… is from page 168 of George Stigler‘s 1973 paper “Regulation: The Confusion of Means and Ends,” as it is reprinted as Chapter 10 of Stigler’s excellent 1975 collection, The Citizen and the State: Essays on Regulation:
To be sure, a list of good things will seldom create controversy if each person is allowed his own priorities, or, differently put, it the price tags are not attached.
When we pretend that there‘s no scarcity – or when we believe that the costs of any benefits that we receive will be borne exclusively by unknown, silent, or evil others – then among us there is no more controversy than there is among us over access to air or to the force of gravity. But while many of us are easily fooled into thinking that the reality of scarcity can be avoided for benefits such as health care and a cleaner environment, reality‘s bite is relentless. We might believe that this goodie and that fine outcome can be gotten for us free of charge. But when we act on such a belief we invariably – because this belief is false – create for ourselves even greater problems.
Alas, though, the will to believe that reality is optional – or that our favorite politicians are miracle workers who can suspend reality – is strong, not least among so-called “intellectual elites.” Hordes of these “elites” believe ridiculous practical impossibilities, such as that minimum wages can be raised without any ill-consequence to low-skilled workers, that tariffs can be raised to increase abundance in the home country, that mandating more paid leave will actually improve workers‘ welfare, that the mere creation of spending power creates the real goods and services upon which this spending-power will be spent, that making monetary incomes more equal makes society more equal, and on and on with such childishly fantastical notions.