Sunday, September 16, 2018

Nationalism 006: Basic Needs

Continuing with the book: Brock, Gillian (2009). Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account. Oxford University Press.

As mentioned in the previous posting in this series, Brock defends a view of distributive justice that says that, after satisfying some minimum level of economic welfare ($ per year), everything above that amount can be distributed so as to create the highest average.

There is still a distribution problem with this. Let us set this minimum amount at $10,000. Let the distribution be: 8 billion people with $10,001, and 1 person with $100 trillion. Let this be the highest average. It seems unlikely that people would select this when compared to a more equitable distribution above the minimum. However, let us set this question aside a moment.

Brock mentions Davit Braybook's list of "basic needs."

The list consists of needs for a life-supporting relation to the environment; for whatever is indispensable to preserving the body intact in important respects (including food, water, exercise, and periodic rest); for companionship; for education; for social acceptance and recognition; for sexual activity; for recreation; and for freedom from harassment, including not being continually frightened.

Either some work needs to be done in establishing what counts as a basic level of these goods, or Braybook is providing us with a list where no living human being (or very few of them) has every need on this list satisfied.

She also mentions a list generated by Len Doyal and Ian Gough.

These are: nutritional food and clean water, protective housing, a non-hazardous work environment, a non-hazardous physical environment, appropriate health care, security in childhood, significant primary relationships, physical security, economic security, appropriate education, safe birth control, and safe childbearing.

Working from these, Brock comes up with the following list:

So, putting this all together, human agency requires: (i) a certain amount of physical and psychological health; (2) sufficient security to be able to act; (3) a sufficient level of understanding of the options one is choosing between; (4) a certain amount of autonomy; and (S) decent social relations with at least some others.

She handles this in part by saying that one of these goods counts as a need to the degree that it is necessary for functioning at any level.

The needs that matter morally are those that are necessary, indispensable, or inescapable, at least with respect to human functioning in social groups.

Now we have a standard that seems too low. For each of these goods it is possible to make the case that, to the degree that an agent has it, to that degree the agent is able to have a better life. Yet, one can "get by" with almost nothing in any of these categories. A group of people hiding in a cave or stranded (imprisoned) on a tropical island can have something of a functioning life. Or, imagine the limited crew of a space expedition.

Indeed, in all of the dictatorships - the tyrannies and dictatorships of the ancient world, the dark ages, and on to the present, people in some extremely challenging circumstances were able to have a minimally satisfying life. At one level, we can say that the needs of slaves and serfs were met. And on the other side, as I said above, the wealthiest person may suffer from depression, a crippling shyness, health problems, addiction, or live under the constant threat of violence. Emperors and other monarchs seldom died of old age.

I think that a reader can reasonably ask at this point, "What's your problem? What are you really objecting to?"

I agree that, to the degree that somebody has one of these goods, to that degree a person can be made better off. I also agree that some people have more of each of these goods than others, and that the help should be given to those who are the least well off. Economically, we can set a floor and say that, for example, everybody can get a certain basic level of income. (I still say that there are insurmountable political difficulties - but that is a separate argument.) But for many of these goods - particularly those that are not so easily quantifiable - the problem is with coming up with a bureaucracy that can make sure that some minimum can be met. More importantly, if we were to create a different bureaucracy and assign to each one particular good, we would soon find them warring against each other for attention.

Consider the effort that is going to have to go into identifying those who are truly needy and those who are gaming the system. For example, we must distinguish from the shy and unassuming person who is reluctant to ask for help from the "squeaky wheel" who insists that every disappointment generates an obligation for others to fix her problems.

To be fair, I have no read the whole book. There may be answers to these types of problems elsewhere. But that does not change or deny the fact that these are problems.

We have different NGOs working on each of these goods. Different NGOs working on the same good often adopt different standards - simply because there is no quantifiable way of precisely defining each good and when it has been met. Many of these NGOs could be better funded. However, a centralized bureaucracy built for ensuring the correct distribution of these goods (as opposed to the simple good of basic income) seems problematic.

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