President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his January 1944 “State-of-the-Union” speech, called for an “Economic Bill of Rights” which included a list of specific goals. As Roosevelt explained it:
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. In our day these economic truths have become self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis for security and prosperity can be established for all — regardless of station, race, or creed.
Roosevelt’s objective was to secure lasting freedom from the deep, pervasive poverty and economic insecurity that had enveloped the world during the global depression of the 1930s. In effect, Roosevelt was spelling out in more specific detail two of the “Four Freedoms” that he had called for in an earlier (1941) speech, namely, freedom from “want” and freedom from “fear”. Roosevelt identified eight categories of economic rights, ranging from guaranteed employment at a decent wage to good housing, adequate medical care, and protection from the “fears” of old age, sickness, accidents and unemployment. Needless to say, in the seventy years since Roosevelt made this historic speech, none of these rights has been universally attained in this country. Indeed, there has been much back-sliding since the 1970s.
In my 2011 book, The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice (University of Chicago Press), I called for a universal “basic needs guarantee” that represents, in effect, a modernized, biologically-grounded and more comprehensive response to FDR’s objective. What I call the “Fair Society Model” identifies no less than fourteen categories, or “domains” of basic needs that are viewed as absolute requisites for a healthy, productive life, as well as for reproducing and nurturing the next generation. This framework was backed by several years of empirical research at the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems, along with the social indicators work of other international, U.S. government, and private agencies. These needs are:
- Adequate nutrition
- Fresh water
- Physical safety
- Physical health
- Mental health
- Waste elimination
- Thermoregulation (body temperature)
- Healthy respiration
- Adequate sleep
- Reciprocal Communications (information exchange)
- Positive social relationships
- Nurturance of offspring
Several brief comments are in order about this framework. First, the term “basic need” is used in a strictly biological-adaptive sense as: a requisite for the continued functioning of an organism in a given environmental context; that is, a denial of this need would significantly reduce the organism’s ability to carry on productive activities and/or reduce the probability of its continued survival and successful reproduction. So defined, basic needs are not unique to humans; the term applies to all living things. Moreover, the term “need” connotes a requisite where significant harm will occur if it is lacking or absent. To repeat, the nature of this harm is defined in strictly biological rather than moral terms — i.e., in terms of “normal functioning” and the “productivity” required for a person to be able to effectively pursue their ongoing daily lives and activities.
A second point is that the concept of basic needs is not interpreted here in a narrow, physiological sense. Like other paradigms in this field, it also recognizes that the survival enterprise in humankind by its very nature is a social activity that entails cognitive/ psychological needs and a need for social relationships and interactions of various kinds; many of our needs are satisfied through socially-organized activities and socially-defined tasks. Equally important, this paradigm recognizes that basic needs have a life-cycle — a trajectory which includes growth and development, reproduction, child nurturance and aging. Accordingly, satisfying these needs for any given society necessarily cuts a very broad swath through its economy and social institutions.
A third point is that this paradigm involves a highly nuanced concept of basic needs. In particular, a distinction is drawn between (1) primary needs, (2) instrumental needs, (3) perceived needs, (4) dependencies, and (5) wants (or tastes and preferences). Basic needs refer only to the first two of these categories (primary and instrumental needs). Primary needs are irreducible and non-substitutable (though some categories involve an array of components — nutrition being an obvious example). Thus, one cannot substitute food for water, or mobility for sleep. All are necessary. Instrumental needs, on the other hand, are the derived adaptive means. For instance, we have a physiological need for a defined quantity of uncontaminated fresh water (a “primary need”), as well as an “instrumental need” both for a source of fresh water and for appropriate technologies to obtain the water and satisfy this primary need. Thus, instrumental needs may vary widely, depending on the particular context.
It is also important to distinguish between our basic needs and our so-called drives, or internal sources of motivation. Needs are functional requirements; drives are psychological mechanisms that we may perceive as needs. The distinction between the two concepts (need versus drive) is clearly evident, in different ways, both in the practice of birth control and in artificial insemination, where sex and reproduction are decoupled. By the same token, a person may eat either more or less than is nutritionally-necessary in response to the promptings of hunger. The litmus test for a primary need, according to this formulation, has nothing to do with whether or not the need is reflected in our psychological motivations or “preferences” (although most are). Nor does it matter that our primary needs vary — as they do in systematic ways that are increasingly well understood. More important is the fact that, to reiterate, they are directly linked to the potential for suffering “harm” in the strict biological/survival sense. The fourteen basic needs domains listed above represent an irreducible and indispensable requirement for biological adaptation/fitness in the human species.
A special word is also in order here regarding the role of income as an instrument for basic needs-satisfaction. Income is often used as a surrogate social indicator, but there are many problems associated with this approach, and various theorists over the years have argued against the use of an income-based measure of well-being. On the other hand, income is also a necessary prerequisite (a means) for meeting basic needs in a great many human societies, as numerous social theorists have recognized. Income is therefore highly relevant as an instrumental need, even though it is inadequate as a summary measure of primary needs-satisfaction, much less of well-being or happiness.
Some of these fourteen primary needs domains may seem to be self-evident. Many of them can be found on other lists of basic needs. (We are not, after all, venturing into uncharted territory.) Other needs may appear to be puzzling or vague (or controversial) and may call for some elaboration. In actuality, there are complications with every one of these needs, some of which are viewed very differently from more conventional treatments. It should also be stressed that these fourteen needs categories are not ad hoc or arbitrary, but neither do they have the status of Mosaic law. The framework remains open to challenge and revision at any time if more, or fewer, or different, needs categories can be justified. (Further elaboration about this paradigm can be found in The Fair Society.)
An Agenda for Reform
Some countries in today’s world have more or less fully realized Roosevelt’s vision and the “basic needs guarantee” associated with the Fair Society Model, with cradle-to-the-grave economic and social security for all of its citizens. The premier example, perhaps, is Norway, which consistently ranks number one, or nearly so, in the United Nations’ Human Development Index. However, the United States, once the leader in providing economic security to its people, now ranks well down the list of advanced industrial countries.
However, this is not our inevitable fate. The U.S. could once again become a leader in providing for the “general welfare” of its citizens. We have more than enough wealth to do so. To this end, below is a “shopping list” of reform measures that could move the country in this direction, including many policies and programs that already exist but which are not universally available, or that do not currently provide adequate benefits. These measures include the following:
- A government backed full-employment program at a livable wage (a mandate that was removed from the FDR-inspired Employment Act of 1946).
- A minimum wage that is gradually increased to correspond to a living wage (augmented if necessary by subsidies such as a rebate of payroll taxes that would be passed through to employees).
- Universal health insurance – including mental health services — with adequate coverage at an affordable price (and at an affordable cost to the nation).
- Universal paid sick leave.
- Augmentation of the current coverage and benefit levels in existing social insurance programs.
- Enhanced job training and work skills training.
- Upgraded secondary school education.
- A return to more affordable higher education (while lifting the debilitating burden of student indebtedness).
- Affordable, secure housing with adequate public utilities to ensure the availability of fresh water, sewage and waste disposal, electrical power, internet access, heating and cooling as needed.
- Readily accessible public transportation services.
- Universal prenatal care, reproductive services, well baby care, family leaves for childbirth, and family allowances to subsidize the extra costs for newborns.
- Universal child care services provided by professionals.
- Universal pre-school education.
- Universal end-of-life nursing and hospice care and burial services.
If many Americans would call this a utopian pipe-dream, it is because we lack the political vision and the power of an organized mass-movement to overcome the entrenched corporate power that dominates American politics today. What some other capitalist countries have achieved – call it “stakeholder capitalism” – is only utopian in the U.S. because we have not mobilized the collective will to make it happen. Achieving an Economic Bill of Rights with a basic needs guarantee is the great progressive challenge for the 21st century.