McGovern's third freedom

Posted: Jan 24, 2001 12:00 AM
George McGovern is at it again, endeavoring to mitigate human afflictions. He is better at mobilizing against natural afflictions than man-made ones. When he was the Democratic candidate for president in 1972, he did not do very much to encourage the anti-communist coalition, but a great deal to describe the lot of human want. He is the son of a preacher, raised in the upper heartland of America, experiencing the Depression in which farmers were reintroduced to the long-lived paradox: They faced a starving community and could not make a living growing food.

Sen. McGovern serves as ambassador to the various United Nations food agencies and operates out of Rome. It is good news that the Bush administration has asked him to continue in service, because he is an incarnation of the human concern for people who are hungry and even die from hunger. And his dream, the gradual disappearance of hunger, is the theme of his new book, "The Third Freedom."

McGovern begins by reinterring Parson Thomas Malthus, the British economist who foretold starvation and pestilence on the grounds that birthrates were outstripping agricultural prowess. We've known that wasn't so beginning about 10 minutes after Malthus died; but McGovern gives us broad figures. When he ran for president, 35 percent of the world's people were hungry. By 1996, notwithstanding a 2 billion increase in the world's population, the percentage of the hungry was reduced to 17 percent. "The world now produces a quantity of grain that, if distributed evenly, would provide everyone with 3,500 calories per day."

Your face is rubbed deeply in the paradox. It was nicely expressed in a quizzical remark by Archbishop Dom Helder Camara of Brazil, whom McGovern quotes as saying sometime after the last world war: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist."

On the proposition that charity begins at home, the economist Dr. Ruth Logue comes to mind. Thirty years ago when we heard more frequently about those citizens in distress about whom Michael Harrington wrote his book, "The Other America," Dr. Logue came up with a captivating idea. You can do away with hunger, technically described, she wrote, by giving away four nutritious enemies of hunger. Bulgur wheat, dried skimmed milk, dried beans and lard could be given away -- courtesy of the United States, which is to say, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers -- to every grocery store in America, free of charge. These would be available at no cost to anyone who came in and asked for them. The vision was of a technical end to hunger, inasmuch as the four ingredients make up 99.99 percent of what is needed to sustain life.

Sen. McGovern, in his readable book, endorses a continuation and an expansion of existing ventures, with special emphasis on the U.N. programs, notably the International Fund for Agricultural Development. McGovern italicizes his idealism in a single sentence: "I would like to see America take the lead in working toward a school-lunch program that embraces every child in the world." To do this requires exporting not only food, but the advanced technology of food-making.

There are, of course, problems at every level. Sen. McGovern acknowledges ruefully that some of his own grandchildren are skeptical of biotechnology. There is the conundrum of economic globalization's search for cheap labor, which here and there gives wages to workers, but insufficient to buy them food. How to straighten out that obliquity?

"The Third Freedom" isn't of the kind that makes its way by an anti-proliferation treaty, which requires a hundred-odd signatures to take force. You need hundreds of thousands, even millions, of participants. Sen. McGovern is most persuasive in pointing out that existing charitable bureaucracies need to be enlisted in any serious effort to bring food to the table of the hungry -- primarily the churches of the world, which are by definition charitable enterprises and have toeholds in every market. His estimate of the contribution by the United States to the global enterprise is $5 billion.

The quiddity of it all is the challenge to marketplace mechanisms. The market is the great broker of human supply and demand. No demand is keener than for food to sustain life. How to translate that into a demand, not for substances that are limited in number by the postulates of nature -- you can't increase rainfall -- but for substances that are highly developed and developable. The overarching irony is the priority regularly given to arms production. If, to take only Latin America into account, one-tenth of the money spent on arms were spent on corn, hunger there would cease to exist.

Indispensable to any political breakthrough is a philosophical breakthrough. McGovern's "The Third Freedom" is a vibrant contribution to that mobilization of charitable concern.

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