To Want or Not to Want

by Don Boudreaux on December 25, 2005

in Myths and Fallacies

Cafe Hayek reader Keith, after reading this recent post on toll-roads, asks me: "Why do you  [meaning me, Don Boudreaux] insist on criticizing people’s preferences?  Haven’t we Americans rejected toll roads long enough to convince any fair minded person that we don’t want them?  You may not like our preference, but at least shouldn’t you respect it?"

With respect, I respect any preference that reflects a genuine willingness of those with the preference to bear personally all necessary costs to indulge the preference.  But I do not respect ‘cheap’ preferences — preferences that are merely expressions backed-up with no personal stake in indulging the preferences.

Suppose I invent a machine that allows me to transfer to anyone I wish the ill-consequences of my drinking too much wine.  I drink goo-gobs of wine in the evenings and just before stumbling off drunk to bed I press a button and, voila!, the hangover that I would have awakened with in the morning will now be suffered by my neighbor, who has no earthly idea what’s happening to him.  Likewise for the calories and any detriments to health and career caused by overdrinking.  I enjoy all the benefits of boozing but I off-load the costs onto someone else who has no say in the matter.

My machine is quite reliable.  Everytime I drink, I press my machine’s button and I keep the benefits of boozing but my unwitting neighbor suffers the costs.

What do you expect will happen to my pattern of drinking?  Let me assure you that I’d drink a lot more than I drink now.  I love wine and, I don’t mind saying, I love also the intoxication that wine induces.  I limit my drinking because I understand that overdoing it has significant personal costs to me and my family.

Now suppose in this fantasy world with this machine I tell you that I want to be able to drink every night without limit.  Would you believe me?  You’d have reason to do so, for in a way I really do want to drink every night without limit.  If I really had that machine (and I really did not have the decency that keeps me from shifting such a cost to someone else), I’d shift the costs of drinking onto my neighbor and guzzle nightly.

But if in the real world — the world without any such machine — I tell you "I want to drink every night without limit," what would I mean?  If I didn’t have personally to bear the costs of drinking heavily I would indeed "want" to do so.  But because I do have personally to bear the costs of drinking heavily, in fact I don’t want to do so.

My saying, in these real-world circumstances, that "I want to drink every night without limit" is nothing more than a loose, slang use of the verb "to want."  After all, if I really wanted to drink much more heavily than I now do, I could easily do so.  But I never do — because I am unwilling to bear the awful costs of suffering hangovers and severe risks to my health and career.

The point, in short, is that we use the verb "to want" in very different ways.  Some "wants" are worthy and ought to be respected; other "wants" are irresponsible and cavalier — indeed, not really wants at all.

I want you to read also this essay that I wrote on the confusing usage of the verb "to want."

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{ 14 comments }

Myron December 25, 2005 at 11:20 pm

Merry Christmas

Russell Nelson December 26, 2005 at 3:04 am

The old economist joke goes like this:

Two economists are walking past a Porsche dealership. Hayek says to von Mises "I want that red Porsche over there." Von Mises says, as they walk past the end of the building, "No, you don't."

Mark December 26, 2005 at 8:43 am

How much for the machine?

Robert Cote December 26, 2005 at 11:39 am

Time and again Americans have displayed revealed preferences for not opting into congestion charging schemes. Current traditional funding mechanisms are running behind infrastructure needs because of general resistance to increased user fees and ill considered funding diversions. Congestion charges and toll roads are attempts to exploit deliberately inflicted pain.

Aaron Krowne December 26, 2005 at 1:58 pm

Of course, the government is such a machine (or at least, people mistakenly see it as that). I imagine that is the point the astute reader was supposed to pick up =)

Government, as established in the US, is supposed to be a republic. That means it is based on representation–not direct democracy. In turn, this means it is supposed to be "rule by experts", not by polls. (Sadly, the system has flaws that has made it overly susceptible to popular sentiment and polls.)

But I think the founding fathers were right in designing the system this way: government is supposed to be run by those mature enough to separate "vulgar" wants of the people from legitimate ones. In other words, our rules should be filtering out use of the government as some sort of "magical consequence-diverting" machine.

I would be in favor of such a system… wish we had it today.

www.arbitrarypolarities.blogspot.com December 26, 2005 at 7:45 pm

Nice analogy, but you left out the final step.
The person who has to suffer your hangover says it's not fair, and your reply is:
"Don't you think you should RESPECT MY PREFERENCE for having someone else suffer the consequences of my drinking?"

wex.zqed December 26, 2005 at 10:27 pm

"we use the verb "to want" in very different ways. Some "wants" are worthy and ought to be respected; other "wants" are irresponsible and cavalier — indeed, not really wants at all."

Hmm! So all those bad things I want I don't *really* want because they are bad things to want? You are agreeing with Rousseau: if I were truly enlightened, I would realise that what I truly want was only the worthy things that the General Will wants? You'll be telling us that we are not truly free next just because we aren't rich!

Just because someone doesn't want to pay what it costs to satisfy a particular desire doesn't mean they don't really desire it! It just means they have conflicting wants. Indeed, someone might well say that the way to get at desires is to ask what people want irrespective of the cost.

So just because you don't want to pay the hangover doesn't mean that you don't want to drink without limit. I think the distinction you are looking for is that between a desire and an end. You desire to drink without limit but your end is a maximising or satisficing of that desire within the costs you are prepared to pay.

What I am saying here is analogous to your excoriation of people saying that imports are the cost we pay for the benefit of exporting when it is the other way round. What you are calling 'real wants' are merely what is left of our desires after we have constrained them by costs. Ideally imports would be free and likewise satisfying desires would be free.

Kevin December 27, 2005 at 1:50 am

I appreciate the Economic theory of the issue, but I have to say that in real life, tolls are a massive annoyance. And as I learned this weekend, some toll-collecting authorities are dishonest in their approach.

It's fresh on my mind from Christmas travelling through Oklahoma. Due to a brush fire sweeping across a highway(!), I had to make an unplanned route change and take a toll road I was unfamiliar with.

The signs prior to the turnpike onramp said the toll was $1.00.
- But once I was (irreversably) at the toll booth, turns out it was $1.25.
- And then 20 miles later was another toll booth: another $1.50.
- Then a little later at yet another booth before my exit, the exit ransom was $1.75!

So this "one dollar" excursion cost $4.75. If that sounds trivial, know that since I was not plannning to use any toll roads, I had almost no cash — and they don't take any other form of payment. Those Oklahome tolls sucked me dry of all bill and coins, and in fact I was 50 cents short at the last toll booth. If it hadn't been Christmas Eve, and if the booth weren't manned by a nice country lady, I suppose I'd be in jail now.

James December 28, 2005 at 4:32 am

I appriciate the story about the tolls being quoted at one price and then actually being much higher when the time comes to pay the bill. Sadly, the same can happen with taxes as well, so this is not much of an argument to prefer taxes to tolls.

Tolls are an annoyance, but user fees for roads do not need to be. Offhand, I can think of a monthly fee to be charged to driver license holders, increased taxes on gasoline, taxes on cars, paying extra for a sticker that tells the road authorities that you are allowed to drive on the roads known to congest, etc. Not saying these are perfect, just that there are ways to mitigate the "nuissance costs" of tolls.

At any rate, the point of this analogy is an excellent one, though it seems likely to be lost on some.

Noah Yetter December 29, 2005 at 2:31 pm

It's not that abstract "wants" are "bad", it's that they're not true preferences.

I "want" to stay home every day and play video games instead of coming to work. But by my actions (hint: I'm at work right now) you can tell that's a slang "want" not a true preference. If I truly preferred that course of action, I would take it. There's nothing wrong with holding or even expressing that abstract want, as long as I don't pretend it's a true preference or attempt to compare it to one.

wex zqed December 31, 2005 at 3:17 pm

I was talking about desires and you are changing the subject! Preferences and desires are different things. For example, you might prefer the lesser of two evils but want neither.

Ron January 3, 2006 at 10:53 am

For those who "prefer" not to stop at toll booths, ask yourself this question:

Which is more annoying, paying a toll or sitting in traffic caused by road construction?

Privatized roads would indeed involve tolls for their use, but opening them to the market would naturally result in the evolution of less obnoxious methods of toll collection. Also, roadway owners would be motivated to use more durable materials in their construction, thereby reducing the need for congestion-causing construction and repairs. Even so, repairs would be inevitable, but they would be undertaken at a time that would have the least impact on the ability to collect tolls, meaning freer-flowing traffic at peak hours.

And, regarding the change of subject, the original complaint was about a lack of respect for "preferences". You changed the subject.

NickM January 24, 2006 at 7:29 pm

Why is it not fair to build the historical experience with toll roads (e.g., long delays caused by tollbooths) into a determination of whether people really want them? That government could use a far more efficient system is no guarantee that it will.

Nick

WorkHard January 2, 2007 at 1:30 pm

I realize that this isn't the point, but your drinking example is a worthy subject that points out how the responsible person has to balance fun and partying with risks to one's health, career, or to others.

http://www.alcohol-test-info.com

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