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(August 2000) [Printed in "Reality Module No.17" under the title "Democratic Humanism (3) - Maslow Meets the Economic Rationalists."]


Democratic Humanism (4) -
Maslow Meets the Economic Rationalists

Prelude to a Coming Together
1. Survival Needs
2. Security Needs
3. Social Acceptance Needs
4. Self-Esteem Needs
5. Self-Actualisation Needs
Beginning to Break the Nut

Related Works
Feedback and Discussions

In editing this essay I became aware that I didn't always clearly differentiate enough between Capitalism & Economic Rationalism. I hope you'll forgive me - no ideology exists in a social vacuum. Other thoughts have come to me since writing this piece - such as the value of Economic Rationalist approaches to efficiency for the distribution of food to Developing Countries.

Previously in "Reality Module" -

Prelude to a Coming Together

This is the essay where I try and bring things together. In Part 3 of this essay ("RM10") I described the characteristics of Economic Rationalism (a dominant ideology in 2000 AD) which included:

  1. A belief in small government and the 'outsourcing' of as much traditional government activity as possible. i.e. privatisation.

  2. A belief in the "invisible hand of the marketplace" - that the marketplace will achieve its own natural equilibrium if it is left alone. (This is coupled with a belief that government should keep out of the affairs of the private sector - as government interference would shake the equilibrium.) This is the notion of government non-interference and the deregulation of industries.

  3. A belief that the business model is the best model for any activity - i.e. Private enterprises are always more efficient than public enterprises because they exist in a state of competition. (The less competitive die. This is a sort of "survival of the fittest" - i.e. the most efficient at turning work into money.)

  4. A belief that this pursuit of maximum efficiency will lead to profitable enterprises, a booming economy, and a better life for all of us.

  5. A belief in the user-pays principle. This is an outcome of the Economic Rationalist philosophy - because providing services free-of-charge does not make good economic sense - and by charging for its services the government gets a return on its investment. When this is coupled with outsourcing it helps to keep the size of government and the amount it spends smaller. (There are some unintended consequences of the user-pays principle which I will look at later.)

And then there is Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of human needs explained in some detail in the essay in "RM8."

The levels are:

  1. SURVIVAL
  2. SECURITY
  3. SOCIAL ACCEPTANCE ("Belongingness")
  4. SELF-ESTEEM
  5. SELF-ACTUALISATION

Democracy involves people having a choice and a say in how they are governed - and, by extension, a right to provide input into the process of political decision making.

Humanism places human needs uppermost - and has the aim of working towards the maximum amount of happiness for the maximum number of people.

NB - I am making the assumption in this essay that people are happy if their needs (not their wants) are satisfied. I am aware that this is an oversimplification (and that some people are psychologically-incapable of being happy) - but, as Maslow shows, people's needs extend far beyond the material & the accumulation of objects.

1. Survival Needs

Food. Water. Air.

We know that the majority of humans don't even have their fundamental survival needs catered for. There is chronic persistent hunger, poverty, a growing shortage of drinkable water, and problems of earth, air and water pollution.

Will Economic Rationalism help us to solve these problems?

It is hard to tell - it depends partly on how "efficiency" is defined.

If efficiency is defined as the maximum profit with the minimum effort, then we have a 'plunder' mentality - some of us will get very very rich, but most of us will suffer, and the Earth will die!

If, however, efficiency is defined as maximum profitability then the equation changes. In this scenario short-term 'megaprofits' are not the goal and sustainability comes into the picture. It suddenly becomes desirable to spend more now so that profits will be bigger later on. You will be looking to make profits 10, 20, 30 years from now. In this scenario Research & Development has a place, pollution control has a place, even empowering your workforce has a place. In this scenario the Earth can survive and even prosper, and the people can be happier.

(It can be argued reasonably well that much of the poverty in the world results from exploitative practices in the past: a cruel child of Capitalism and Colonialism. But the past cannot be changed - we only have the power to change the present and the future. Part of the value of history is that it enables us to show our present demons with sharper claws.)

How common is the wisdom to see beyond immediate goals? I see little of it in private enterprise, but I do see it in the social sphere.

Fortunately the agents of change do not need permission from the economists.

Leaving aside pollution which can be dealt with by a combination of government legislation, enlightened business practices, and local action - what is being done to eliminate poverty?

In our country the charities do their bit (supported by ordinary folks), the government does its bit (with our tax money) - and the government tries to get businesses to do more.

But these treat the symptoms and not the causes.

And Australia is increasingly becoming a divided society - the numbers of the very poor and the very rich are growing and their are fewer people in the middle.1

In this country the charities are finding it difficult to help the increasing number of people who need help, and in other countries people still die of hunger!

(What would help would be a greater sense of 'the world community' - a conviction that the problems of our brothers in Africa are our problems.)

But it isn't enough to have a full belly.


1See "Middle class shrinks in the great wealth divide" in The Age, May 27, 2000


2. Security Needs

If you have food in your belly you want to feel confident that this pleasing situation will reoccur in the future.

This is security. After you have got food - you'd like to be sure it will not be taken from you. After sustenance you want shelter - a secure place to rest for the night.

It must be terrible to live in a war zone when you don't know whether your house or yourself will survive the night.

It must be dreadful to be homeless - struggling for shelter and a place of your own. (Though the agencies do what they can.)

Does Economic Rationalism help here? No! Cheap housing is not economically viable - in a capitalist society you want to sell things for whatever you can get for them. This explains the housing boom - you make what profits you can.

There is a scarcity of affordable housing - and I cannot see much in the way of an incentive to develop it. This is a pity - we can't all afford to ride the property boom.

Paying high mortgages or rents is also precarious. What if you lose your job and your income?

Lose your job? We all know the stories of corporate downsizing, redundancies, and also how the race for profits can drive wages downwards (in some cases).

Then there is crime. What you have may be taken away from you - violently. (I won't delve into the causes of crime here - though some of them are social, some are economic, some are psychological.)

There seems to be less security now than there was in decades past - though I can think of at least a hundred times in history where things were even less secure!

3. Social Acceptance Needs

Human beings (usually) have a need to feel that they belong, that they are accepted by their community.

Does Economic Rationalism foster this social acceptance?

Imperfectly! Capitalism divides people into 'winners' and 'losers.' 'Winners' have good high-paying jobs and are getting richer and richer, 'losers' have insecure crappy jobs and struggle to cope with bills and the expenses of living - they may even be growing poorer.

Economic Rationalism is concerned with efficiency and profits - and honours those whose wealth is increasing; while the average person or the people who is sinking into poverty are of little or no interest except as work-units.

Society is divided into social classes which are based almost entirely on income. Cohesion within these social classes can be high (though there may be a lot of competitiveness and jostling for position) - but between social classes there is little cohesion.

Dividing people up this way is a recipe for social disintegration - a growing 'us' versus 'them' scenario. When I was living in Thatcher's Britain and reading the newspapers and listening to the radio news - I gained a very real and a very unsettling awareness of just how little the social classes understood each other. It was like they were living in different worlds.

In Australia the situation is not so extreme - but the social divisions definitely exist and they are so ridiculous!

I have at times defined a snob as someone who judges a person by the size of their bank-account.

Elitism and snobbery have probably always existed - but capitalism with its exultation of the wealthy has tried to legitimise it.

We are not going to get a truly just or a truly compassionate society if so many of us are obsessed with making money. And Economic Rationalism with its emphasis on economic ends and profitability fosters this obsession.

What divides us does not unite us.

4. Self-Esteem Needs

Do you feel valued? Do you value yourself?

A 'blind' capitalist will value you only so far as they can profit from you, if they cannot profit from you (you have too few assets) they won't value you.

There are several dimensions to self-esteem: (1) Do your friends and family think well of you and say kind things about you? (Yes. TAKE 5 POINTS), (2) Do you value yourself, and feel your life has value? (Yes. TAKE 5 POINTS), (3) Does society (in general) value people like you? (Yes. TAKE 5 POINTS).

We learn self-esteem from our family and friends, and nurture it in ourselves. If we feel justified in ourselves social disapproval can shake us but not crush us.

But how can self-esteem flourish in a divided society where so many people are unhappy and bitter? How can we feel good about ourselves in a society which holds up ideals of youth, beauty and wealth which are impossible for most of us to aspire to?

And how fragile is a self-esteem based on somebody else's expectations?

Capitalist society values wealth and competitiveness. Economic Rationalism follows this ethos. We may, pathologically, come to believe that our self-esteem depends on us living up to these ideals.

In a competitive society there are few winners and many losers.

It is toxic for self-esteem.

The only way to win is not to play the game.

5. Self-Actualisation Needs

With maturity hopefully comes wisdom, with growing wisdom comes the insight into who we really are, and with this insight may come the courage to become better than we are.

In "RM8" I linked self-actualisation needs with education - and mentioned how the denial of access to education (by making tuition fees too high for those on limited means for example) prevents people from developing their skills and expertise, and from moving on to more satisfying jobs.

I know now that there is a lot more to self-actualisation than this. It is an inner as well as an outer journey.

Education is one path for self-actualisation - but it is not the only path.

Economic Rationalism may attempt to restrict education to those with the means to pay and to corporatise the universities - but life itself is full of learning experiences.

No - the biggest danger a capitalist society has for self-actualisation is not a restriction on education, it is the fostering of a preoccupation with the trivial, a hollowing-out of the human spirit.

The big danger is that we may never develop wisdom or even maturity, but may remain too long as infants or adolescents craving gratification - and wondering why it leaves us unsatisfied.

Intelligence is not considered a virtue except in narrow marketable ways; wisdom is dangerous, asking too many questions, disturbing the bubble dream - it must be mocked and crushed.

Beginning to Break the Nut

The opposite of division is unity. The opposite of competition is cooperation.

In "Children of Chaos"2 Douglas Rushkoff describes a sort of 'social gestalt' - where we can be both individuals and a merged part of the emerging global digital culture.


2London : Flamingo, 1997. [ISBN 0-00-654879-2]


Happiness is something inside of a person, it cannot be achieved in any lasting way by crude material means. There needs to be a kind of spiritual connection between people.

The forces which divide us can also unite us. It needs a subtle shift of focus, but it is possible.

Human beings are considerably more like each other than they are different. Sometimes this can be forgotten.

The biggest barrier to a loving truly-humane society is not technology, or pollution, or poverty, or even economics or politics - it is people.

But people can be changed! Change enough people and there will be a ripple effect that changes the society all around us.

In the next "Democratic Humanism" essay 'Fostering Change From Within' I will consider this phenomena.

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Related Works

- Origins of these ideas -
Future Imperfect - Part 1 - Gathering the Threads (February 1998)
Future Imperfect - Part 2 - Weaving the Tapestry (April 1998)

- In This Series -
Democratic Humanism (1) - What Are Genuine Human Needs? (February 1999)
Democratic Humanism (2) (April 1999)
Democratic Humanism (3) - Know Your Dragon (June 1999)
Democratic Humanism (4) - Maslow Meets the Economic Rationalists (August 2000)
Democratic Humanism (5) - Fostering Change From Within (June 2001)
Democratic Humanism (6) - The Getting of Wisdom (December 2001)

 

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Copyright © 2000 by Michael F. Green. All rights reserved.

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Last Updated: 10 February 2008