If you’ve ever had a class in psychology, you know about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s actually an interesting model to describe human behavior, but I it can also be used as a model to describe what ails us as a country.
This concept has been used to describe individual human behavior for decades. In general, it suggests that humans rise to higher levels of priority in their lives only after they achieve and sustain the lower levels. It’s a fairly simple concept and despite the volumes of psychological studies that have debated its merit, few would doubt its usefulness in partly describing the human condition. Let’s face it, if I’m literally dying of starvation, my priorities are going to be on eating, not seeking out the meaning of life.
“…our country has artificially reached this level, primarily because of our prosperity and in so doing, we’ve turned ourselves into a gnarly, collective mess of namby-pamby, economically illiterate zombies that reek of the behavior of spoiled little children.”
So how can we apply this model to better understand our economic and social structure? Consider that when our nation was young, the general population was far from prosperous. Times were lean for both the populace as well as the government. In fact, in the very beginning, the government was likely at the lowest level on the pyramid. It was on life support. The population didn’t distract itself with things that weren’t as important as survival. As our country grew, we progressed through the levels of safety, then social needs and esteem and finally to self-actualization. In psychological terms self actualization is often described as expressing one’s creativity, spiritual enlightenment, pursuit of knowledge, etc. Those are things that are important to us only after we’ve achieved the lower levels. I contend that our country has artificially reached this level, primarily because of our prosperity and in so doing, we’ve turned ourselves into a gnarly, collective mess of namby-pamby, economically illiterate zombies that reek of the behavior of spoiled little children. Think about it. Do children who have no shelter or food throw temper tantrums because they can’t have the latest video game? Nope. They’re still at the lowest level of the triangle.
With some exceptions, self actualization is only achieved with prosperity. Without it, our country would be trudging around two or three levels below the apex. Think about the world around us, in particular the poorer countries. Do we see the people of these countries incessantly debating the virtues of which bathroom one uses? Do we see them spending any effort at all trying to define who should be allowed to get married? Do we seem them considering building walls to keep people out? Do any of them care if their neighbor is making a living by braiding hair without a license? They may be marching in the streets, but it’s not because they’re not getting free college tuition. They’re marching because they don’t have enough to eat. Evaluating priorities demands perspective.
Because our country isn’t hovering around the lower levels, we have the luxury of debating the finer points in life. It’s a good problem to have I suppose, but the outcome is still ugly and in my opinion, embarrassing. My temptation is to lay the blame at the feet of a government with an insatiable desire for more power. But it’s really more complex than that. A bloated, unwieldy and out of control government is merely a symptom of an uninformed, uneducated (in a practical way), and largely apathetic population that focuses primarily on self gratification rather than sacrifice toward long term success. After all, we are the ones who keep electing the same people to squander our riches. So long as we continue to feed the beast, it will only grow stronger. We’ve fed it for so long and so well, that it is no longer a pet, it is now our master. And now, if we don’t feed it, it will eat us. Ask any survival expert. A body starved of nutrition will eventually begin to consume itself from within.
In many ways we’re behaving like a new business that receives millions of dollars in venture capital, only to blow it on private jets and luxury accommodations rather than investing in business growth. It’s not long before the founders realize their burn rate was unsustainable and the investors find out too late. Silicon valley is littered with the carcasses of such businesses. If the investors were paying attention, it wouldn’t have happened. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide who is the business and who is the investor in this analogy.
The sad part is that we could all be more prosperous if we were to unleash the economic engine that is waiting idly by for a chance to excel. But instead, we allow our small minded immediate wants to overshadow our actual needs. Am I suggesting prosperity is a bad thing? Hardly. Our prosperity came about as a result of free markets, but as those free market principles became shackled with government interference, the potential for much greater prosperity has been drastically diminished. That government regulation only came about because we keep feeding the beast. What I am suggesting is that rather than spending our efforts and money on superfluous wants, let’s get back to investing in what we really need. Let’s stop fooling ourselves by thinking we’ve become so enlightened that we can focus on such lofty things. It’s foolhardy and arrogant to believe we’re at the highest level. Let’s put a locked gate at that top level of the triangle.