Inverting Maslow’s Hierarchy

It seems only moments ago when the primary fault lines in American politics were about means, not ends. 

Republicans and Democrats alike sought the creation of high-paying jobs, while differing as to whether low taxes and light regulation, or targeted subsidies and minimum wage laws, were the best way to achieve these goals.  

Similarly, debate about crime focused on whether addressing “root causes” or more active policing was the better strategy, but all agreed crime reduction was the shared objective. In international relations, “peace through strength” clashed with a preference for diplomacy, but a consensus existed that a strong America and a peaceful world were desirable. In each case, not only was there broad agreement on the ends sought, but similarly we agreed about the priority accorded to such issues. 

Today, our political disputes increasingly are marked not only by disagreement about ends, but also about the relative importance of any given issue. For example, any objective observer would acknowledge the seriousness of the situation at the southern border, with the only question being whether it constitutes a challenge or a crisis. But that’s not how the Biden Administration views it. 

Notably, even in attempting to shift blame to the Trump Administration or assert that the problem is only temporary, the Biden team doesn’t advance a positive argument that its policies are superior, or that they only need more time to work. Instead, they either change the subject, shift the focus to an ancillary fact supporting a narrative of competency (including reports of the relatively small number of Haitian immigrants returned to Haiti by air), or float falsehoods in naked attempts at gaslighting (such as Jen Psaki claiming “they’re not intending to stay here for a lengthy period of time” during a September 20 press briefing).  

Accordingly, one can reasonably conclude that the Biden Administration either has a different end in mind (an open or unsecure border) or that it simply doesn’t prioritize border security to a degree typically associated with modern nation-states. If a secure border and an immigration system designed and enforced in the national interest are not high priorities for our federal government, then what are? A widely used sociological framework offers an unconventional but useful guide. 

In developing his theory of human motivation in the 1940s, psychologist Abraham Maslow posited a hierarchy—usually depicted as a pyramid—of needs, along with the notion that only when foundational needs such as survival and safety are satisfied could one advance up the hierarchy and look to satisfy more elevated needs like self-actualization. Expressed colloquially, Maslow’s hierarchy suggests the “need-to-haves” (physical safety in the form of policing, border and national security, reliable energy infrastructure, supply chains assuring food security, etc.) must be in place before “nice-to-haves” are given attention and resources. 

The dysfunction of our current political moment has turned Maslow’s hierarchy on its head, in which pride of place—in the form of political rhetoric, media attention, academic and corporate obeisance, and financial and organizational resources—is given to issues rationally deserving of consideration only after more bedrock issues have been addressed, or outcomes secured. For example: 

  • Much was made of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley’s testimony in June regarding the study of critical race theory and the need to address racism and extremism in the armed forces, with him specifically noting “white rage.” While worthy goals, one would expect the armed services to place primary emphasis on military preparedness and mission success, as evidenced to tragic effect in Afghanistan recently.
  • The Biden Administration’s moves (along with actions taken at the state level) to advance environmental agendas at the expense of energy security—the cancellation of the Keystone pipeline, closure of federal lands to new hydrocarbon drilling, clean energy mandates, etc.—have had predictable results, with fuel prices rising and grid reliability increasingly fragile.
  • Our schools inculcate social justice values with a focus on proper pronoun usage while failing to provide the basic education critical to succeeding in a global knowledge economy.
  • As supply chains remain disrupted—in many cases due to labor shortages—as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic policies, federal spending (including that contemplated by the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill) underscores investment in “human infrastructure” and other forms of wealth redistribution, having the effect of discouraging work and moving us further toward assuring a universal basic income (UBI) without work.


These are but a few examples of the inverted priorities of our unhappy era. 

A society so unserious as to take for granted physical safety, energy security, a sound currency, and the reliable production and movement of goods is unlikely to meet a happy end, even if unchallenged from without. In an age in which our primacy is being actively challenged by China (and others), we haven’t the luxury of misplaced priorities.

About Richard J. Shinder

Richard J. Shinder is the founder and managing partner of Theatine Partners, a financial consultancy.

Photo: iStock/Getty Images

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