The Human Condition:

Needs vs. Wants II1 – December 20, 2015


I love what I call “cleavage questions”: those that split the issue down the center, like a diamond cutter, and expose its heart. And I think I’ve found one. What does each side in our political spectrum aim to achieve? People on the left side of the aisle aim to provide everyone with what he or she needs. People on the right side aim for everyone to have the opportunity to get what he or she wants.

And that leads immediately to the question of methods.

To provide everyone with what he or she needs, you must first determine what those needs are. Unfortunately, any mass of individuals so large, diverse, and unwieldly as a city, state, or nation cannot express any simple hierarchy of needs that will apply to every member.2 Even if you could query each member individually and create a huge database of individual needs, then fulfilling them in a timely fashion would be next to impossible. We can barely keep up—either administratively or financially—with providing the barest necessities to people in need under existing blanket programs like Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps, or general welfare. To go into those systems and reorganize their allocations based on individual preferences would be a bureaucratic nightmare.

So the definition of need is left to public advocates. These may be the administrators of existing fulfillment programs like Social Security, or the congressional representatives in charge of mandates and funding for these programs, or self-appointed public advocates who attempt to speak for the recipients of the programs. Given that all of these advocates are also human beings—and not artificially intelligent, imagination-neutral robots—they will tend to temper their recommendations with their own ideas of human nature, adequate sustenance, sustainability, reciprocity, and fairness. They are in a position to decide what other people need—and so they will decide. And self-appointed public advocates, whose pronouncements focus solely on the beneficiaries, are even free to ignore constraints like financial resources, program sustainability, and moral or economic parity.

It’s too easy, also, for advocates to attribute to the individual men and women in their charge the kind of brute stupidity and errant foolishness that only shows up in the movements of large, mindless groups. And so the public policy mavens will to override a simple statement of wants, such as “I like peanut butter and jelly on white bread,” with their own views about the the allergy potential of peanuts, the sugar content of jelly, and the benefits of whole wheat bread. When you speak for others, it is easy to replace living, breathing people like yourself and those you hold near and dear with a kind of fiction: gray, faceless, nominal “people,” not too bright, with poor insight, limited education, bad habits, and no self-respect. This vision comes with many names: the “booboisie,” “hoi polloi,” “Joe Sixpack,” and “the people.” When your business is taking a statistical average among people you don’t know—and without doing any rigorous statistical work to begin with—it’s almost impossible not to aim low.

And so your recommendations as a public advocate tend to be colorless, drab, unexciting, and devoid of spirit. In this I am reminded of why I loathe the work of Consumers Union® and the evaluations and recommendations in their publications. All of their choices are for basic, no-frills, least-cost options that put a premium on safety, reliability, and sustainability and care not a fig for innovation, style, or charm. They would have every car be as exciting and intriguing as a refrigerator—if you didn’t particularly like your refrigerator and didn’t care for optional functions like automatic defrosting and ice making. Consumer Reports is a guide for people who buy things they need but don’t want and will use but not enjoy. These are products for people who’ve had the nerves connected to excitement, adventure, love, and occasionally coping with the quirky defects of innovative products burned right out of them.3

Further, when you have this low opinion of human nature based on an imagined “Joe Sixpack” or “the booboisie,” the temptation exists to try to fit all the square people into your rounded hole. You tend to teach to the lowest common denominator, inform and entertain at the lowest acceptable levels, and expect the people you serve to exhibit passive conformity instead of active individuality.4

On the other side of the aisle, when your aim is to provide people with the opportunities to get what they want, your methods immediately change. You are no longer in the business of polling everyone about their desires, because it is not your responsibility—from the standpoint of a single entity, organization, or government body—to provide for that galaxy of divergent wants.

You also assume that other people are not unlike yourself, in that they may have different interests, requirements of taste and color sense, thresholds of boredom and excitement, appreciative abilities, and imaginations. As you prefer pistachio ice cream over plain vanilla or chocolate, and would rather drive a fast and expensive car over a staid and practical one—all without thinking of yourself as either a weirdo or a jerk—you can imagine that other people will have desires and ambitions that lie outside the mainstream as well as outside your personal preferences. And you can accept their differences of taste and perception without pausing to consider these others as weirdos and jerks.

From this viewpoint, it doesn’t matter if people are innately smart or stupid. They are as they have been brought up to be, and their life situation is not your immediate concern. You are free to view people as varied and diverse: some smart, some stupid, some foolhardy and likely to lead short lives, some prudent and likely to live long, some elegant, and some slovenly. You are also free to pick and choose your friends and associates, and to hope for the best for your children. You will take people as you find them and not as you wish them to be.

This is because you do no adopt the mantle of satisfying either their needs or their wants. When you trust that other people may be about as smart as you are, then you trust that they will know the difference between a basic necessity and a needless frill. You trust that they will see to their own needs and those of their families first, and then spend their resources either on novelties and excitements or on saving for the future. Which they choose is their lookout and not your immediate business.

From this viewpoint, you know that people are also ambitious and creative—or at least a large fraction of them are. With those innate drives, and with a random mixture of skills and talents in the basic population, you can trust that people and organizations will arise to provide for needs and desires. Some will cater to the bland and boring basics, like whole wheat bread and bran muffins, while others will serve niche markets in artisanal jellies and Viennese pastries. Who arises to provide which need or desire is still not your business or responsibility.

Your business is to provide opportunity to access the goods and services available in a free market—not to provide the good or service itself. Your responsibility as an entity, organization, or government is then to guard against things that fall under the rubric of “restraint of trade.” In this role, you will certainly want to guard against monopoly power, because monopolists tend to ignore market signals and promote decreasing quality while increasing price. You guard against confidence tricksters and scam artists who sell promises not backed by actual goods and services. But it is not your business to sample and approve all goods or license all levels of service, because you know that the market will eliminate those who do not provide quality commensurate with price. And believing in the innate sense of your fellow human beings, you trust them to be a little bit suspicious and to subscribe to “buyer beware” as an economic principle.

When your aim is to provide for needs, you tend to believe in conformity and sameness. When your aim is merely to guarantee opportunity, you tend to believe in freedom and possibility. As someone with no faith in Utopia and with a basic belief that the world will spin as it spins in good times and bad, I cheerfully opt for the latter.

1. For parallel thoughts on this same topic, see Needs vs. Wants from April 5, 2015.

2. Some attempt at this was made in the 1940s with the Second Bill of Rights proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His “economic bill of rights” included employment and the right to work; food, clothing, and leisure; a farmer’s right to a fair income; freedom from unfair competition and monopolies; housing; medical care; social security; and education. Many of these “rights” have become the basis for later federal programs and departments of the executive branch.
       As others have already pointed out, the original Bill of Rights attached to the U.S. Constitution was about people being left alone to live as they wanted—free to worship, free to speak, to defend themselves, to be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures, against witness that incriminates him- or herself, and so on—which are rights that cost nothing to provide, except in terms of placing limitations on government prerogative. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights, however, is about providing tangible assets, goods, and services—paid employment, food, clothing, a house, doctor services, insurance, teacher services—which all require someone else to provide them at either personal or government expense.
       And still these needs may not satisfy everyone. For example, my definition of employment might include a level of interest, achievement, and compensation—for example, I’d really like to be paid a million dollars to write an epic poem about the Apollo space program—that others are not prepared to provide under any conditions. And don’t even start asking about my needs for food, clothing, and leisure activities!

3. I am reminded here about the comment from Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders, that we don’t need twenty-three different brands of deodorant. Of course, we don’t “need” them if we all don’t care how we smell or if we all have the same skin conditions. The fact that twenty-three brands are viable in the marketplace should tell you something about human nature.

4. So the Soviet Union thought to engender a new race of Homo sovieticus, a conforming human devoid of initiative, ambition, desire, inquiry, or family feeling. A drab people to drive cars not even as exciting as refrigerators.