Free lunch?

Posted on July 6, 2011 by

From a Catholic world view, it stands to reason that feeding people, regardless of circumstances or limitations of means is a high priority on the charity scale.

The directive is clear:

The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry.

He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none and he who has food must do likewise.

But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you.

If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?

So yes, we feed the hungry, undoubtedly, but who are they, these hungry people?  No doubt the  physically and mentally helpless, the historically disenfranchised – but are they our only charges?  Do we have discretion in instances of those who are able, but  have not prepared themselves in any way for the inevitable difficulties of life?  Are we serving those people by comforting them in what is necessarily a time of discomfort, especially if it serves a potentially corrective function?  Does a little old school behavior modification via negative reinforcement merge with the persistent fundamental call to charity, or with traditionalism, in practice of solidarity?

Obviously “let them eat cake” isn’t a legitimate theological position and has made for an undesirable outcome in the past, as empty stomachs make notoriously bad political advisers.  Hunger is a strong motivator, but given to extremism, and from France to Russia to Africa to Latin America, the response by an impoverished people enveloped by revolution is to remain impoverished while enduring bloody and destructive regime change.  Poverty and hunger remain.  Subsistence farmers see revolutionaries as another natural disaster:  flood, drought, quake, blight, militants.  They all mean less food.  People who have for millennia sought to provide for themselves are the least likely to be allowed to do so, and war and the introduction of urban industrialization has served to dislocate them, geographically and physically, from the ability to do so.  Charity is their only recourse, and we are compelled to give in order to bring about their relief.

In contrast, there is an unspoken philosophy in  America, informed by a vestigial cultural Puritanism,  that essentially says “feed the poor, starve the lazy”.  It isn’t motivated by hardheartedness, but rather the cumulative tough love of a 150+ year frontier experience that required action in order to survive, and of course those Scripture that dovetail with that understanding: If you will eat, you must work, and giving thoughtlessly isn’t charitable, but a lack of wisdom.   There is in fact a judgment required – resources are limited, subsidizing bad behavior is counter-intuitive and counter-productive.  This is how newly carved out communities survived, often marginally, but eventually thrived, and laid the foundation for western expansion and the “amber waves” that became synonymous with the land of plenty.  No aimless wandering in the desert for the New Pilgrims, they’d read that story and it didn’t sound like it would bear repeating.  Despair was a choice to make, not a condition to endure, and something for nothing was a concept so foreign it registered as abhorrent – as sin.

Food as a socio-political right in the industrialized west is a difficult concept to consider, because food it is not free to produce.  A woman grows tomatoes, a man plows a field, a rancher raises cattle, all plant, cultivate, harvest, make ready for market  – who’s means and efforts would we demand be transferred to those who simply choose not to perform?   If “free food” becomes the next big screen television, then everyone will demand it, perceive it as normal, but no one will be available to grow it.  We are asking the children of the productive to shoulder the unproductive.  Is that solidarity, or its own form of war-lording, attempting to control resources to further agendae and manipulate loyalties?  Whom the Welfare State serves is dicey territory, and practically problematic, because it does not appear to better the lives of its clients.

The rather anti-climactic bottom line:  here, none of it matters.  There is plenty.  Food shortages loom, prices steadily increase, government subsidies to Big Ag disenfranchise small farming efforts – still plenty.  There is a misunderstanding of the meaning of American Exceptionalism – it’s not that as a nation the US is intrinsically better than any other.  It’s that for some reason, in the confluence of humanity, and perhaps Providence, the rules that have applied to so many in the rest of the world have been transcended here.  We are human, we are prone to corruption, we choose badly, we under-serve.   All in all, though, we can be counted on to produce.  We fret over “food deserts”, when the spiritual desert is where the problem lies.  We still cringe at the thought of starving masses – we know it to be largely unnecessary.  It’s about not choosing – or selling –  despair as a lifestyle.

Then no, food should not be “free”.  But maybe we’re drawing a conclusion from the wrong vantage.  The question might be better answered  that  our tradition is in fact exceptional – we are uniquely at liberty to give.