No Good Economist Has Ever Said that Material Possessions Matter Exclusively or Even Mostly

by Don Boudreaux on February 23, 2018

in Inequality, Myths and Fallacies, Standard of Living

Here’s a letter to a new correspondent:

Ms. Elaine Dorman

Ms. Dorman:

You’re correct that my arguments about the increasing wealth of ordinary people – and about the disappearing observable differences between the super-rich and the rest of us – are chiefly arguments about material possessions and not about “our emotional well being and satisfaction.”  You’re correct also that these latter things matter and, indeed, that ultimately they matter much more than do material possessions.

Yet I believe that you’re incorrect to declare my argument to be “thus irrelevant and beside the point.”

First, unless increased access to material goods and services (above, say, that which is necessary for bare subsistence) never contributes to improved “emotional well being and satisfaction,” then documenting the increasing access of ordinary people to material goods and services is to document the reality that we ordinary people have improved access to an important means of achieving greater life satisfaction.

Second, my argument is aimed at those who deny that we ordinary people enjoy greater access to material goods and services than we did 40 years ago; it is not aimed at those who deny that we human beings today in modern societies are happier or more satisfied than we would be were we today no more materially prosperous than we were 40 years ago (or, worse, were we still mired in the muck of pre-industrial poverty).  And so if you criticize me for documenting ordinary people’s still-improving access to material goods and services, you should also criticize the many people who continue to complain about what they believe to be ordinary people’s lack of improved access, over the past few decades, to material goods and services.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030


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