Analysis Of Different Views On The Concept Of Basic Needs And Unnecessary Desires

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Every human has basic needs: air, food, water, shelter, clothing, sex, sleep. But at what point do those basic needs instead become superfluous and unnecessary desires? How can those be distinguished? In capitalist societies where consumption is central, these questions are becoming increasingly difficult to answer. Economists like John Maynard Keynes, historians, such as Peter Stearns, and English professors, including James Twitchell, all have attempted to answer this question over a period of nearly 100 years.

John Maynard Keynes, a great economist of the twentieth century, wrote Economic Possibility for our Grandchildren in 1930. In the essay, he details predictions about the living standards and working habits one hundred years in the future, an account of what constitutes economic growth, and speculations about future lifestyles – including differentiating between two types of needs. His prediction for the future, in 2030, was that his grandchildren would be living in a state of abundance where people would be able to devote themselves to leisure as they would not have to be bound by economic restraints any longer due to shorter work weeks and efficient technological development, in addition to economic satiation being achieved. While citizens of the United States and in Europe are wealthier now than he had predicted, that satiation has not been met. Since the 1930s, there not only has been a surge of new products introduced on the market, but there has been a shift in ideology surrounding consumption. With marketing techniques and advertising agencies, amongst other causes, desires began morphing into needs, something that Peter Stearns discusses in depth. These needs, Keynes describes, can be subcategorized in two ways: absolute and relative.

Absolute needs, as he defines, are what we feel, “are absolute in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow human beings may be” and relative are, “those which are relative in the sense that we feel them only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to, our fellows”. He goes on to say that absolute needs may soon be reached, as he does not believe they are insatiable, and when that happens, energy can instead be devoted to activities other than economics. The second category, the relative needs that, “satisfy the desire for superiority,” he describes as potentially being insatiable (Ibid). He continues on and only discusses the absolute needs, most likely assuming that relative needs were not important enough – both due to the fact that competing with one’s neighbor was not hugely prevalent yet and that wants and needs were largely the same during that time period, as Pecci and Piga describe.

However, as luxuries such as air conditioners, televisions, and now computers have introduced new tastes, new necessities have emerged, as has a “keeping up with the Joneses” ideology. His response to the prevailing consumption practices was positive, utilizing a mostly optimistic tone. He seemed to believe that the depression was simply a minor decline in the gradual betterment of living standards, wealth, and personal well-being. He writes, “We’re suffering, not from the rheumatics of old age, but from the growing-pains of over-rapid changes, from the painfulness of readjustment between one economic period and another”. These economic periods were going from a permissive and rather liberal economy – very laissez-faire – and toward capitalism. He believed that with the help of the government, the market will end up creating the solution and the absolute needs would be met. His neglect of relative needs is critical, though, because the confidence he places in the economic system is based on what he foresaw happening, not what actually happened. If absolute needs were to be met, society would most likely be closer to his ideal but with the introduction of advertisements, marketing, and increased goods, the two types of needs became far harder to distinguish.

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Peter Stearns, a historian, discusses the history of consumerism and the emergence of needs and desires that Keynes did not predict in his 2001 book Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire. He traces the history of consumerism, which he defines as, “a society in which many people formulate their goals in life partly through acquiring goods that they clearly do not need for subsistence or for traditional display,” to before the Industrial Revolution, which is when many believe it began (Stearns, vii). He does not explicitly define what a “need” is but he does write, in regards to wants becoming needs, that “With eye-catching window displays, newspaper advertisements, loss leaders, and other gimmicks, no wonder people began to think they had new needs”. He provides a substantial amount of flexibility to what a need is, mostly due to the fact that he is recounting the history and is not making a drastic argument about contemporary consumerism. Unlike Keynes’ positive and optimistic response to the consumption practices of the time, Stearns is neutral. As a historian, he is recounting the events that have led to contemporary consumption patterns and why they occurred in a historical perspective. He does not view consumerism as inherently good or bad nor does he provide any particular solutions to the way it works in society because he is not arguing that it is right or wrong, but simply there.

James Twitchell, an author and former English professor, claims that people show and express themselves through desire in his 1999 book Lead Us Into Temptation. He talks in depth about needs, even beginning the book by describing a scene in the movie The Jerk. Navin R. Johnson, the protagonist played by Steve Martin, goes rummaging through his home after losing a lawsuit saying he doesn’t care about nor need stuff except and grabs items until he has a mound, claiming he needs nothing more. He chooses Twitchell writes that “Navin is Everyman for our times”. Not only does Navin want these items, but he says he actually needs them. Regarding needs, Twichell says, “I think there are no false needs. Once we are fed, clothed, and sexually functioning, needs are cultural”. The basic human needs, to him, are food, clothing, and sex. These needs do get expanded from marketing techniques as people inherently enjoy, and are attracted to, getting and spending. Stearns does say that needs arose from marketing, shopkeepers, advertisements, etc., as well. He writes that “The consumption ethic may have started in the early 1900s and hit full tilt after the mid-century, but the desire is ancient,” predating what is often thought to be the beginning of consumption, the Industrial Revolution, which is similar to Stearns, who said the same thing. However, Stearns is recounting a historical background while Twitchell, doing somewhat of the same thing, also discusses the meaning of objects. Twitchell claims that “we are not too materialistic; if anything we are not materialistic enough. Meaning is added to objects by advertising, branding, packaging, and fashion because that meaning – derisively called status – is what we are after, what we need, especially when we are young”. He uses King Lear as an example and says, “True, Lear doesn’t need these soldiers any more than Scrooge needed silver, or Midas needed gold, or I need a sports car, but it doesn’t stop the desiring. If the speed limit is sixty-five M.P.H., a Ford goes as fast as a Ferrari. Lear knows that possessions are definitions–superficial meanings perhaps, but meanings nonetheless. Without soldiers he is no king”.

Twitchell’s understanding of needs – or wants that turn into needs if they are more than food, sex, and shelter – shapes his argument as he is aware that this level of consumption and ascribing meaning to desires is a cultural phenomenon. He wants consumers to understand that, and to stop accepting the mythology that we are all victims of the manipulation of capitalism. His tone and opinions are more spirited and defensive of the capitalist system than that of Keynes or Stearns. Keynes, though, also did believe in the capitalism at the time as an institution and thought that the depression proved a momentary decline. Stearns, being neutral in tone, is neither defensive nor optomistic but merely describing why the system is how it is. Twitchell is essentially saying that consumption is the primary meaning-making tool in the twenthieth and twenty-first centuries and that advertising and marketing have made it so that meanings are pre-ascribed to goods and people blindly buy them, accepting those meanings. His solution is for consumers to understand and acknowledge these consumption practices and give objects their own meaning: “In fact, the happy consumer seems to be the one who makes objects come alive, while the unhappy one lets the producer generate meaning”. He says that we continue to consume because we utilize these products for self-value and meaning – one already established once the product is on the market – but we are not materialistic enough because if we were, we would understand what these “goods” really were and could create our own meanings.

Describing what needs the conception of needs – and consumption as a whole – are discussed by Keynes, Stearns, and Twitchell, although each takes a different standpoint and tone about the societal and economic ramifications. The notion of needs and their evolution are grounded in the cultural and historical contexts that each author is writing in – Keynes, an economist in the 1930s, takes a moral and optimistic view as he is casting predictions about the future, only seeing one kind of need being plausible in his vision. Stearns, a historian, is writing far later, in 2001 but is also looking to history and is value-neutral. Twitchell, a professor of English, wrote his book in 1999 and is very much in support of capitalism, as long as people both get out of the mindset of being manipulated by advertisements and are able to place their own meanings on goods. It’s nearly impossible to say.

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