Basic Needs

“When I popped from the womb I needed milk and warmth and human touch. These three illustrate basic survival needs: food, shelter, and belonging. Anything more I have learned to want and, conceivably, could get along without. Every human being is like every other in having these same fundamental needs; not meeting them means not surviving.

Gerhard Hirschfeld has written: “In terms of food, a bowl of soup, a dish of rice, meat and potatoes, a glass of beer; in terms of home, a bed or cot to sleep on; in terms of clothing, for summer and winter; in terms of a mate, to love, children to rear – in these and related terms one can speak of a ‘law of nature’ of which no human being is exempt.” He continues, however: “While all persons are subject to these needs, not all persons respond to them in like fashion.” And they differ in the proportion of their lives they devote to satisfying these.

In 1976 the International Labor Organization listed human needs in two categories: family and community. Family provides food and drink, shelter, clothing, household goods, and furniture. The community provides safe drinking water, sanitation, public transport, health care, educational and cultural facilities. While this list may stretch beyond basic survival needs, it does cover rather well what people expect.

In addition to material needs we all have certain non-material needs. Infants who receive milk and warmth without human touch suffer a life-threatening condition called “failure to thrive.” It seems that in addition to food and shelter, we all need love. Regardless of age or climate, in any economy or social order, and under any government, we require an identity, a feeling of belonging.

Nonmaterial needs, per Hershfeld, include satisfaction of human curiosity, enough space and autonomy to provide self-esteem, protection for vital social relationships, a way to participate in making decisions that significantly affect our lives, affection, and solidarity in a group. While a person may survive physically absent some of these, that person will not thrive; thus, one may argue, that person would be less than a full human being.

Basic human needs set up a fundamental political tension: maintaining our individualism while being dependent on a community. Positive politics may sometimes emphasize freedom and individualism; at other times, we may emphasize community support. Those who almost always opt for individualism, we call contentionist. For the contentionist, "socialism" is a dirty word, although who among us could survive outside our community. Those who consistently opt for community, we call harmonist, although we all fight to get our own way. Life requires action in keeping with both perspectives.

Here is an illustration of positive political thinking regarding needs. On the American frontier, individualism was strong, only the strong would survive. Men and women alike could ride and shoot and drink and swear. But they gathered together to build a barn or a church or a school. Whether taming the wildnerness or navigating a crowded subway, our critical challenge is to be sure there is enough food and warmth to go around.