≡ Menu

“Wants” Unmoored from Willingness to Pay are Mere Fancies

Here’s a letter to the Washington Post:

Robert Samuelson eloquently explains that opinion polls that allegedly reveal what the public wants government to do often are highly misleading (“Who’s afraid of global warming?” April 26). The results of any poll that asks about a single issue – say, global warming – are not reliable because respondents are denied the opportunity to rank their preference for action on that one issue along with their preferences for action on the many other issues that government might address.

A related problem with such polls is that, while they always ask what people want government to do, they too seldom ask what each respondent, personally, is willing to pay for government to do. Because the tax burden in the U.S. is borne disproportionately by high-income Americans – nearly 70 percent of all federal tax revenues are paid by households in the top 20 percent of income earnings – the typical poll respondent is likely to assume that government programs that he or she wants will be paid for largely by other people. Any such expressed preference, therefore, is untrustworthy. There are many things that I want if other people pay for most or all of these things. Do I want a brand new Mercedes S650 Cabriolet?  “Yes” if much or all of the price is paid by other people, but “no” if the full price must be paid by me.

Asking what people want government to do without obliging them – personally – to pay for that which they say they want is to confirm only the unsurprising fact that the number of things that we want if the costs of acquiring these things are ignored is much, much higher than is the number of things that we want badly enough to actually pay for them.

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