Hunger Games

Who Gets to Eat & Who Decides

Along with air and water, food is the common denominator of human survival. Throughout history, the quest for daily sustenance has often been precarious. Food shortages caused by crop failures or extreme weather were (and are) common enough. But beginning with the Industrial Revolution in the mid-seventeenth century, as millions left the land for the cities and populations exploded, thinkers disagreed about how best to feed people in an economy based on manufacturing rather than agriculture. Should it be left to the free market? Or should governments take control? What criteria should be used to decide who gets fed—and in what amount—and who doesn’t? Are some more deserving of being fed than others?

Weighing in on these questions, Adam Smith was sanguine. In 1776 he published The Wealth of Nations, in which he lauded the free market and the profit motive as drivers of economic progress. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner,” he wrote, “but from their regard to their own interest.” The “invisible hand” of competition would harness private ambition to the public good. Smith’s near-contemporary Thomas Malthus was far more pessimistic. Malthus’s influential tract An Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798 and...

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About the Author

Peter Quinn, a frequent contributor, is the author Dry Bones and Banished Children of Eve (both from Overlook Press), among other books.