© 2008  Karen Selick

An edited version of this article first appeared in the May 23, 2008 issue of the National Post.
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The Problem with the "Right to Food"


In 1976, the Canadian government made a philosophical error that may soon come back to haunt us.  It signed and ratified the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. 

Under Article 11, Canada recognized “…the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”  Canada further pledged to “…take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right…”

Yes, dear taxpayer, the late Pierre Trudeau committed you to ensuring that every single person on the planet has not only adequate material resources (whatever “adequate” means), but continuously improving resources. 

Following recent disasters in Myanmar and China, with food prices rising in many countries, Canadians may soon be called upon to pony up.  Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the right to food, has called for an emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council later this week to discuss implementing the “right to food” clause.  Cuba is gung-ho for the meeting. Canada has been one of the few resisters.

De Schutter says the right to food “should be treated as equal in importance to the right not to be subjected to arbitrary detention or the right to free expression.”

But there are important differences between the two categories—differences that philosophers generally describe using the labels “positive” and “negative” rights.   

All rights necessarily impose obligations. This is inherent in the concept of rights. But traditional rights—things like freedom of expression and freedom from arbitrary detention (what we are now forced to call “negative” rights)—impose upon others only the obligation to abstain from interfering with the right-holder.  Implementing a negative right requires nothing more than an act of will. Negative rights can be granted simultaneously and reciprocally to everyone on earth.  “You don’t arbitrarily detain me, and I won’t arbitrarily detain you.  Deal?” Both of our rights will thus be respected, we will both be better off than if we didn’t have such rights, and we’ll both incur exactly the same sacrifice—namely, self-restraint—in order to respect the other person’s right.

Positive rights—like the right to food—are entirely different.  Two people can’t both eat the same spoonful of rice.  If one person has a right to that rice, everybody else’s obligation is to go without it.   But more importantly, if someone with a right to food doesn’t actually own any, there must be an obligation on everyone else to give him some.  That’s the only logical interpretation of calling it a “right”. But there’s no reciprocity here. There’s no identical self-restraint.  Some people become food givers while others become food receivers. Some make sacrifices while others collect sacrifices. This isn’t at all like the right not to be arbitrarily detained.

If manna fell from heaven, landing in everyone’s lap in equal amounts, there would be a plausible argument for a right to food—but only the right not to have your share of manna seized by someone else.  This would be a negative right to be free of interference.  It could be enjoyed simultaneously and reciprocally by everyone in the world, requiring only an act of will for each person to implement.

But manna doesn’t fall from heaven.  Food materializes only as a result of human effort.  Someone has to grow it, gather it, process it and transport it. Granting some people the right to it is tantamount to granting them the unpaid services of everyone in the production chain.  We used to call the forced provision of unpaid services “slavery”.

Of course, governments complying with the UN treaty would disguise the real nature of a “right to food” by purchasing the food they give away instead of simply confiscating it from farmers, but that simply shifts the slave-labour obligation to a more diffuse, less obvious set of slaves—taxpayers at large.  

What then happens to those taxpayers’ own UN-granted right to a continuously improving standard of living? What happens to another UN-granted right elsewhere in the treaty to “rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours”? What about that old-fashioned right to liberty in our own constitution?

Let’s face it: the treaty is an internally contradictory piece of propaganda for one-world socialism, a concept which has been so thoroughly discredited by reality over the past few decades that surely, by now, we can relegate it to the garbage bin of history.

Canada was foolish to sign the UN treaty in the first place. We should not now be suckered back into attempting to make an unworkable theory work.


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       October 21, 2008