Wants, Unlike Resources, Are Unlimited

by Don Boudreaux on February 4, 2019

in Other People's Money, Reality Is Not Optional

What does it really mean to want something? – That’s the question I ask in my latest column for AIER. Here are my concluding paragraphs:

So when the American people are said by pollsters to “want” such things as carbon taxes, higher tariffs, or a border wall, these answers do not mean that Americans really “want” these things. There’s no reason to suppose that Americans want these things in the same way that I want the coach-class airfare or the bag of groceries that I just purchased. Such poll results reveal only Americans’ unconstrained wants, not our economically relevant wants.

And because opinion polls do not reveal people’s economically relevant wants, it’s illegitimate to use polls to guide government policy-making.

Yet what are elections if not polls? In elections as in polls, no individual’s vote determines policy outcomes. Therefore, each voter typically votes with much less prudence and shrewdness than he or she uses when buying groceries or choosing a manicurist.

What people really want – in an economically meaningful sense – is revealed most fully only through private market transactions where each person directly confronts the costs of expressing his or her desires. In contrast, no poll or election reveals genuine wants constrained by costs.

Only the market reveals genuine wants; therefore, only the market can be trusted to accurately reveal people’s real and relevant wants – and to ensure that resources are not wasted by satisfying any of our many less-important wants at the expense of our more-important wants.

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