A Matter of Life and Death

Basic needs are not optional; they should be a “social right.”

Posted Feb 01, 2012

Contrary to the assertions of many social theorists, our basic needs are not a vague, open-ended abstraction, nor a matter of personal preference.  They constitute a concrete but ultimately limited agenda, with measurable indicators for assessing outcomes - including demonstrable harm or even death when they are denied.  In the recent international bestseller, The Spirit Level, the respected researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett document in compelling detail the damage that extreme income inequalities do to a society.  Among the many indicators of basic needs deprivation in our society, for example, is the difference of 4.5 years in average life expectancy between the bottom and top 10 percent of our population in relation to income.  Likewise, the USDA reported that some 50 million Americans went hungry at various times during 2010, including 17 million children.  

At our research institute, we have documented no less than fourteen broad domains of basic needs - imperatives that are literally a matter of life and death. (Abraham Maslow's famous pyramid, alas, was not well grounded biologically.)   These fourteen basic needs domains include a number of obvious items, like adequate nutrition, fresh water, physical safety, physical and mental health, and waste elimination, as well as some items that we may take for granted like thermoregulation (which can entail various technologies, from clothing to heating oil and air conditioning), along with adequate sleep (about one-third of our lives), mobility, and even healthy respiration, which cannot always be assured.  Perhaps least obvious but most important are the requisites for the reproduction and nurturance of the next generation.  In other words, our basic needs cut a very broad swath through our economy and our society.

The idea that there is a "social right" to the necessities of life is not new.  It is implicit in the Golden Rule, the great moral precept that is recognized by every major religion and culture.  There is also a substantial scholarly literature on the need to establish constitutional and legal protections for social/economic rights that are comparable to political rights.  Three important formal covenants have also endorsed social rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations (1948), the European Social Charter (1961) and the United Nations' International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), although these documents have been widely treated as aspirational rather than legally enforceable.  Nor is this an alien idea even in our own country.  For instance, it was embodied in President Franklin Roosevelt's historic "Economic Bill of Rights" speech in 1944, and in the post-war proposals for a guaranteed personal income.

Equally significant is the evidence of broad public support for the underlying principle of social rights.  Numerous public opinion surveys over the years have consistently shown that people are far more willing to provide aid for the genuinely needy than neo-classical (rational self-interest) economic theory would lead one to believe.  (Some of these surveys are cited in my book, The Fair Society.) 

Even more compelling evidence of public support for social rights, I believe, can be found in the results of an extensive series of social experiments regarding distributive justice by political scientists Norman Frohlich and Joe Oppenheimer and their colleagues, as detailed in their 1992 book Choosing Justice.  What Frohlich and Oppenheimer set out to test was whether or not ad hoc groups of "impartial" decision-makers behind a Rawlsian "veil of ignorance" about their own personal stakes would be able to reach a consensus on how to distribute the income of a hypothetical society.  Frohlich and Oppenheimer found that the experimental groups consistently opted for striking a balance between maximizing income and ensuring that there is an economic minimum for everyone (what they called a "floor constraint"). The overall results were stunning: 77.8 percent of the groups chose to assure a minimum income for basic needs. 

However, the idea of a "basic needs guarantee" for all of our citizens must not be construed as a call for a one-way redistribution of wealth or the creation of a class of economic "free-riders."  As I make abundantly clear in the book, the scale must be balanced by a requirement for "reciprocity" - contributing a fair share in return for the benefits you receive from society. This precept, along with assuring that our society also provides adequate rewards for "merit" - our talents, hard work, and accomplishments - constitute the three core principles of a "fair society."