Hunger, Politics and Ideology: Barriers to Bounty

The typical farmer in the U.S. understands the real problem: abundance. Food production is now so great and food stocks in the world so high that U.S. farmers are suffering economically. Agriculture yields per-acre have continued to rise throughout most of this century and this has been accomplished with a rapidly decreasing propor­tion of the labor force. . . . — Herman Kahn, “Introduction” to Herbert I. London’s Why Are They Lying To Our Children?


The secular and religious mind today is filled with ideological theories which preach in textbooks and media that supplies of the world’s goods are decreasing alarm­ingly; that the rich rob the poor; that mass starvation is in­evitable. Yet the facts seem almost directly contrary to this thesis. The real danger we face is that we might come to believe these dire theses, and abandon the ideas, incentives, and processes by which wealth is finally produced and distributed. Behind all of this is an attack on the classical- religious civilization which learned how to produce wealth, and how to teach others to do the same. In particular, it is an attack on the religious and moral ideas that would enable us to treat the world so that it constantly improves, not deteriorates, relative to our highest purposes.

Arthur C. Clarke has written:

Space exploration is another area of virtually unlimited potential. Almost anything imaginable that people want to accomplish could be done in the next century, with the exception of interstellar flight — and even there we could build probes to get to the nearer station a few decades.

Some readers might charge that the ambition to reach the stars distracts mankind from its “real” task of feeding the poor. Yet (leaving aside the fact that we already know how to feed the poor) the very knowledge of how to reach the stars, the very realization of mankind’s potential, will enable us to meet our immediate problems even better — if we are willing to use the methods that will work effectively. To be sure, not every method will “work”; many methods that are now being employed will not. The refusal to recognize what does not work is not, in essence, a problem of either the earth’s resources or of mankind’s talents as such. Rather it is a question of human will, guiding reason to do what can be done.

Two recent events seem almost paradoxical. The world is, apparently, galvanized by the starvation in Ethiopia, while at the same time leading advocates of American agriculture wish to reduce acreage and increase price sup­ports. Clearly, the abundant productivity of modern agriculture and the starvation in Ethiopia are not and cannot be related in any simple manner. Food is not lacking; we know how to produce and distribute it. The starvation in Ethiopia is essentially a political and ideological phenomenon, and cannot be understood in any other terms. Likewise, the productivity of modern agriculture is rooted in practices of freedom, governmental environment, and private initiatives.

In a recent study of some seventeen countries, Keith Marsdon remarked:

. . . Mobilization of domestic savings and ac­cess by the private sector to credit are key elements in development. The record also shows that rich countries can make important contribu­tions to Third World progress in two ways. First, they can assist governments in their crucial func­tions — strengthening the infrastructure, diffusing technology and know-how and, above all, creating a policy environment conducive to enterprise and initiative. Second, continued access to developed country markets is vital if developing countries are to climb from poverty largely by their own efforts.

The kind of world that we must work to create is one in which improvement comes through people working for and by themselves, but not necessarily through everyone doing the same things. The division of labor is the real security we all have that the earth can reach its purpose: meeting the needs of all. Again, this cannot be done in just any way; it requires a view of the world whose latent riches can be understood and utilized for human purposes.

In our age we are told, on good grounds, then, that there is almost nothing we cannot do — fly to the stars, stop wars, eliminate poverty, do all our business at home by computer, feed the hungry. Few people still accept the no­tion of automatic progress, as this was preached in the last century, though most of us suspect that our potential is far greater than we usually comprehend. Our acknowledged finitude ought not to dictate an overly narrow view of our possibilities. Indeed, it might well be argued that what we “can” do is a function of our understanding of the world.

The reason why things do not “go” right is often a theory — a theory about the world itself or man’s place or powers in it. This is why the teaching of philosophical and theological truth remains essential. We cannot improve either ourselves or the world if we believe that the world does not exist, or that we “must” do what we do “do,” or that no correspondence exists between our minds, our hands, and the world outside of us. And if we believe, im­plicitly or explicitly, that the world is “evil,” then clearly we ought not to “do” anything except escape from it. If we hold that everything is merely a product of “chance,” that there is no “order” whatsoever, we will not be able to plan or organize our lives so that we can actually do something ourselves.

We are, furthermore, aware that what we might be “able” to do may not actually get done. Many things that ought to be done will not be accomplished, either because we cannot agree on how to do them — if indeed we have already learned how to do them — or because the chosen goal conflicts with other, perhaps more fundamental ends. We remain finite, however much we “might” accomplish. We must, in other words, actually learn, by experiment and reflection, what we can do, or can be taught to do by someone who already knows. “The accumulation of ex­perience is now focusing, for the first time in human memory,” George Gilder wrote,

on the industry of knowledge itself as the prime sector of growth. Although knowledge poses un­precedented problems of measurement for economists, the rise of the knowledge industries is the most promising development in the history of economics. For knowledge and experience are the real capital of human progress — the true source of the productivity of human effort. Knowledge is the power to create, the prime fruit of the com­mercial imagination.

Henri Piernne, writing a half-century ago, began to describe this process by which men first learned how to be produc­tive, to exchange, to invent instruments of credit and ac­count, to put into circulation foods, clothing, and machines that never existed before.

Our dignity, then, is both given to us and, on this basis, learned by us. The “power” to create is given in the free, rational nature with which we are born, while actual mak­ing, the discovery of something new — this we must learn by experience and risk.

Yet we also disagree about what human life is worth, what it is about. Political societies are, ultimately, built on these differences; the ancients called them “regimes.” Agreed-upon goals — or coerced ones — can only be reached if they conform to the theories or options defining the particular political regimes under question. Often, then, some things do not come to be — the alleviation of hunger is one of these — because the means necessary to accomplish them would conflict with the regime’s picture of what “must” be.

At first sight, “hunger” seems to be easy enough both to define and, perhaps, to eliminate. Yet mothers who speak of their growing seventeen-year-old sons as “always being hungry” are not exactly speaking the same language as those who attempt to define some sort of minimal, necessary diet, however this may be delineated culturally. Many decades ago, Colin Clark pointed out that much of the debate about actual starvation and hunger was really a debate about statistical calculations, often used for ideological purposes. To whose “advantage” do ideological descriptions of starvation — ones that make it very widespread or ones that eliminate it altogether — really work? No discussion of hunger statistics, in my view, is ade­quate without a very hard, critical look at the origins of the statistics themselves and the organization generating or us­ing them; this includes the statistics of the United Nations above all. The widely-quoted data that indicated that starva­tion had ended in China during Mao’s rule were directly related to the view that Mao’s society was somehow a model of perfect human organization, a view very widely held in certain Christian circles at the time. Such statistics had little to do with the facts of starvation themselves.

Moreover, we must constantly distinguish between ran­dom catastrophic instances of hunger, caused by some u­nique natural or political upheaval, and abiding situations that persist over generations. Efforts to relieve the former are generally quite different from efforts to relieve the latter. Likewise, we must remember that our understanding of and ability to produce adequate nutrition are themselves subject to progress and learning. Once upon a time nearly everyone was either starving or badly nourished by our current standards.

Some would also argue that “to be fed” is a “human right,” however much a certain absolutism may lurk in that apparently innocuous phrase. One of the signs of a free, developed society is that a very small percentage of its population can produce adequate, indeed rather abundant, food for itself and others. The very success of farming means that fewer farmers are needed in the long run. Medard Gable, a research associate of Buckminister Fuller, stated the case well:

Everyone who graces this planet with his presence deserves all the food his body needs to function optimally. Food for life should be a birthright, not an earned right. Billions of humans should not have to work their lives away for food and suffer the consequences if they are not suc­cessful.

The entire resources of . . . Earth are for and can meet, if used and reused wisely, the regenerative life support needs of 100 percent of humanity. . . . The world’s total production of cereals, roots, pulses, fruits, nuts, vegetables, meats, fish, milk and eggs is enough to supply every child, woman, and man with over 2.3 kilograms (5 pounds) of food per day. A well nourished human being can be taken care of with under .6 kilograms dry weight of the right com­binations of the above foods, plus water. The pre­sent state of human knowledge is such that this condition cannot only be improved, but main­tained on a continually sustaining basis for all generations to come if we husband and midwife our resources as well as we know how.

If this “right” to food is uncritically accepted, however, taken outside a general economic understanding of what pro­duces food, including both incentive and technique, and of how food is distributed in a market, it can easily become an ideological tool, to be used deftly for refashioning society for other purposes.

Thus, taking on the hue of a “totalitarian” right, the “right to be fed” can become an occasion for blaming those who do know how to produce food for the condition of those who do not know how, or who will not learn how. When this sort of thinking is in place, those who do not know how to produce adequate food supplies (or more often, those who are unwilling to learn because of commitment to various ideologies) consider themselves exempt from any duty to become adequate producers. Adequate food supplies then become “what is owed” rather than what is produced or ex­changed.

The hunger problem, insofar as it can be clearly identified and described, will never really be solved until those political regimes wherein hunger occurs consistently become themselves sufficient producers of their own food. Except through commerce, no one will ever have enough food unless he learns to produce his own.

Jean-Francois Revel put the issue in proper per­spective:

… One question . . . is never posed about the Third World: the question of the political responsibility of the Third World governments for the economic underdevelopment of poor coun­tries. . . . Many of the economic maladies of the Third World are related to politics. Argentina, whose economic level 40 years ago was com­parable to that of Western Europe, has regressed into an underdeveloped state following the ravages of Peronism. This is the fruit of a clearly political decision. Nkrumah in Ghana, Nyerere in Tan­zania, Toure in Guinea plunged their respective countries into decline by stupid administration or policies motivated purely by ideology. . . .

. . . These considerations aren’t meant to overlook the purely economic aspect of the problem of poverty or the necessity of North- South co-operation. They are meant to recall that economic assistance and technology don’t suffice if the governments that receive them are badly governed. The movement of “less-developed” countries to a “more developed” stage presup­poses the acceptance of political responsibility.

The major causes of hunger, it can safety be affirmed, are almost always related to the quality of the governmental regime and its theory about how mankind is to be organized in any country where there is hunger. Ideology, in fact, is the main cause of hunger — along with (as P.T. Bauer has noted) certain attitudes to work, reward, and order.

After showing that farmers in poor countries do re­spond to new ways of production, if given a chance, Theodore Schultz, described the situation well in his Nobel Prize Lecture on “The Economics of Being Poor”:

Future historians will no doubt be puzzled by the extent to which economic incentives were im­paired during recent decades. The dominant in­tellectual view is antagonistic to agricultural in­centives, and the prevailing economic policies deprecate the function of producer incentives. For lack of incentives the unrealized economic poten­tial of agriculture in many low-income countries is large. . . . For want of profitable incentives, farmers have not made the necessary investments, including the purchase of superior inputs. Interventions by governments are currently the ma­jor cause of the lack of optimum economic incen­tives.

Even when a one-time natural or political disaster causes famine in a given country, effective relief is usually imped­ed not by lack of adequate external supplies and gifts, but by governmental inefficiency or corruption. Recurrent famines have been a “normal” part of history in every century ex­cept, perhaps, our own. Now modern agriculture and transportation have been combined to eliminate the famines that occur throughout the globe because of drought, floods, insects, or poor techniques. Today famines have practically disappeared, except in those cases where they are politically induced or sustained. Virtually every famine in recent decades has been followed by angry descriptions of how relief was not delivered, due to incompetence or govern­mental interference. Many parts of the world (not all, it is to be noted) do respond generously to particular disasters. But this generous response may disrupt the working structures of the country in need of aid. Or relief may not be allowed, because of commitments to political theories which view this relief as a challenge to the society in need of assistance. Un­fortunately, some regimes have also used famine in order to eliminate pockets of political resistance.

The politics of hunger, then, can be seen from a number of angles. We can affirm today that there is no “reason” for anyone to be hungry if the normal means and methods of production and transportation are put into effect. We continue to produce more food each year, as Julian Simon has shown, in spite of the vested industry of the doomsday-ecology schools, whose basic agenda usually has goals quite different from that of alleviating the remaining human hunger. D. Gale Johnson has put the matter well:

The incidence of famine has diminished radically over the past century. Even though the world’s population is now almost three times what it was a century ago, the absolute number of famine deaths in the most recent quarter-century was almost cer­tainly less than during the last quarter of the nine­teenth century. Most of the famines that have oc­curred during the past quarter-century have resulted from war, civil strife or refusal of governments to act in time to provide famine relief. Unavailability of food is no longer an im­portant source of famine; the famines that do oc­cur result primarily from man’s inhumanity to man, not from a hostile nature.

There are, to be sure, those who want to argue that starva­tion is widespread, in order to implement certain population control theories backed by government coercion.

Others, finally, use the perception of widespread hunger as a means to destabilize successful economies, in order to impose Marxist-socialist forms of rule. Reviewing Suzanne Toton’s book World Hunger: The Responsibility of Christian Education, Francis X. Maier concluded:

The theme here is that feeding the hungry is merely palliative, not substantive. What we really need is to dismember and restructure the entire Western economic system which allegedly en­sures poverty, and, through it, hunger. This sort of analysis, to put it mildly, is open to some debate. But after a while you just get weary; it’s as if the author and reader came from different planets. Toton believes, as a matter of religious faith, that wealth creates poverty. It’s an error that’s impregnable in its singularity.

Both of these areas, I think — the restructure-the-world-to­feed-the-poor-only-through-socialist-systems school and the control-humans-in-order-to-feed-them school — are the ma­jor sources of absolutist ideology in the modern world. The absolutist mind allows nothing but itself to rule. By severely limiting human horizons and potentials, absolutists seek to gain absolute control of the human population, its coming into being and its final organization. Hunger is a most apt tool in this process.

Perhaps the main’ source of confusion about hunger, however, concerns the classic distinction between justice and charity, between the domain of the state and that of voluntary organizations. We seem to live in a period in which the public rhetoric of justice has embraced and subordinated to itself the ends and motives of charity. Thus political and economic questions have come to seem superior to personal and spiritual ones, let alone ones relating to a transcendent end. This has likewise tended to obscure a fundamental understanding of human finitude which requires men actually to learn, and relearn, how to relate properly to this earth. So a thesis has developed which would attribute remaining human ills, such as hunger, to a disorder in existing political institutions. From here, it is but a short step to the ideological theme that the reordering of man’s societies is the solution to his ills, a theme that derives from Rousseau, among others.

No doubt it is true that inefficient or corrupt govern­ment is the cause of many of the remaining pockets of hunger found in the world. And it is true that, for the most part, we know how to go about alleviating hunger. However, it is also true that there are ways to go about this task that will not work, or that will lead to the entrenchment of political systems that will bring about problems far more serious than hunger. Institutions are not “unjust,” since only individual human beings can be just or unjust. There can be better or worse regimes, but simply because there may be a better one than that which exists, it does not follow that we should immediately change regimes, or that any change will inevitably be for the better. The greatest of tyrannies are by no means those in which hunger is widespread; probably the reverse is closer to the truth.

Where charity is allowed free scope to function, we can expect that resources will be used generously to meet the many individual crises which arise. But when a society’s government takes on the role that has historically been allocated to individual charity, that government can only end by claiming total control over all phases of human life. In much religious thinking on the questions of poverty and hunger, the failure to understand this danger has led many individuals to the brink of the totalitarian state — all, apparently, in God’s name.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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