The idea of human need is widely used. Sometimes it is employed in attempts to justify social policies (e.g. ‘The frail elderly need more sheltered housing’) and to criticise them (e.g. ‘British schooling does not meet the needs of its children’). So general is this use that it is hard to imagine how we could function without it. Are not decisions inevitable which prioritise some things and not others on the basis of need? Yet the idea of need has also been widely abused. On the grounds of their expertise about the satisfaction of human need, planners have justified and implemented disastrous social policies. Examples are unpopular public housing or the sometimes officious and meddling managers of welfare benefits. This abuse was most notable in the Eastern bloc system, labelled in a recent book ‘a dictatorship over needs’ (Feher et al., 1983). Indeed, such perceived abuses have become so extensive that many have rejected the existence of common human needs, the satisfaction of which can be planned for in a uniform and successful way.
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