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?