NECESSITY AS A NORMATIVE PRINCIPLE AND AN OBJECT OF DESCRIPTIVE ANALYSIS
Socrates’s emphasis on efficiency in the previous section raises questions about the meaning of “need/necessity” (chreia/anangke). First, although we might have assumed that “need” originally meant “need if one is to survive,” since the greatest needs were for nourishment, shelter, and clothing, it is now clear that seeking for greater output and less effort in production does not always, or even often, mean seeking to survive. After all, Socrates seems to think it might be possible to live without exchanging at all (369e-370a). Does he still suppose that the city’s inhabitants are entirely motivated by desires to fulfill their needs, then? He does, in fact; he will soon distinguish the entire early, “true,” “healthy” city of 369b-372d from Glaucon’s unhealthy city of luxury, identifying instances of “stepping beyond the boundary of the necessary things” (373e1) as “the things from which bad things especially come to be for cities, both privately and publicly, whenever they do come to be” (373e7-8). The early city is built entirely by individuals seeking what is needed/necessary.
We may notice a normative judgment present in these claims: individuals should limit themselves to doing only what is necessary. We might wonder, then: To what extent is Socrates’s emphasis on the contrast between what is necessary and what is unnecessary, between fulfilling needs and pursuing luxuries, essential to his economic analysis? Does his economic theory need this normative element? If we turn to the popular economics textbooks by, for example, Samuelson and Nordhaus, Varian, or Mankiw, we find that they study “preferences” at the level of the consumer and “demand” at the level of the market or society (Samuelson and Nordhaus 2001, 45-51; Varian 2010, 3-11, 33-44; Mankiw 2012, 65-71, 441-52), but they do not study the difference between needs and wants at either level. Samuelson and Nordhaus do mention “wants and needs” and “needs and desires” (Samuelson and Nordhaus 2001, 4, 13), thus acknowledging a difference between needs and wants, but by treating them as indistinguishable within their analysis they show that they “have chosen not to dwell on the differences” (Raiklin and Uyar 1996). If this is a common practice in economics, in public policy, by contrast, the distinction between wants and needs is essential; as Raiklin and Uyar (1996) point out, all public assistance programs, and the very concept of a “social safety net,” which helps those who have difficulty meeting their needs, are based on the distinction. The distinction is far from devoid of analytical relevance or application in the modern world.30 How and why, then, does Socrates integrate normative claims about need/necessity into his economic analysis?
Let us first clarify what Socrates means by “needs.” Just before Glaucon demands the turn to the city of luxury, Socrates proposes that
setting before themselves noble barley cakes and [wheat] loaves on some reeds or clean leaves [and then] lying down on beds of straw scattered with yew and myrtle, they [i.e., the citizens in the early city] will entertain [or feast] themselves well, both they and their children—drinking their wine afterward, crowned with wreaths and extolling the gods in song, interacting with one another with pleasure.” (372b3-c1)
In their feasts, Socrates continues, they will have “flavorful side dishes” (opson), and he lists salt, olives, cheese, root vegetables boiled with garden herbs, desserts (figs, chickpeas, and beans), and roasted myrtle berries and acorns, all to be enjoyed “as they moderately drink a little” (372c-d). Most of these activities and much of this food are necessary neither for survival nor for increased or easier production. In what sense, then, are all these activities and foods necessary?
It would seem that Socrates thinks his citizens will do what is necessary not only for living but for living well, as their quest for what would be better for themselves suggests (369c), as well as the moderately pleasurable foods and activities of the citizens’ “way of life” (373a1) just described. This is confirmed when Socrates much later, long after he and his interlocutors have finished constructing all versions of the city in speech, explains what he understands to be “necessary desires.” He proposes that such desires must meet at least one of two criteria: they are those desires “that we are not able to turn away . . . and as many as help us when they are fulfilled[.] For by our nature there is a necessity [for us] to desire both of these” (558d11-e3). Correspondingly, unnecessary desires are those “that someone could get rid of if he trains himself from youth, and [also those that] when they are present contribute to nothing good—and some of them even [contribute to] the opposite” (559a3-4). As examples, Socrates then specifically identifies the desire for bread as necessary for “both health and a good condition,” and the desire for “flavorful side dishes” as necessary for a good condition simply (559a-c). Socrates is not, then, as Stanley Rosen has accused him of being, a proponent of “extreme austerity” in the early city (Rosen 2005, 72; see also Taylor 1997, 49). Its citizens experience a “need” for food, but also for tasty food, for feasting together, for enjoying one another, and for moderate drinking, since all of these contribute to a good condition.
As examples of “unnecessary things” in the city of luxury, Socrates imagines “couches and tables and the rest of the furniture, and [yes,] flavorful side dishes, perfumes, incense, courtesans, and cakes—all sorts of each of these” (373a2-4). From this list and the context of 372c-373e, it is clear that Socrates has no interest in composing two exhaustive, black-and-white lists of needs vs. luxuries that apply to everyone at all times and allow no exceptions. Some flavorful side dishes are necessary, as we have seen, but some are not. What concerns him is that some people uncritically follow certain desires and pursuits that feel necessary without having ascertained why they are necessary; this amounts to treating what is necessary as what is good, as an end in itself (see 493b-c). But something can be necessary for a bad end as well as a good one; insisting that a certain action is necessary is therefore not justification enough. Certain questions should be asked: How will following the desire one is currently experiencing improve one’s condition overall more than competing desires could? And if it will not, then to what extent can one get rid of it? How does a desire fit (or not fit) into one’s most necessary plan of action overall?31 Answering these questions enables individuals to better fulfill the needs they experience, and this is a, if not the, aim of the healthy city.
Socrates is not only interested in analyzing the types of goals that people generally find better or worse, however; he also thinks that it is possible to discover and analyze certain things that are good or bad for individuals and cities. It is not difficult to see that individuals experience a difference between necessary and unnecessary desires, or that they see different potential courses of action as more or less necessary for a better condition overall. Some people decide to stop smoking, watching television, or eating unhealthy foods, for example, even though they enjoy those activities. Just as Socrates implies that one could help another discover the fact that a certain means does not, as the other believes, contribute to a certain goal (for example, that producing both food and clothes for oneself will not, in fact, yield more or better food and clothes for oneself than specializing in the one and trading for the other), so he thinks that one could help another discover that a certain goal does not in fact contribute to the general goal of a better condition. A friend could help another see that regularly enjoying a great deal of meat leads to serious health risks of which the other has not been aware, for example.32 To help another in this way would involve bringing a conflict in the other’s goals to his or her attention and prompting him or her to rank those goals (or look for a new goal) in a way he or she previously has not. The aim is presumably to pursue a condition that accommodates one’s most necessary desires in the least contradictory way possible.
Similarly, someone who cares about the good of a city could notice that certain prevalent behaviors lead to bad outcomes for the city and its inhabit- ants—to use Socrates’s examples, that patterns of indulgent diets lead to widespread ill health and the need to spend significantly more on doctors (372d-373d), or that widespread demands to seize land from citizens of neighboring cities will lead the city as a whole to do so and consequently to go to war (373d-e). Discerning what would be better for individuals and cities is an essential part of analyzing systems of exchange, for Socrates, because it concerns what would actually best fulfill the particular needs experienced by, and motivating, the various individual citizens. This in no way means that Socrates thinks he (or others) can discover everything that would be best for each person or for all people, or for each city or for all cities. What it does mean is that he believes it is important to discover as much as one can, and that he is committed to helping others discover such things for themselves, whether in talking with them one on one (as he does with Glaucon and Adeimantus) or, it would seem, in designing institutions that foster discoveries of better conditions (such as a system of exchange).
Socrates treats necessity as an inextricable part of economic analysis precisely because he believes that individuals’ happiness objectively depends on their adherence to necessity as a normative principle. He wants to know not only why they do what they currently do but what they would readily do if they knew better. Whether it is Socrates’s analytical approach or those of Samuelson and Nordhaus, Varian, or Mankiw that more seriously undertake to explain social phenomena by accounting for the experiences of individuals would therefore be an interesting matter for debate.33