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Is the Starving Man Free?

Tags Free MarketsHistory of the Austrian School of EconomicsPolitical Theory

02/26/2008Ben O'Neill

Modern "liberals" who advocate the view that government should provide us with the necessities or alleged necessities of life rarely appreciate that this assistance rests on a system of mass robbery and enslavement that is highly inimical to their professed belief in liberty. In fact, the advocates of such policies present them in quite the opposite light, as enhancing our liberty.

This contention rests on the conceptual claim that liberty requires certain of our most basic needs to be satisfied, if necessary by the actions of others. Adherents of this view assert that "the starving man is not free"[1] and that he must be guaranteed his freedom from famine and other hardships by the benevolent welfare state.

This archetypal position of the modern "liberal" is famously set out by Sir William Beveridge in his advocacy for the British welfare state:

Liberty means more than freedom from the arbitrary power of Governments. It means freedom from economic servitude to Want and Squalor and other social evils; it means freedom from arbitrary power in any form. A starving man is not free, because till he is fed, he cannot have a thought for anything but how to meet his urgent physical needs; he is reduced from a man to an animal. A man who dare not resent what he feels to be an injustice from an employer or a foreman, lest they condemn him to chronic unemployment, is not free.[2]

This conception of liberty conflates two very different types of freedom: freedom from coercion by other men and freedom from the personal requirement of satisfying our own basic survival needs. While these are presented as two parallel requirements of liberty they are, in fact, mutually exclusive. So long as man exists he will have material needs, and the only way that he can escape personal responsibility to satisfy these needs is to impose this responsibility on others. If this imposition is undertaken by others voluntarily then both the libertarian and the modern liberal are in agreement — both condone voluntary charity.[3] But this is not what modern liberals propose. Rather, they impose this duty to help the needy by force of law under the auspices of the welfare state. Under this system, all are forced to contribute to the cost of providing for the needs and alleged needs of others.

Despite any rhetoric to the contrary, this welfare state established by modern "liberals" does nothing to reconcile the contradiction between freedom from men and freedom from nature — it merely sacrifices the former in an attempt to obtain the latter.

Freedom from "Economic Servitude" and the "Arbitrary Powers" of Nature

All living beings must engage in self-sustaining action in order to survive. All require sufficient food to avoid starvation and sufficient shelter from the harsher aspects of nature to avoid destruction — all must eat, drink, and sleep. This is the "economic servitude" to which Sir Beveridge refers. The freedom that he and other modern liberals crave is freedom from their own bodies, freedom from their nature. The requirements of our digestive system, our heart, brain, and lungs, are the "arbitrary powers" against which we are to be "liberated" — liberated that is, by the coercion of other men who are robbed and enslaved to satisfy the wants imposed by our bodies.

The starving man is indeed in need of food — that is, if he does not ingest sufficient food to sustain his body then fairly soon he will die. This is the nature of his body — no one else imposes this need on him. The starving man is not free from the nature of his own body, nor can he be, even in the welfare state. This is a statement of metaphysics, not political philosophy. But the starving man should be free from coercion by other men. He should be free to obtain food by voluntary trade with others. If he is unable to offer anything of value in trade, then he should be free to rely on voluntary charity. But he should not be allowed to rob or enslave others to satisfy his needs. Nor should others be able to rob and enslave on his behalf. All have the right to be free from aggression.

If we are serious about this principle of nonaggression then we must recognize its logical implications and be honest about these implications. We must recognize that this leaves us with no ironclad guarantee that we will be fed, bathed, clothed and housed. We must recognize that if we are unable to obtain our basic needs through our own enterprise then we must rely on the voluntary assistance of others. Where we are unable to convince others to provide our survival needs then the liberty from coercion that they enjoy may mean that we will die. This may seem like a heartless position, but it is far more humane than the welfare state, which enslaves all men while they are still alive.

Moreover, while the advocates of the welfare state are happy to engage in sanctimonious lectures on the alleged "right" to food, shelter, health care, and so on, even they must accept that, at some point, a person must be left to die through want of care or resources. For the simple fact is that food, shelter, and health care are scarce resources, so that it is not possible to prolong each person's life for as long as it could possibly last. Even if everyone were to expend all of their efforts to prolong the lives of those who are currently alive, an effort to prolong some lives through the consumption of scarce resources must mean that these resources are not available to prolong the lives of others. Pious drivel about how "no amount of money is worth a life" does not avoid this fact — it merely massages the egos of those who wish to have an excuse to squander resources helping those who are most important to them, to the detriment of those who are not.

Starvation under Capitalism and Socialism

While we must accept the fact that some people — particularly those who are elderly or seriously ill — will at some point die through a lack of care or resources, the prospect of an otherwise healthy person dying of starvation is still an objectionable one. However, it is a prospect that exists in the demagoguery of welfare statists rather than in the real world of free-market capitalism.The actual historical record of free-market capitalism (or rather relatively free-market capitalism, since actual free-market capitalism has never existed) is one that has allowed enormous material prosperity coupled with an abundant voluntary charitable sector.[4]

Indeed, some of the largest Western charitable organizations that exist today were founded in the 19th century, during the heyday of free-market capitalism.[5] Since then, the growth of the welfare state has crowded out private charity and done massive damage to the charitable ethic.

While polemical appeals to the starving man remain, this is now something of a straw man. Few pretend that there is any real prospect of starvation for "the poor" in those wealthy countries that have benefited from free-market capitalism.[6] If anything, the greatest health problem faced by "the poor" in Western countries is morbid obesity rather than starvation.

Continued appeals to alleged "basic needs" are now nothing more than the thin end of the wedge for large-scale efforts to redistribute wealth.

The material prosperity of free-market capitalism stands in stark contrast to the poverty of those countries that have abandoned freedom from coercion by others in favor of pipe dreams about freedom from the necessities of nature. Here there has been starvation on massive scales, including premeditated starvations undertaken by those socialist governments that have most comprehensively arrogated to themselves the task of providing for the needs of the people.[7]

Context Dropping to Omit Discussion of Personal Responsibility

Starting with the assumption that a man is starving is a classic example of context dropping. After all, how did he get into this dire situation in the first place? Under free-market capitalism, the law of comparative advantage and the division of labor ensures that he is always able to perform some valuable task with greater relative efficiency than others. The absence of governmental interference in the labor market ensures that he is able to obtain work in these areas of comparative advantage if he desires it. And the constantly improving efficiency of capitalist production ensures that his wages rise over time and the prices of basic goods and services fall, allowing him to benefit from greater and greater levels of prosperity.

For the exceedingly small number of people who are genuinely unable to perform productive work to a level that would sustain their own basic needs — such as those with a serious disability — there has always been ample provision of voluntary charity from the many other people who prosper under free-market capitalism. The danger that this charity might be unavailable is only increased by the concerted efforts of welfare statists to conflate genuine voluntary charity with faux charity provided by governments or government-funded agencies. This fraud has led some people to associate charity with statism (as was intended) and reject both (which was not).

The Dishonesty of Welfare Statists

This candid recognition of the contradiction between freedom from coercion and government welfare is more than can be expected from the advocates of the welfare state. Most are not content to admit their preference for government welfare instead of freedom from coercion. Rather, they gloss over the coercive nature of government action altogether. As a case in point of this fraudulent stance we can do little better than Sir Beveridge's own disingenuous statement that "Liberty means more than freedom from the arbitrary power of Governments."[8] In fact, the "liberty" conceived by Sir Beveridge and other welfare statists does not mean freedom from the arbitrary power of government at all. It means precisely the opposite: that people are to be systematically enslaved by their government in order to provide an expanding list of goods and services to those that the government deems worthy.

In light of the absence of any genuine prospect of starvation in developed countries, the duplicity of appeals to the starving man is palpable. In the modern welfare state, the government does not supply merely the barest necessities for basic sustenance. Rather, it engages in large-scale redistributions of wealth, allowing the beneficiaries of this system to live well in excess of mere subsistence,[9] on resources that have been systematically plundered from others.

To be abundantly clear, this should not be taken to mean that welfare recipients lead affluent lives.[10] But affluence and subsistence are two very different standards, and if welfare statists choose to import arguments for mere subsistence — as with appeals to the alleged lack of freedom of the starving man — then they must be held to this standard. It is highly duplicitous for them to impose mass redistribution as a means of combating alleged starvation, for this is clearly not the motive. However poor welfare recipients may be relative to the general population, they are clearly not in any danger of starvation.

Even accepting the starving man as a useful thought experiment, the proposition that his hunger nullifies his freedom is untenable. In a free society — i.e., a society that does not condone government coercion — he would have abundant opportunities to fulfill his needs on the free market. If he is genuinely unable to do so, he will find large numbers of more prosperous people willing to help him voluntarily. In the alleged effort to escape "economic servitude" and satisfy our basic survival needs the modern welfare state — the materialization of the philosophy of modern "liberals" — has been more successful in creating dependence than in creating affluence. By enslaving all to the government in an endless battle of griping and political graft, it has done little more than erode the ethics and incentives that lead us to care for ourselves and others.


[1] One also occasionally hears the stronger claim that "the hungry man is not free." For the purposes of this paper, we will dispose of the weaker claim, thereby logically disposing of the stronger.

[2] Beveridge, W. Why I am a Liberal (Herbert Jenkins: London, 1945), p. 9.

[3] Though many modern liberals tend to regard voluntary charity as demeaning to the donee, either because they maintain that he already has a "right" to this assistance or because they believe that, absent some guarantee of survival, the donee is forced into a subordinate relationship to the donor.

[4] It is an unfortunate sign of intellectual degeneration in the field of politics that one even has to use the redundant concept of voluntary charity.

[5] For example, the St. Vincent de Paul Society was founded in 1833, the Royal London Society for the Blind in 1838, the Red Cross in 1863 and the Salvation Army in 1865.

[6] I say "the poor" in quotation marks, because the poorest people in wealthy countries are in fact tremendously wealthy in comparison to most people throughout the world, both historically and today. Even the most menial worker or unemployed person in wealthy countries today enjoys a lifestyle of absolute opulence compared to the conditions faced by most of humanity historically — they are far from starving. In fact, they are poor only in comparison to other people in wealthy countries who are even wealthier.

[7] For example, in 1932–33 the government of the Soviet Union intentionally starved five million Ukrainian peasants to death. During the "Great Leap Forward" the Chinese government caused the death by starvation of twenty-seven million, the largest starvation in human history. See Rummel, R.J. Death by Government (Transaction Publishers: New Brunswick, 1994) , pp. 80, 97.

[8] Beveridge, W. Why I am a Liberal (Herbert Jenkins: London, 1945), p. 9. Emphasis added.

[9] One occasionally hears welfare advocates talk about people living "below subsistence." These people need a dictionary, not a media platform.

[10] Compared to the general population in the same time and place they do not, though they certainly do compared to the historical conditions that have existed for most people throughout history.


Contact Ben O'Neill

Dr. Ben O’Neill is a statistician and economist.