No Need For Needs?

No need for needs? Putting wants and needs into historical context.

February 8, 2021

There are no needs in economics, only wants. That’s a pretty bold statement that not only seems to contradict biology but the most fundamental economics lessons on “needs and wants.”

No needs? How can that be?

Although economics purportedly does not teach “needs,” somehow “needs and wants” lessons manage to find their way into K-5 classrooms. Just last week one of my students, a local K-5 teacher, submitted a lesson plan that used a needs and wants categorization worksheet she found online. The worksheet contained a series of pictures that young children were supposed to label as a need or want. One series of images included a slice of pizza, an ice cream cone, and a head of broccoli. Students were supposed to identify one of those food items as a need. I think broccoli was the answer the teacher wanted and the worksheet maker expected. I had to point out to my student that all three could be wants or needs depending on one’s perspective or situation. To me, this worksheet is a health lesson/lecture under the cover of economics.          

In their exchange of letters in a recent issue of Social Studies and the Young Learner, Bonnie Meszaros and Jenni Gallagher raise the issue of needs and wants in economics education. The importance of the letters’ content should not be underestimated. Meszaros took issue with Gallagher’s prior use of needs in a lesson, stating that “needs is not a term that we teach in economics. We teach students the importance of prioritizing ‘wants’” (1) . Gallagher responded by suggesting that the “11 million children that live in homes where they do not have access to enough food to live healthy lives” would balk at the notion that that their hunger is a want and not a need. Gallagher suggested that “in paradigms of thought outside of the neoclassical, market-based economic theory that dominates mainstream economics education” other ways of reasoning and thinking are possible (2).

You can read the letters here:

That “need is not a term that we teach in economics” warrants much greater examination. It is a shocking statement, to be sure. As a field that cares about children’s lived realities, such a statement disrupts our social studies sensibilities.

But how is it possible that there are no wants and only needs? For explanation, Meszaros pointed to a 2010 article by S. Gallager and Hodges “Let’s teach students to prioritize: Reconsidering wants and needs.” Yet, the reasons given in that article tell only part of the story. Here, I explain the “no needs” argument using the historical origins of neoclassical theory by way of the nineteenth-century marginalist revolution.

No needs here

Needs and wants are tricky terms. Traditionally, needs have been thought of as things people cannot live without whereas wants are thought of as extra, inessential, and as what is leftover once needs have been met. “Wants” bring to mind frivolity or desire as opposed to the more privileged, more austere “needs” and may be thought of as the biologically determined things like food, clothing, and shelter. The terms’ (needs and wants) connotations and commonsense definitions make the idea that hunger-is-a-want-not-need seem particularly cruel and heartless, even for a science as dismal and “antisocial” as economics.

S. Gallagher and Hodges (2010) (3) explained why the seemingly simple and common economics lesson of sorting items into “needs” and “wants” is neither simple nor economic. For one, children can hold different viewpoints about what constitutes a need versus a want. Yes, food, shelter, and clothing are universally acknowledged as needs, but to demonstrate that the needs/wants binary is not so easy, the authors provided a list of everyday items such as restaurant meals, Disney t-shirt, a doctor’s visit, Nike shoes, and a minivan for students to sort into need and wants. The problem here is the same as in the worksheet in the opening paragraph. A Disney T-shirt is a kind of clothing and a restaurant meal is a kind of food, but is a restaurant meal a need or a want? It really depends. If I am traveling or if I do not have a way to cook meals at home then I have little choice but to eat in a restaurant. However, some days I just want to go to my favorite restaurant even though I have a pantry full of food. Do we need a Disney T-shirt or just a shirt? As the authors state, “it’s clear that distinguishing between wants and needs is an artificial distinction. Needs are subjective.” Again, our sensibilities are challenged. Needs are supposed to be objective, wants are supposed to be subjective. Isn’t economics about the realm of the objective not the subjective? Needs are subjective because “when we define ‘needs’ simply as food, clothing, and shelter and “wants” as everything else, where do we put things such as eyeglasses, a car, health care, and education?”  Needs are too contextual. The authors asked if anything on their list would be a “need for the child who only hopes to get a cup of cooked rice and clean water?” Moreover, needs and wants shift over time and in response to conditions. Zoom schooling in the wake of Covid-19 revealed the need for computer and Internet access in homes even if human beings can (and many do) live, at a biological level, without those things.

Besides, they write, needs are not found in the Voluntary National Standards for Economics and for that reason are not part of economics education. But this is not quite true and devoid of historical context. Needs were “emancipated” from economics in 1870s Europe by way of the marginalist revolution and the emergence of the neoclassical approach, which would become the reigning paradigm in economics and economic education. Knowing a little modern economic history provides educators with a more nuanced understanding of economics education, demonstrating economic concepts we take as objective, timeless, and given are rooted in a particular time and place for certain political and social reasons advantaging certain groups of people. 

The Marginalist Revolution

Although laypersons generally equate Adam Smith with modern economics, the economics used in K-5 is derived from the marginalist revolution of the 1870s which signified a significant departure in the way value and price were determined. Early economists like Smith and Marx subscribed to the labor theory of value. They theorized that a commodity’s value was determined by labor inputs and usefulness (use-value). People, and their labor, created value. Prices were set based on the amount of labor that went into making the commodity. However, there were some problems with this way of thinking. One famous example is rotten eggs. Bad eggs and good eggs require the same amount of labor but are valued very differently and fetch different prices. The marginalists, Jevons, Menger, and Walras (Jr. and Sr.) on the other hand, proposed that value depended entirely upon utility (satisfaction) and that price was dependent on what people were willing and able to pay at the margin. Marginalism conflated utility and use-value. Now, something was useful if it brought satisfaction. Nothing was inherently good or bad but only valued or not valued, efficient or not efficient, satisfying or unsatisfying. For Jevons, value was not immanent to a thing or an object as the classical economists asserted and as labor, but “merely expresses the circumstances of its exchanging in a certain ratio for some other substance” (Jevons). Value became individualized and subjective rather than objective or based on need. A. Walras demonstrated this “moral emancipation” by describing water and wine, “water and wine are useful, because they serve to quench our thirst, and the most dangerous liquors are useful because there are men who have a taste for them” (4). Presumably, people need water but want liquor. However, there are circumstances where liquor would be a need not a want. If clean water is not present, liquor would be a need not a want, an alcoholic might consider liquor a need not a want. Nevertheless, to Walras, need, or use-value mattered less than desire, or demand (want).

Capitalism breaks down social institutions. Marginalist thinking was a way to break the authority of the church, state, and social institutions that set limits on human behavior and dictated consumption. This means that anything can be valued and therefore fetch, a price within a “price system [that] knows neither limits nor morality” (5). Want was a revolutionary concept at the time, and it still has revolutionary potential today. But-without institutional and moral limitations, how could limits on consumption and resource use be theorized? Scarcity would be the thing that limited desire and consumption. Scarcity also set value. Something has value (or price) if it is scarce and if it is in demand.

Let’s return to needs and wants and subjective theory of value. In 1895, Alfred Marshall wrote about marginal utility in the third edition of his textbook Principles of Economics “a pound’s worth of satisfaction to an ordinary poor man is a much greater thing than a pound’s worth of satisfaction to an ordinary rich man.” (6) Now think about the bowl of rice and other ‘needs’ examples from earlier. A person that is starving and experiencing food insecurity and shortages will be much more satisfied with a bowl of rice than a child that lives in affluence.

Compare Marshall’s quote with S. Gallagher and Hodges’ definition of economics education;

We should be helping our children learn to think about what they want most, to consider the resources they have available, and then to thoughtfully prioritize their lists to obtain those things of utmost importance to them. Economics is about making choices that use one’s resources efficiently, effectively, and thoughtfully in order to acquire goods and services that one values most.

Read the description carefully, as it plainly states the crux of the marginalist viewpoint on valuation and individual decision-making. Individuals make decisions for themselves based on their priorities in order to use the scarce resources they have available efficiently. Exchange was viewed as equalizing, as “there was no difference between a Henry Ford and the poorest, lowest-paid worker on his assembly line. Both were maximizing exchangers” (7).

This is how it is possible to see the child without food or with only a bowl of rice as equally an economic actor as a child of the one percent. In the marginalist view, both economize because they make choices at the margin based on the resources they have at their disposal and those they wish to obtain. And, because resources are scarce no one can have everything they want (or so we are told…). This is premised on the assumption that people desire beyond their means and that resource management is a matter of preferences and orderings “that are seen to guide and thus be expressed in the choices consumers make.” (8)

Notice that economics educators are careful not to make statements about morality, power, or inequality. Students are not asked to consider why resources are so inadequately appropriated or why there are disproportionate resources for each person to allocate. Instead, “one” uses the resources at their disposal. This system based on utility maximization, “has nothing to do with having decent living standards; it only concerns the need to economize, to get the most out of given circumstances, however large or strict these might be.” (9)

By reducing people to indiscriminate exchangers, simply producers and consumers, (10) marginalism gave the illusion of equality. At their core, people were simply utility-calculators. This, and the subsequent devaluation of physical labor, resulted in “the narrative disappearance of the body…in favor of what are considered to be the noncorporeal dimensions of economic agency” (11). Doing so ignored race, gender, social class, ability, and identity in general. This false narrative of equality has been analyzed and brilliantly deconstructed by social studies educators LaGarrett King and Shakealia Finley. (12) Marginalism’s hyper-individualism meant that people’s decisions, and their problems, are purely personal attributes, not structural or communal. It is easy to see why marginalism would be so attractive to the ruling, capitalist class and why it went from a fringe theory to the reining mainstream.

Over time, mainstream economics would become increasingly mathematical and decreasingly tied to the social, or human, side of the social sciences.

What can educators do with this information and what are the implications?

First, history reveals origin stories. It is apparent that what we know as simply “economics” has an origin story situated in a particular time and place (nineteenth-century Britain, Switzerland, and France) by people (specifically white, affluent men), not God or nature. This means that “economics” is man-made not given. Devas (1883), an economist writing in 1883, was prescient in his concerns about William Stanley Jevons’ new theories and presumptions, which claimed universal truths based on his own lived experiences in nineteenth-century industrial Britain “without regard to time, locality or race.” Devas pointed to Jevons’ reductive view of humans as “dollar hunting animal[s].” For Jevons, “people…had only two characteristics that defined them as economic agents.” One, they derived utility (satisfaction or happiness) from consuming commodities. Two, “every person was a rational, calculating maximizer” (13). Again, there was a certain assumed equality and sameness among people that some find to be a very attractive narrative. because it means claiming equality without equity. Do we all see ourselves as self-interested individuals with insatiable desires willing to consume everything we can get our hands on regardless of any moral imperatives? Most people are not able to act as individuals without families, friends, and others that depend on them. Personally, I choose not to consume based on a variety of factors that aren’t tied directly to scarcities (I, and everyone else) face.

Second, although economics purports to be politically neutral, the marginalist revolution was nonetheless politically useful because it privileged property and the rights of entrepreneurs and capitalists, upholding the status quo while also diminishing the role of labor, class, and community. As such, it made a convenient counter to Marx and the socialist and class-related uprisings happening simultaneously in Western Europe. Classical economists theorized economic subjects in terms of class and national interests. The neoclassicals would change that. Knowing this shatters the illusion of objectivity and explains the emphasis on the individual rather than the group.

Third, this history lesson shows how neoclassicism, the “more stringent, austere and ultimately successful variant” of marginalism (14), represents an “emancipation from all moral philosophy” (15). Thus, social studies educators and students can consider economics’ compatibility with the civic mission of social studies and which version of economics they want to teach (16).

Finally, what would happen if wants lived up to its revolutionary potential? What if value’s demoralization, its “metaphysical escape from needs” was viewed as emancipatory, with a “deconstructive power” that “undoes all the oppositions?” (17) Wants indicate a desiring human subject whereas needs indicates the mandates of an external, controlling authority figure that (allegedly) limits personal freedom and rational calculation. Consider how adults and authority figures invoke “need/s” in order to get children to do what they want; return to school in-person, take standardized tests, sit in seats. When need is invoked teachers and student can ask instead, who says? Is this actually a need? Who wants this to happen? Whose interests are being served? In other words, substitute “wants” for “needs” in those instances and watch as interests and power structures are revealed.

Moreover, how might teachers affirm all students’ right to desire and want? I don’t mean desire or want in the negative sense, but in the ambitious, productive, daydreaming sense. Because I worry that needs/wants lessons can be implicitly or explicitly classist and that some kids may be made to feel undeserving and/or that their desires are frivolous or silly. Too often, I see teachers ‘want shame’ kids. Wants seems to be equated with ‘deserve.’ I worry about books like Those Shoes. Does the main character, Jeremy, a boy who wants to want, not just need, seem any less deserving than a child who happens to have parents that can afford cool shoes? Which characters in that book should actually be learning the “love what you have” narrative? (hint: not Jeremy).

But what if we could conceptualize otherwise?

I also take issue with claims that needs are not part of economics education. The economic education literature is full of references to needs. Read it and see. If needs are not part of an economics education curriculum, then what do we make of its frequent invocation in the literature? Here is one of many examples; “teachers need good examples of ways to integrate economics across the curriculum in social studies…to ensure meaningful economics instruction… teachers need access to quality materials.”(18).

If need is subjectively and authoritatively determined, then who has determined these needs and generated demand for a ready supply? How might replacing “need” with “so-and-so person-or-organization wants” in a statement change its meaning and reveal the desiring subject, and the agenda, that has been narratively erased?  To me, this leads to a more honest conversation. Just say you want xyz to do __, don’t couch it in need.  

In conclusion, I think we should absolutely engage students in real conversations about needs and wants, but not as a health lesson and not as a way to discipline students or to shame them. While “wants” has revolutionary potential, so does “needs.” What if instead teachers taught wants and needs with the viewpoint that people have the right to have their needs met and what if meeting needs meant that all people should be able to obtain the appropriate goods and services to live dignified lives?


  1. Bonnie Meszaros, “Defining economic terms at the elementary level,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 32, no. 4 (March/April 2020), 3. 
  2. Jennifer Gallagher “Expanding the economics curriculum,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 32, no. 4 (March/April, 2020), 3.
  3. Suzanne Gallagher and Shannon Hodges “Lets teach children to prioritize: Reconsidering wants and needs,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 22 no. 3 (January/February 2010), 14-16.
  4. Jean-Joseph Goux “Utility: Equivocation and demoralisation,” Discourse 23 no. 3 (Fall 2001), 3-23.
  5. Herbert Hovenkamp “Regulation and the marginalist revolution,” Florida Law Review 71 no. 2 (March 2019).
  6. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the twenty-first century, Harvard University Press (2014).
  7. E.K. Hunt and Mark Lautzenheiser, History of economic thought: A critical perspective, M.E. Sharpe (3rd Ed) (2011).
  8. David F. Ruccio and Jack Amariglio, Postmodern moments in modern economics. Princeton University Press (2003). 
  9. Arrigo Opocher, “Marginalist (or neoclassic) economics. Routledge Historical Resources History of Economic Thought (September 2017).
  10. Adams, E, “Where have all the people gone?” Social Studies Education Review (2019).
  11. David F. Ruccio and Jack Amariglio, Postmodern moments in modern economics. Princeton University Press (2003). 
  12. LaGarrett King and Shakealia Finley “Race is a highway: Towards a critical race approach in economics classrooms.” In Chandler. In P. T. Chandler (Ed.), Doing race in social studies: Critical perspectives (Charlotte, NC: Information Age, 2015)
  13. E.K. Hunt and Mark Lautzenheiser, History of economic thought: A critical perspective, M.E. Sharpe (3rd Ed) (2011).
  14. Yanis Varoufakis, Joseph Halevi and Nicholas J. Theocarakis, Modern political Economics: Making sense of the post-2008 world. Routledge (2011).
  15. Jean-Joseph Goux “Utility: Equivocation and demoralisation,” Discourse 23 no. 3 (Fall 2001), 3-23.
  16. Adams, E “Economics and the civic mission of social studies: Two critiques of neoclassicism,” Citizenship, Social and Economic Education, 18 no. 1 (2019): 16-32.
  17. Jean-Joseph Goux “Utility: Equivocation and demoralisation,” Discourse 23 no. 3 (Fall 2001), 3-23.
  18. Bonnie Meszaros “The case for economic education in the elementary classroom” Federal Reserve Bank of Minnesota (December 1, 1998).

Bonnie Meszaros and Stella Evans, “It’s never too early: Why economics education in the elementary classroom,” Social Studies and the Young Learner, 22 no. 3 (2010): 4-7

[1] One hundred years after Adam Smith’s death, Marshall’s textbooks would be instrumental in popularizing marginalism and marked the first appearance of the now-famous supply and demand curves.

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