2. We must help the hungry as best we are able.
3) Regarding the first obligation, we cannot withhold food from someone who is willing to pay for it. This fortunately doesn’t happen in our country today, but there have been situations in which rulers have attempted to starve enemies or even citizens.
4) Note also I said “someone who is willing to pay for it”. Food is a limited resource, and setting a (free-market) price on food helps allocate it most efficiently. Someone can’t just walk into my house and take food from my fridge, claiming he has a “right” to it.
5) In order for the most people to get the most food, we set a price on food. So in most situations, people obtain their food by working, and this should always be the norm.

But of course, there are exceptions, which brings us to our second obligation.
6) We *must* help the poor. If someone is struggling and can’t afford food, we must do all we can to help them, including paying for the food ourselves if it doesn’t violate our other obligations (such as providing for our own family).
7) We don’t have an obligation, after all, to provide food to *everyone*. We have priorities: our family, then our local community, then perhaps outside our community. If someone is hungry in another country, that is a tragedy, but we might not be able to do anything about it.
8) But providing food to the needy is more complicated than slogans like “food is a human right” suggest. Many of the hungry have mental illnesses, and because of those illnesses, they make choices that lead to destitution and hunger.
9) Just saying they have a right to food doesn’t help them, because they will often refuse help, such as soup kitchens and food pantries. They are hungry not because food has been denied them, but because of their mental illness.
10) Obviously, we should do all we can to help with their healing, but to just say if people are hungry in our country then we are denying people basic human rights is simplistic and not accurate. It leads to people making bad political choices, which leads to another problem.
11) Underlying the “food is a human right” slogan is often the assumption many have that it must be *government* that provides food. Whenever we speak of “rights” we end up involving the government.
12) Yet in today’s world this often just means that we force our own personal obligations unto others. So instead of spending time volunteering at a soup kitchen or a job training facility for the poor, we just campaign for politicians who make grandiose promises to end poverty.
13) But history has shown that the government is ill-equipped to do this, and their efforts to end poverty often end up institutionalizing it. It’s also true that as government programs increase, volunteer charitable activity *decreases*. We push our obligations onto others.
14) We feel good because we voted for the politician who said he cared for the poor. But we neglected our own personal obligations. To oppose government poverty-prevention programs doesn’t mean you don’t want to help the poor. It might mean you don’t think they actually help.
15) There are two extremes Catholics should avoid when discussing hunger and poverty: First, don’t equate helping the hungry with supporting government programs; and second, don’t shirk your obligation to help the hungry by claiming they are just lazy and it’s their own fault.
16) If you don’t help the poor in some way, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats makes it clear you are likely going to Hell. So help the poor as you can, but don’t be guilted into thinking you must therefore support every government program that promises to end hunger. /fin
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