Enough to eat

Vijay Joshi

  • Poverty and Famines by Amartya Sen
    Oxford, 257 pp, £8.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 19 828426 8

In our hearts, most of us are Malthusians. We associate mass starvation with too many people chasing too little food. There are too many people because they reproduce themselves too fast, in ‘geometric progression’, as Malthus put it. There is too little food because the supply of food cannot keep pace with the pressure of population. From time to time, there are famines, natural disasters like drought, flood or blight, which reduce the supply of food sharply, causing widespread death. Amartya Sen’s view is different. ‘Starvation,’ he says in the opening paragraph of this book, ‘is a characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not a characteristic of there being not enough food to eat. While the latter is a cause of the former, it is but one of many possible causes. Whether and how starvation relates to food supply is a matter for empirical investigation.’ Sen’s empirical investigation leads him to the startling discovery that in several major recent famines, which killed vast numbers of people, the supply of food did not decline or declined only slightly.

It is worth getting a debating point out of the way. A famine means food shortage leading to widespread death from starvation. The air of paradox about Sen’s discovery arises in part from his unpicking the meaning of ‘famine’ and setting part of the meaning in opposition to the rest. The statement ‘mass starvation often occurs without any reduction in food supply’ is startling enough, but it is slightly less startling than the statement ‘famines often occur without any reduction in food supply,’ because reduction in food supply is built into the concept of famine. In other words, Sen’s discovery really amounts to saying that many recent episodes of mass starvation, like the Great Bengal Famine, should not properly be called famines. I shall not pursue this line of argument any further. Mass starvation is just as horrible whether it is called ‘famine’ or by some other name. I shall, like Sen, use the word ‘famine’ to mean episodes of widespread death from starvation.

In Sen’s scheme, starvation has nothing directly to do with food supply: it is a matter of whether people can acquire command over food. Command over food, or for that matter any scarce good, depends upon the prevailing ‘entitlement system’, the set of rules governing the acquisition, use and transfer of property rights.

Consider a private ownership market economy. I own this loaf of bread. Why is this ownership accepted? Because I got it by exchange through paying some money I owned. Why is my ownership of that money accepted? Because I got it by selling a bamboo umbrella owned by me. Why is my ownership of the bamboo umbrella accepted? Because I made it with my own labour using some bamboo from my land. Why is my ownership of the land accepted? Because I inherited it from my father. Why is his ownership of that land accepted? And so on. Each link in the chain of entitlement relations ‘legitimises’ one set of ownerships by reference to another, or to some basic entitlement in the form of enjoying the fruits of one’s own labour.

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