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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