When it was first debated, there were reasons to query Maine’s right to food constitutional amendment, easily approved by the voters at the ballot box two years ago. Unfortunately, in the period preceding the vote and during the campaign itself, there was little, if any, substantive debate about the proposal.

That’s not to say the proposal didn’t face opposition, which it well and truly did. A variety of ordinarily powerful factions – animal rights proponents, the Maine Municipal Association, farmers – expressed various concerns about the legislation, but their worries were largely brushed aside or completely ignored. Some of their worries were well-founded, others less so, but none of these groups managed to make much of a dent.

They also didn’t put up much of a fight when the amendment went to the voters, suggesting that perhaps they were not actually all that concerned about them. Take, for instance, the Maine Municipal Association. It has, in the past, mounted well-funded and bitter campaigns against referendums it felt directly challenged its version of local sovereignty. We saw this during the numerous fights over the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, which the organization feared would limit the ability of municipalities to raise taxes.

During the right-to-food campaign, though, it didn’t really meddle all that much. Not much money was spent to either defend or oppose this proposal. That was, in part, because the association couldn’t cite many specific problems with the proposal’s text; instead, it was perturbed by possible future ramifications of the amendment’s vague language. So, all of the campaign money that year instead went to a fight over the Central Maine Power corridor, which ended up being largely wasted. The end result was almost identically lopsided.

The real problem with the right-to-food amendment was not based in its actual text, but in implications that fundamentally upended the structure of rights under both the Maine and the United States constitutions.

Ordinarily, rights in both documents – which have been remarkably stable over the past two hundred years – protect citizens from the government doing something to you.


Take the First Amendment. It keeps the government from regulating your speech, your religion or your freedom of assembly. These are essentially negative rights, in that the legislation stops the government from doing things rather than forcing the government to do something. Even still, it took us several centuries of court decisions and evolving cultural mores for these rights to be firmly established as we understand them today.

To put it simply, the government doesn’t have to do anything to respect your First Amendment rights: It simply has to refrain from restricting them. Despite the posturing of some politicians from both parties these days, that’s pretty easy – you just leave people alone. Let them say what they want, practice their own religion or otherwise assemble.

A right to food, though, is fundamentally different. Food, after all, isn’t a concept, it’s an object. So if you have a right to food, let’s forget about the implications for all sorts of regulations for a moment. Instead, let’s consider whether the government is legally obligated – not just morally obligated, which is a completely different concept – to feed those who are going hungry. Even if you believe the amendment does do that, and that it’s the right thing to do, it opens up the door to a whole host of other positive rights, like housing, employment or health care.

If there’s a legal right to food in Maine that prevents towns from banning chickens in backyards, what if we establish a legal right to housing? Would that prevent landlords from raising rents? Would it prevent evictions? Would it require cities to fully fund homeless shelters, regardless of the cost? Once we start going down this rabbit hole, it’s easy to see how a right to a certain thing, rather than a right to be left alone, can have a whole host of unintended (if we look at the authors charitably) side effects.

This is the wider debate that we should have had when the right-to-food amendment, with its vague text, was sent to the voters. Unfortunately, we skipped it. As a state we can’t afford – either literally or figuratively – to skip it the next time someone wants to establish a new right.

Let’s hope these proposals engender greater scrutiny than the right to food did, so we can at least avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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