Thursday, May 17, 2012

One mistake Maslow makes

In the last post we came across Maslow's definiton of the good society:

The good or healthy society would then be defined as one that permitted people's highest purposes to emerge by satisfying all their basic needs. p31

This in many ways encapsulates the liberal position, and is a fine example of high-minded mid-century thinking.

But it is essentially a negative conception, about negative liberty. Maslow in essence says society has to take care of basic needs and then get out of the way, because people's purposes are too idiosyncratic.

And this is the problem. There is no sense that society might help people's purposes to emerge, or encourage or promote or structure them. It is about removing obstacles - and then you are on your own.

And so we get what we so often see these days. People end up with no purpose, and end up with anomie, drift, addiction or waste. Or they become primarily motivated by intermediate aims, like money income. Or they get stuck at lower levels of the hierarchy of needs, working harder for bigger McMansions which makes them feel respected by the neighbors.

Some of the institutions that have given people a sense of purpose or meaning to their lives, like religion or the traditional family, are in fact eroded by modern secularism.

And when people DO have unique talents, it is often hard to realize them. Our economy needs a lot more accounting technicians (at least for now) than novelists or musicians or athletes. In fact, we've set things up so that only a few individuals can thrive in winner-take-all spheres like acting, where the number of people with mediocre highest talents vastly outnumbers the top tenth of a percent who have world-class talent. The ability to sell your highest talents may count for too much. Many of our highest talents just are not very marketable, or too risky, or too idiosyncratic, to be saleable.

We have relegated purpose to an afterthought in our economic system.

And politics turns into gridlock based on competing ideas about fairness and incentives, because we don't think in any deeper way about what the incentives for flourishing are or ought to be.

If people realize their highest abilities, not only is that more likely to make them happy, but it is likely to make for a more productive, happier, peaceful society too.

The market is a wonderful thing on the whole on lower rungs of the hierarchy. But you can't so easily sell love, friendship, self respect, or fully realizing your talents. Those are not on the shelves at Wal-mart. The market, as I've said so often, is a tool which is extraordinarily good at incentvizing fulfilling some of our needs - but not all. And increasingly not the needs we care most about.

But "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs", the socialist ideal, has spectactulalry failed as well and has little or no legitimacy any more.

So here is my definition of the good society; one that encourages people's highest abilities and purposes to emerge, by structures and institutions that facilitiate human flourishing


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