When we make ourselves desperate


As economists, it’s easy to for us to argue that our models account more than those of any other social science for the fundamental importance of need satisfaction in creating healthy societies. The pursuit of his own need satisfaction is at the heart of our model of the individual economic agent; when the economy is functioning well, supported by all these greedy little agents, it creates the most “pie” possible from which all can partake.

Yet we are not quite so good at predicting what happens when some members of the population do not get their basic needs met. Minimum amounts of food, water, shelter, warmth, sex, social acceptance and self-esteem are things that we and most of those we see around us in our privileged societies are lucky enough to be able to take for granted.  Even a lack of some of these things that cripples some of our citizens does not, in aggregate, sum up to enough pain to cripple our whole societies.  But the reality on the ground for large segments of the population in less-developed regions of the world is that their basic needs are not met, even for years at a time.  What does this do to a society’s ability to develop a stable, functioning economy?

My colleague Paul Frijters, just back from an anthropological jaunt in central Asia, suggests that withholding sexual access from young men through repressive social conventions is an effective way to produce enough desperation to derail “normal” economic pursuits.  One might immediately envision a short-term policy response of setting up full-service, low-cost brothels in areas where polygamy is widespread. The many problems with this include security, political feasibility, and the incompleteness of the solution:  those with many wives, who control local administration, will not like to see their exclusive rights duplicated for others; nor will the clients of such brothels find a path to what they are ultimately looking for.

How else might we work against the social production of such crippling desperation?

7 Responses to "When we make ourselves desperate"
  1. I haven’t read that post. But let me get this straight he went on an anthropological jaunt in central Asia to investigate the withholding of sexual access from young men?

  2. Not to my understanding, but you’ll have to ask him (and read the post). In broad terms however, one travels to learn, does one not? And one never knows what might be discovered or reinforced about human societies during one’s travels.

  3. I read the post. So he went on an anthropological jaunt to a wiki page to understand Saudi Arabia or something. I think a few hours on twitter may have helped a bit.

    • I’m surprised to read this comment from you, Rabee, as it comes across as though you are trying to put down the person rather than to engage with the argument. Do you have anything substantive to contribute about the connection between individual desperation and aggregate economic progress, or about what people in developed countries can do to lessen the desperation felt by people in socially repressive developing countries? Do you simply think it’s all been said before? I have personally never heard of an anti-terrorism strategy that includes a component directly targeting the reduction of sexual frustrations of jihadists, but maybe that’s because i don’t operate in your circles. I don’t know what you’re referring to by the twitter reference, and others also may not, but perhaps you could enlighten us.

  4. I’ll eschew from your comment. While I’m very interested in scholarly (scientific) work on the Middle East; and there is plenty that is both coherent and canonical, I’m hardly interested in Paul’s post.

    For the sake of the reader I’ll note that in Saudi Arabia the number of voluntarily unmarried women is very high, fertility rates are dropping, and education levels are skyrocketing. I advise anyone interested in the issue to read some of the excellent scholarly books and article. Some in Hebrew and Arabic but others that are equally excellent are in English.

    • Are the facts you cite intended to support the claim that there is plenty of sexual access for young men in Saudi Arabia? Or are you agreeing that finding wives is indeed a problem for them (since these “independent” women of whom you speak would presumably be harder to get than more traditional, submissive ones)? Perhaps you think that another type of desperation on the part of young men in polygamous societies is behind the extremism we see them reaching towards – desperation for self-worth for example, or for a valued role to play in their societies?

  5. Gigi, thank you for this post.

    A relevant case study in Australia is public subsidies for professional sexual services for people with disabilities. Public provisions for were first made for soldiers returning from Vietnam who had acquired disabilities and were then extended to the broader population who have disabilities.

    I think it is relevant that a socially progressive country such as Australia, first made these provisions for fit, young men who had been in warfare.

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