Should we let the poor starve?

Cartoon: Lefty Cartoons.

Okay, so let’s start with the comment I mentioned. A reader writers (and I trust he appreciates that simplification is inevitable in a post that long, though I do believe I’ll be addressing his core concern):

1. I would split ‘rights’ into two groups…
(a) the right NOT to have things done to you or taken away from you. This category would include property rights (including self ownership) such as: the right NOT to be hit, stolen from, raped, tortured, killed, kidnapped, imprisoned etc etc
(b) the right to have stuff done for you and stuff given to you. The right to be fed, clothed, given housing, given welfare etc etc

Note how the rights in group (b) require OTHER PEOPLE to actively go out of their way to do things for you. This is what distinguishes the rights in group (b) from the rights in group (a). Group (a) right only require people don’t invade your space, hit you or steal your stuff.

And he objects to the concept of Group B rights on the following grounds:

By definition they require force be initiated against the public, which in turn requires an agency exist to initiate that force. And that agency and its actions immediately violates the most basic category (a) rights such as property rights and self ownership rights of everyone in society (for example: the right not to have half your earnings stolen from you at gunpoint each week).

The moral argument says that “we can’t just let the poor starve” etc. However, it’s also totally immoral to steal from others by force and to kidnap them and lock them up in a cage if they attempt to defend their property or their person. Violating one set of moral standards to satisfy another is hardly a workable (or morally acceptable) solution.

So this is classic Nozick: ‘positive’ rights to things like food require the property of other people to be redistributed, thereby resting on coercion and violating other rights which thereby renders them unjust. So in the name of justice, and liberty, we must demand a society in which some people might starve due to the absence of sufficient charity work.

I trust that this is, on the surface, quite absurd, though we must acknowledge that there’s an argument here to back up the counter-intuitivity. The problem is that it rests on three hugely dubious premises.

First, there is an explicit distinction being made between ‘negative’ rights to things like speech which don’t “require OTHER PEOPLE to actively go out of their way to do things for you”, and ‘positive’ rights which do. Step in the Stanford Encyclopedia with a spot-on observation:

Funding a legal system that enforces citizens’ negative rights against assault may require more resources than funding a welfare system that realizes citizens’ positive rights to assistance. As Holmes and Sunstein (1999, 43) put it, in the context of citizens’ rights to state enforcement, all rights are positive.

Now, it is the case that I may, in a sense, respect your right to free speech by doing nothing but avoiding you, and that seems to be different to respecting your right to food which would indeed require real action on my part. But the point is that if we wish to ‘respect’ any rights in the sense of ‘having a government which ensures they have a good chance of being realised’, such enforcement institutions are going to require money, and thereby the alleged ‘theft’ of personal property.

So if you wish to object to the government-driven positive right to food on the grounds that it requires individuals to fund it, you must also object to legal systems protecting free speech on the grounds that, well, judges need paying. So which route do you take: skepticism about all government-protected rights, or a withdrawal of the attack upon the right to food?

Secondly, we can doubt the implicit premise that seems to run through the veins of this critique. I paraphrase:

If A’s right to X leads to an obligation on B’s part to do Y, then that right isn’t legitimate or real.

Follow the Stanford hyperlink again, and you will see how laughable this is. The idea that a right to X entails an obligation on another person’s part to do something is intrinsic to the notion of a right. To have the power to make claims upon others is precisely what a right is. What could my right to free speech mean, if not that I have a legitimate claim to stop you from imprisoning me when I attack your bullshit? And similarly, what could a right to food mean if not that others must do certain things to ensure my right is met?

In both cases, we need a moral argument for why the right should be recognised as existing. If we can find those reasons, the fact it leads to others having to do things should be perceived as no objection whatsoever. That’s what we must expect. And whatever argument one gives for the right to free speech – whether it be the happiness people acquire from expressing themselves without fear of punishment, or the fact that this is crucial to respecting their humanity – how could these foundational interests not similarly apply to the interest all persons have in not going hungry?

Or, see Stanford again:

The moral urgency of securing positive rights may be just as great as the moral urgency of securing negative rights (Shue 1996). Whatever is the justificatory basis for ascribing rights—autonomy, need, or something else—there might be just as strong a moral case for fulfilling a person’s right to adequate nutrition as there is for protecting that person’s right not to be assaulted.

A final point: we should even question the assumption that people have boundless property rights which renders all coercive taxation illegitimate. It may be the case that we are taking what is rightly someone’s own, but this can’t be simply asserted. It needs an argument. And if those arguments imply that it would be unjust to ensure all humans are fed, I suggest that’s a strong reason for suspecting that something has gone drastically wrong.


One thought on “Should we let the poor starve?

  1. “…..So this is classic Nozick: ‘positive’ rights to things like food require the property of other people to be redistributed, thereby resting on coercion and violating other rights which thereby renders them unjust. So in the name of justice, and liberty, we must demand a society in which some people might starve due to the absence of sufficient charity work…..”

    Some criticisms of this argument:

    1. As you yourself admit, if there is no government initiating force against us in order to redistribute our wealth there is only the chance that the poor *might* starve. It’s by no means a given (quite the opposite in fact as I will prove). If you look at the EVIDENCE you will see that government welfare programs tend to INCREASE the levels of poverty as soon as they are introduced. This is because all government programs are based on stealing money from the public, keeping most of it for themselves and then throwing a small amount at each poor person. Enough money to keep them in poverty without actually dying (usually), but never enough to actually escape it. Money or food does not help a person escape poverty. Why are they poor in the first place? Answer: government violence which controls the economy, regulates business and redistributes wealth …. all through the initiation of violence. Solving social problems with government violence is like quenching thirst by drinking seawater…

    2. Only about 20% of your taxes allocated to the poor will ever reach the poor in a statist system. Therefore if you take inefficient, bloated, corrupt and violent governments out of the equation helping the poor voluntarily (no violence) becomes considerably cheaper. Plus there is a massive incentive for the public to eradicate poverty by helping the poor escape poverty. In a free non coercive society helping the poor is beneficial for everyone. Even in the most cynical, cold hearted sense the poor are a drain on our resources and they make a society less enjoyable experience. The flip side of that is that helping the poor actually escape poverty, crime, demoralisation by helping them to get educated, employed and find fulfilment in life is in itself a very rich and rewarding experience.

    By contrast, for the government there is no incentive to eradicate poverty, and perhaps an incentive to increase poverty because widespread poverty and the social problems which result from it makes society even more dependent on government.

    I notice that you yourself are not arguing that we need a government to kill brown children in Iraq or hand all our money to the big banks are you? You are arguing that we need a government to help the poor. WIthout the idea that government helps the poor how would you justify the need for these violent rulers? The government NEEDS people to be dependent on government. It therefore has no incentive to eradicate poverty.

    3. Money handouts, or food handouts, are a terrible way to solve poverty. At best they treat the SYMPTOMS in an emergency. They do not provide a CURE or eliminate the CAUSE in the long term. If you lived in a village and a poor man moved into the area you might all agree to give him some food and clothes etc in the short term. But your attention would soon turn to finding ways to help him escape poverty (if only so you won’t all have to feed him every day). Perhaps he could train with the local butcher for free, in return for helping clean the shop and so on. Then he would be able to get a job.

    In today’s statist society we are taught that the government is in charge of all social problems and that it is not even our business to help find cures and eliminate the causes of things like poverty. In fact there are often laws which prevent us from doing so! The free voluntary society you suggest *might* not help the poor voluntarily is the society brought up by government and living under government – with a government mindset. It is NOT the society as it would be without government, that society would have a totally different mindset and a totally different way of solving problems. (ie cure rather than treatment, voluntary action rather than violence and coercion).

    We see this in cultures where the state is not so dominant and does not ‘educate’ its population. In those cultures if you arrive at someones door in distress they will likely take you in and feed you and give you a bed for the night. In the west they might not open the door at all, or they might ring the police or the ambulance. Without a government based on violence our culture, our values, our moral standards and our behaviour would all change dramatically.

    4. If there was no government force in society we would all have lots more disposable income and the economy would not be run as a single violent monopoly system which we were forced to participate in. Therefore any currency or bank which was failing would be an isolated failure (in a still working system) and it would be abandoned and people would switch to more stable currencies and banks instead.

    In the current statist system, when the Government monopoly currency fails everyone becomes poorer at the *same time*, including government. It is like everyone being forced by government to store all their food in one giant larder. If the larder catches fire or is invades by mice then all the food starts to spoil and everyone starves at once. This is what is happening right now. It means no one is able to help anyone else. And the true collapse of the government controlled monopoly run economy hasn’t even begun yet. When it does there will be more riots on the streets, poor people starving and committing suicide, shanty towns for homeless middle class people (these already exist in the US), cuts in services, chaos, and suffering…etc It will be like the Titanic going down. It will not be pretty. Government violence means government monopoly control and that means when government runs out of money and collapses we all go down with the ship. It’s a ridiculous and dangerous system.

    5. Finally, your argument assumes the government REALLY DOES help the poor! But the fact is that there are millions out of work, millions living below the poverty line, hundreds of thousands living on the streets in this country… and 25,000 children starving a DAY throughout the world, millions starving every day….and the government controlled monopoly economy is collapsing…..

    This shows how statism is a terrible system. It is incapable (or unwilling) to eradicate poverty to any kind of acceptable level. Violent government redistribution of wealth has FAILED, don’t you get it, can’t you SEE it?!!????? It has FAILED.

    “How would we feed the poor without governments?” is the crux of your argument. Yet the poor are starving all around us. If society was functioning well and there was minimal poverty and the economy was going great and there were no wars and everyone loved the government then maybe your argument might have some validity on a practical level (but not a moral level). As it stands today (and throughout history) your argument is kind of silly. Government rule is and has always been a catastrophe for the vast majority of the population. Did your government run school ‘forget’ to point this out to you? LOL

    Of course your government controlled school (which includes private schools BTW) taught you that there is this scale called ‘society’ with rich people at the top and poor starving homeless or unemployed people at the bottom. That is just the way things are, right? And you just accepted it because you were a child when you were first taught this (we all did – I know I did). A few generations ago government schools also taught us that there was another scale with free white educated, cultured people ruling the world at the top and uneducated, ignorant black slaves picking cotton at the bottom. And children back then just accepted that too.

    Today you argue that without governments a small percentage of the poor (but NOT the thousands dying every day in Africa) might not get their pitiful handouts of redistributed wealth. Can’t you see what a totally lame argument that is? Is that really the best we can do?! It’s like we all just accept that poverty exists on this scale and we don’t even think to ask why. So the government hands out 2 million bandages each week to stop the bleeding…. if there was no government we might not voluntarily hand out 2 million bandages each wee – HANG ON A MINUTE WHY ARE 2 MILLION PEOPLE BLEEDING IN THE FIRST PLACE????

    See my point? Poverty on the scale we have today is NOT like rain or clouds or birdsong. It’s not a natural part of life. It’s there for a reason.

    The existence of poverty on the scale we have today (either nationally or globally) is proof that the statism as a system of social organisation fails society. But of course statism was never set up to work for us, it was set up to benefit only the few at the top – it is after all a violent monopoly of rulers with the few ruling over the many with guns.

    The idea that statism actually helps the poor is therefore ludicrous – governments create massive poverty and suffering and then redistribute a tiny fraction of the wealth they steal from the rest of us in the direction of the poor (using the rest to fund their wars etc), and they use these pitiful handouts to the poor as emotional blackmail to keep the middle classes supportive of the violence used against them. A poor underclass also acts as an incentive for the middle classes to just go along with the system – otherwise they might end up out of work and forced to live with the poor people (ie forced to move out of their canal side Jericho flat and get a rented room in Blackbird Leys).

    Your arguments (and those you quote) are not based in reality. They are not based on human nature (both good and bad aspects of). Your basic assumptions seems to be that:

    1. humans require force be initiated against them in order to make them do good (even though doing good is usually preferable for all concerned)
    2. giving a single group of human beings the legal right to use force/ violence against everyone else would not bring out the worst in them and attract the most criminal elements into those positions of power.

    Both of these assumptions are INSANE. They are completely the wrong way around. They are the result of years of government propaganda. And we NEVER apply them to our own personal / private lives…. only to this thing called ‘society’ and ‘politics’.

    “….. if you wish to object to the government-driven positive right to food on the grounds that it requires individuals to fund it, you must also object to legal systems protecting free speech on the grounds that, well, judges need paying…..”

    As explained previously, this argument assumes (erroneously) that if government provides ‘X’ then if government did not provide ‘X’ then ‘X’ could not (or would not) be provided.

    This is simply government propaganda. Let’s look at a recent real world example related to free speech. A man named Robert Green was on his way to hand out leaflets in Aberdeen because he was going to be standing as an independent candidate in the 2010 elections. As soon as he stepped out of the car he was kidnapped, detained, his house raided and eventually sent to prison for a year (by a judge with no jury).


    Simple answer: Because the government has a legal right to initiate force against people. Governments and the courts do NOT enforce free speech. They impose government’s will. Sometimes the government’s will is to permit us to speak freely, sometimes it’s will is to silence us by using force including kidnapping and imprisonment. This is the reality of governments all over the world and throughout history. You MUST be aware of this right?

    It just so happens that the information on the leaflets Robert Green was trying to hand out pertained to vile abuses by people connected to the government and the establishment – abuses which have the potential to bring down half the UK government/ establishment. Violent monopoly rulers ALWAYS look after their own interests over the public’s interests. More info HERE (disturbing subject, viewer discretion advised)

    This is the REALITY of government rule by force. Or rule by ANY agency by force.

    “….What could my right to free speech mean, if not that I have a legitimate claim to stop you from imprisoning me when I attack your bullshit?…”

    Your example is primarily an example of defending yourself from violence (kidnapping). In the example you are defending your property rights (your person). Free speech has nothing directly to do with it.

    “…. And similarly, what could a right to food mean if not that others must do certain things to ensure my right is met?…”

    As I explained already, this ‘right’ is different because it requires (by definition) force be initiated against other people. Without a government to initiate that force on your behalf, you would have to initiate that force yourself. Therefore the ‘right’ to food is in essence the right to threaten someone with violence or even use violence against them in order to force them to give you food. That’s what your ‘right to food’ is in its purest form.

    As such the ‘right’ to food is immoral. It is the right to beat people up and steal their food! It is also ridiculous in the real world. In the real world if a man is starving people will help him voluntarily. I know I would, wouldn’t you? Why don’t you conduct a poll and ask all your friends if they would as well.

    Here is the ‘logic’ of your argument for ‘food rights’. This represents the true ‘logic’ behind the government propaganda you were taught from a young age…… as you will see it makes no sense at all!

    A man is found starving in the streets. People gather around him. They simultaneously all agree that they want to do something to help him but that they are unwilling to do anything to help him. In the end they all agree that they want to help him but they don’t want to help him.

    To solve this problem they decide to set up an agency of violence and grant them the right to use violence against them to force them to help the man by taking a percentage of their earnings by force and giving some of that money to the man to buy food with. So they set up an agency of violence and that agency immediately uses threats against them to force them to hand over some money to help the poor man.

    Someone wanders over and asks them “why did you just set up that agency of violence?”
    “Because we wanted to find a way to help this poor starving man”
    “But why didn’t you just help him yourselves?”
    “Because we didn’t want to help him voluntarily”
    “And so you chose to set up that agency of violence instead….”
    “Yes, so they would force us to help him”
    (and so on)

    If you believe that’s how governments got started then you are an idiot! 😉

    “….And whatever argument one gives for the right to free speech – whether it be the happiness people acquire from expressing themselves without fear of punishment, or the fact that this is crucial to respecting their humanity ……”

    Free speech is not a ‘right’ in itself – that would imply someone or some agency actually has the right to grant you the ‘right’ to speak freely, which in turn implies they have more authority over what you say than you do.

    Free speech is merely a natural consequence of being alive and not having anyone violate your property rights/ self ownership rights.

    Please stop thinking in terms of being granted ‘rights’ by some third party for every aspect of your existence! By insisting on being ‘allowed’ to do or have X,Y and Z you are insisting there be an agency with the authority to grant you those rights.

    If I stand at your front door with a gun and when you open it to go outside I say “I grant you the right to go outside today, now off you go…” I am NOT enhancing or protecting your right to move about freely and leave the house whenever you like – I am instead asserting my self as being somehow authorised to grant you (or deny you) the right to go outside! I am taking control over your life.

    If you seek to be given ‘rights’ from outside agencies what you are really doing is placing them above you and granting them the authority to control your life.

    Your ‘food rights’ is a red herring. More than that it is a completely dishonest argument. The ‘right to food’ can be broken down to a more fundamental right – the right to initiate force against others to get what you want, or to have a third party initiate force on your behalf. If you really want to defend this ‘right’ then you should do so honestly.

    If you run at me with an axe screaming “I’m going to kill you!” and I picked up a gun and shot you dead just before you got to me I would have no problem admitting what I did. Of course it would be a traumatic experience, but I would have no problem admitting that I used lethal force against you to defend my person from your murderous intent.

    When our actions are morally justified we can use clear language, when they are not morally justified we tend to use euphemisms and over complicate the issue. (‘tax’ rather than ‘theft’ or ‘foreign policy’ rather than ‘genocide’).

    Your ‘food rights’ depend on the initiation of violence, and there is no getting away from this fact. I think you should therefore use clear language when arguing your case, just so we are all clear what you really mean.

    If you think your ‘food rights’ really are morally justifiable OR practical in the real world, as well as being preferable compared to non violent / voluntary alternatives then I think you should put your money where your mouth is….

    …. In other words I want YOU to imagine YOU are poor and starving in a world without a government. Would YOU assert your ‘right to food’ and use violence against random strangers to force them to feed you? Would you knock on a door with a club or a gun in your hand and say “Feed me, or else I will use violence!”

    And what if they refused to feed you? Would you then club them unconscious or shoot them in the leg before raiding their pantry?
    Would you handcuff them and lock them up into a cage – as the government does today if we refuse to hand over our ‘taxes’?

    Or would you perhaps seek a non violent, non coercive, voluntary solution to your own poverty and starvation. And likewise if you were really desperate, do you not think people might CHOOSE to help you without any need for violence? Perhaps they would be MORE inclined to help you voluntarily if you knocked on their door WITHOUT a club, handcuffs or a gun in your hand.

    Please look in the mirror and speak your answers to these questions out loud and clearly. Would YOU personally use violence or threaten violence to get food in the real world?

    If you *don’t* think you could bring yourself to use violence against others, and if you think it would be counter productive to do so anyway then you have defeated your own arguments both morally and practically.

    This would mean your arguments are really just a regurgitation of the government propaganda you received throughout your life. As we all did. Perhaps you want to cling to such propaganda in a desperate attempt to shield yourself from the AWFULL TRUTH which is that society really is run by a criminal mafia who have indoctrinated us all into believing they are morally justified and practically useful when they are the exact opposite! They are violent, coercive and criminal in every respect.

    I do sympathise, no one wants to have to admit this 😦

    “….And if those arguments imply that it would be unjust to ensure all humans are fed, I suggest that’s a strong reason for suspecting that something has gone drastically wrong…..”

    Are you suggesting that to defend your property rights is somehow connected to being ‘selfish’ and letting others starve? Seriously?! How does that work?

    Valuing and defending your property and your property rights is NOT a mark of greed, it is not the mark of an immoral, selfish man. It may even be argued to be the exact opposite of greed and immorality. Wow…… I bet you never even thought of it that way ……you really are very propagandised aren’t you!

    (no offence….. we all are)

    You seem to forget that defending your property rights is the primary requirement for being able to SPEND your money or even GIVE AWAY your money to others. Defending you property is not just about hanging on to it like a greedy scrooge character. That is government propaganda.

    Once the government has taken our wealth by force it is (legally, practically, obviously) no longer ours to spend. You do understand this, right? Taxation *prevents* us from being able to give our money away, or spend it on good causes, or invest it in things which benefit society.

    If I want to spend my money on food for the poor starving black children in Africa instead of spending it on weapons to blow up brown children in Iraq I am currently prevented from doing so by the government.

    If I insist on diverting MY OWN MONEY (!) away from genocide and towards feeding the poor instead, I will eventually be thrown in a cage by the government for doing so.

    Are you starting to see the reality of the situation here?

    I’ll bet you £1000 that if you gave most people in society the option of their money being spent on food for starving African children vs blowing the legs of poor Iraqi children and they will choose the former (imagine two buttons on a board for them to press – which button would they press: ‘feed children’ or ‘kill children’?)

    But government taxation by force *prevents* us from making that choice (or any other choice). Governments spend our stolen money on the death and destructive agendas far more than the life and constructive agendas.

    And so let me turn your argument on its head. Giving up your property rights to an agency of force is the best way to ensure others starve and remain poor. Letting a violent cabal take our money from us and spend it as they see fit is just about the most irresponsible and immoral thing we could do as adults. How are we to explain this to our children?!

    “I’m sorry you have no future and the world is ravaged by wars and the government has destroyed society and you have inherited trillions of government debt which was run up before you were even born but which the government will nevertheless get you to pay back by extracting money from you throughout your life by force….. it’s just that we thought it was a good idea to them run everything through violence and so we let them take half our earnings and spend it as they saw fit…. they told us it was a good way to help the poor you see and we believed them…sorry!”

    This is, after all, the current situation in the world. This is the *reality* of statism, rather than its nonsensical propaganda. If we had no taxation in the world for say 10 – 20 years and millions of people were STLL living in poverty and starving to death every day at the end of that period then we would call that a *failure*, right? I know I would.

    But that’s the situation now. And so by the same standards, and after centuries of government rule, we must surely also call statism a failure too, right? (except that in reality governments were never set up ‘by the people for the people’ – governments were always ‘by the few for the few’ and so in terms of their TRUE purpose governments have not failed at all).

    You see in *reality* the government takes all of our money by force – leaving us with just enough to live on, pay the rent etc and it spends most of this stolen money on wars and other immoral things even though millions suffer poverty and even die of starvation every day. It throws just a token fraction our money towards welfare, but that only treats the symptoms and in doing so tends to *increase* poverty. And governments also give away our money as ‘foreign aid’ which just ends up going straight into the pockets of oppressive tin pot dictators (ie other governments!)

    Only when we reclaim our full property rights (ie get to keep all of our earnings with no taxation by force) can we begin to start feeding the poor. And only when we abolish government control over the economy and its fiat currencies based on thin air and fractional reserve banking practices can we start to help the poor escape poverty.

    Government violent monopoly rule creates society’s problems and feeds them. All your arguments are upside down, because your government controlled education is upside down too.

    The moral standards of the majority will ALWAYS be far greater on average than the moral standards of the tiny minority who have wormed their way into positions of power and violence in agencies of violence such as governments.

    Therefore to retain full property rights is to place the wealth into far more morally virtuous hands than the state.

    The wealth MUST therefore remain in the hands of the majority and that means no taxation by force.

    Please do the ‘mirror test’ and let me know how it went 🙂

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