… is from page 85 of Benjamin A. Rogge’s March 16th, 1956, speech titled “When to See Your Economist,” as this speech is reprinted in A Maverick’s Defense of Freedom, the 2010 collection of Ben Rogge’s essays that is edited by Dwight Lee:
Others deny that the economic problem need exist even today on the grounds that our production potential is so great that we have the ability to satisfy all the wants of everybody. This thesis is often stated thusly: We have now solved the problem of production; all that’s left is to solve the problem of distribution. Gentlemen, this is not only arrant nonsense, but productive of great mischief as well. I submit that the gap between what people want and what they’re able to get is little narrower today than it was three thousand years before the birth of Christ, and I predict that five thousand years from now it will be but little narrower than it is today.
My argument rests on man’s virtuosity and elasticity as a wanter. How many of you have wanted a television set twenty years ago, in 1936? How many of you now look on it as more or less essential to the good life? As Gandhi said, “Today man wants to visit England; tomorrow he will want to visit the moon.” This analysis led Gandhi to reject the goal of getting more, and to recommend the goal of wanting less. It leads me only to accept the existence and permanence of the economic problem. I may have fears about the future of the economist, but of one thing I’m certain: he’s not going to be made obsolete by an early disappearance of the economic problem.
DBx: The reality identified here by Ben Rogge is the reason why good economists pay no attention to so-called “happiness studies.” Human wants being unlimited, each and every person – apart from, perhaps, the rare Gandhi – always experiences a vast array of unsatisfied wants. This lack of satisfaction is felt, by many, as a kind of unhappiness – at least as a kind of unhappiness that will strike many people to report it as such on “happiness surveys.”
The good economist understands that ever-greater prosperity does not bring ever-greater felt happiness. But the good economist also understands that people are indeed better off, in a real sense, the higher is their material standard of living. Greater material prosperity brings opportunities to experience new wants, wants that people less prosperous never experience. Inability to satisfy all of these new wants makes many people feel “unhappy.” But were these same people less materially prosperous, they would be at least equally “unhappy” for want of ability to satisfy needs that their current higher level of material prosperity enables them to satisfy.
Another piece of reality revealed by Rogge’s point is that worries about technology or trade destroying opportunities to work are misguided. As long as human beings have unmet desires and unfilled wants, human beings will have opportunities to work.