Friday, February 25, 2011

Hierarchy of Needs

After reading a review of Samuel Moyns' The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History by John Gray, I'm inspired to re-frame a previous attack on American Exceptionalism in a new light. American Exceptionalism, particularly when used by liberal and neo-liberals to justify 'democratization' and 'state-building' foreign policies, misunderstands what is the greatest good for a people. While concepts like freedom, human rights, and the right to self-determination are noble ideas in theory, they are not timeless. Nor yet are they particularly useful if established in the wrong circumstances. In the link above, Gray does a fine job deconstructing the myth of universal human rights. In this post, I will try to do the same for the concept of freedom and illustrate, through an application of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, how promoting freedom at the cost of a number of other needs is ultimately detrimental to a society.
Click to enlarge.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a psychological understanding of not just what humans need to be happy but also how the various factors relate to each other. At the bottom of the pyramid are the fundamental needs relating to survival of both the individual and the species. They are the needs we share with most all living creatures to varying degrees of similarity. Basic inputs like food, water, and shelter enable the higher levels of the pyramid to be fulfilled. The next tier of the pyramid consists of the basic human needs for security on which an operating society rests. Above this, the pyramid begins to outline the factors that can be said to directly impact our perception of happiness: love of another, love of ourselves, and what he terms 'self-actualization.'

There is much debate over this understanding of human happiness. The pyramid shape suggests an inter-dependence in which something like love cannot exist without the security of property. The Romeo and Juliet / Lady and the Tramp archetypes seem invalid in this understanding. (Indeed, Hollywood has cut its teeth on characters who manage to achieve the higher parts of the pyramid despite hardships that threaten the foundation.) While, on an individual level, such triumphs of the human spirit may be both valid and relevant, foreign policy is always about the group. A society in which the foundation of the pyramid is shaky will, in aggregate, reap fewer rewards from the top of the pyramid.

Freedom is an integral part of our understanding of human rights but is unique in how carelessly it is bandied about. Freedom is a paradox of a term, always coming into conflict with itself through various usages; Gray's comparison between privacy and speech being illustrative. Pure freedom has anarchy as its inescapable partner since pure freedom can exist only in a world without law or restraint. But anarchy is Hobbes' state of nature, against which government is created to ensure order.

Understood in context of the Maslow hierarchy, pure freedom erodes the most basic requirements for a human society. With no law, the inescapable zero-sum game of anarchy disrupts any attempt at security as each individual attempts to satiate their most basic needs. It would be akin to the post-apocalyptic futures imagined by Cormac McCarthy's The Road, for example. While the human spirit may continue to strive for fulfillment of its higher needs in such an environment, in aggregate we can agree that this is the worst possible situation for those unfortunate enough to be caught in it.

The Basics
So what do we really need as a species in order to start pursuing loftier goals? Intangibles such as law and order are given conclusions from the previous section. But what do these ideas translate into on the ground? Police, military, or an otherwise armed and empowered force to effectively provide freedom from anarchy by limiting personal freedom. Ironically, the first step in improving our society is to limit freedom. Remove the freedom to take by force. Remove the freedoms granted by raw power in order to protect the weak from the strong. The fable which (somewhat pessimistically) portrays government as a settled crime lord is helpful in understanding the hypocrisy of the word freedom.
There once was a small village settled into a mountainside that looked down over a path. Every year a group of bandits would travel up the path and maraud through the village, taking what they pleased. It happened with such regularity that the villagers began preparing for the yearly attack, not through strengthening their defenses but through preparing additional goods such that the attack would be bloodless and swift. Over time, the violence decreased until the annual affair was more akin to tithes or taxes than to plunder. Then one year, a new gang of bandits from the other side of the mountain came to the village to plunder. When the old gang moseyed into town for their annual collection, their were angered to find there was little to be offered them. They decided to rest for a while in the village to fight off the new bandits should they attempt to pillage again. Sure enough, the next month the new gang swept into the village, looking for riches. The bandits fought them off successfully and were greeting with praise from the villagers. The bandits decided to give up their camp far off in the plains and settle permanently among the villagers. Every year they would be given a share of the harvest and in return, they protected the village from outside bandits.
In this fable, a military dictatorship is clearly understood to be preferable to the absence of any government whatsoever. Indeed, this situation can be better understood through an economic analysis. The villagers receive higher utility by paying a portion of their goods to a peaceful gang than by losing the same goods through violence. The relationship can be understood as a customer paying for service. The important thing to note is that the sacrifice of freedom is better for the group as a whole. The gang sacrifices their freedom to commit violence on the villagers and the villagers sacrifice their freedom to use their goods as they wish. Understood as such, freedom is not an integral part of human rights but rather a major stumbling block to them.

If not freedom, what is the foundation upon which an improved human existence rests? Looking again at our Maslow pyramid, the answer, somewhat unromantically, is infrastructure. Running water, electricity, shelter, streets...beautiful, functional infrastructure. Despite high-brow theories to the contrary, the decline of civilizations is not preceded by moral corruption but by physical decay. How long before New York City's subway system sparks a riot or Venice's rising waters and crumbling buildings lead to total economic stagnation?

Of course, the wars that bring about regime-change (and its corresponding promise of 'freedom') more often than not bring about the destruction of infrastructure. Iraq's already precarious hydro-political situation has been almost utterly destroyed by a pair of Bushes with freedom on their lips, seeking to overthrow a dictator. (Though we shouldn't let Clinton off the hook. The inter-war years saw crippling sanctions and a bombing regimen that did its part to bring the country to the brink of chaos.) It would be hard for any sane person to argue that present-day Iraq is better off than it was under Saddam from a purely statistical perspective. Mortality rates have skyrocketed, basic measures of well-being have plummeted, and the country has veered close to total collapse.

Simple logic backs up the data, making the relationship appear overwhelmingly causal. The removal of an established and recognized system of law opens the door for predation. The destruction of infrastructure providing humanity's most precious resource re-shifts priorities. And the spike in violence undermines whatever higher levels of the pyramid (presumably the tier for family, friendship, and sexual intimacy) Iraq had managed to achieve under Saddam's rule. The Iraqi pyramid has been knocked back to its base thanks to a fool's errand to promote freedom.

And yet, at least in America, you would be considered crazy at best to make the claim that Iraq was better off under Saddam. How many articles like this, written in a 6th grader's concession-assertion style, conclude that Iraq is on the path to a better future? How quick are we to set a firm jaw when faced with the costs we never bear and say it was a necessary evil? Maslow's pyramid quite clearly outlines a reality in which lofty ideologies are a luxury afforded by wealth and stability. Both theory and data bear this out and yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, there are those (in abundance unfortunately) that stick their head in the sand and continue to promote America's imperial application of freedom.

In the (long) months it has taken me to finish this piece off, revolution has swept the Middle East, bringing with it ample case studies on which to test this hypothesis. It must be clarified that organic revolution is a horse of a different color than the act of war perpetrated on Iraq. Organic revolution has two potential benefits that might stave off the total erosion of Maslow's pyramid described above in Iraq. The first potential benefit is that the collateral damage to infrastructure would likely be lower than that wrought by a full-scale military war. Maintained infrastructure can perpetuate a sense of order that will help fill the void left by an interim deposition. The second potential benefit is that the new ruler or ruling party is likely to enjoy more genuine support than a puppet government. This support can further maintain the basic order necessary to prop up Maslow's pyramid.

Through its singular focus on Maslow's pyramid, this post may sound anti-revolution or, even worse, tyranny-apologetic. The focus on Maslow's pyramid is meant to underscore the hypocrisy of 'saving' the downtrodden, not to suggest that anything that disrupts the base of the pyramid should be considered bad. Every state has undergone revolution or upheaval at some point in their history. We understand these revolutions to be a necessary part of national development and correspondingly laud the heroes and decry the villains. We lament the lives lost but cherish the stronger state that emerged. But these periods of hardship were organically sprung which is the point of contention with American Exceptionalism.

American Exceptionalism fetishsizes the hammer of revolution and the anvil of freedom in whose crucible the United States was forged. But unlike other countries who are able to honor the hardships that led to their development from a purely historical standpoint, America sees its experience as prescriptive. This myopic understanding of the greater good has validated a litany of ultimately destructive incursions of which Iraq is but the latest. Despite the global homogenization afforded by rapid technological advances, culture and history still differentiate the members of the world to a degree that can't allow a cookie-cutter application of one particular nation's experience. US policy-makers would be better served by applying Maslow's anthropological understanding of basic human needs to the world around them if they are truly interested in an altruistic international presence.

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