Each living creature constantly experiences wants, and can avoid this experience only by dying. All living creatures - from fungi through ferrets to humans - always want nutrition. We humans, along with many other species, often want sexual partners. And we want also clothing, shelter, leisure, entertainment, undisturbed sleep, caring friends, reliable wi-fi…. this list is practically endless.
No human activity (if I may call it that) is more constant than wanting. And yet the verb (in English) “to want” is also so ambiguous as to often be troublesome. To reveal this ambiguity, I want to tell you one of my favorite economist jokes.
An economist and a friend are strolling along 7th Avenue in Manhattan. As they pass Carnegie Hall and hear enchanting piano music wafting out into the street, the friend turns to the economist and says: “I can't play the piano, but I've always wanted to.” The economist replies immediately: “Obviously not.”
Wants: Unconstrained and Constrained
The verb “to want” has two different meanings. This difference is linguistically slight but economically significant, and insensitivity to this difference causes confusions - including being misled into thinking that polls and political elections reliably reveal what “We the People” want.
Consider this real-world personal example. Although I cannot speak fluent French, I want to be able to do so. No lie. But as used here, the verb “to want” means nothing more than a fancy or a whim, one no different than the desire of the economist’s friend who “wants” to know how to play the piano. If I tell you in idle conversation that I want to speak fluent French, all this pronouncement means is that if I could acquire this skill at little or no cost to myself, I’d happily acquire it.
This meaning of the verb “to want” refers to unconstrained wanting. It refers to the wishes and dreams that we each have for all manner of goods, services, abilities, and states of the world. (In addition to wanting to speak fluent French, I also want always to fly first-class, to earn a PhD in biology, and to write a novel.) We all want lots of things if they are available to us personally at zero or near-zero prices -– that is, if there are no constraints on our acquiring these things.
While linguistically sound, using the verb “to want” in this unconstrained manner risks profound misunderstanding. The second and more reliable meaning of “to want” is its economically relevant – and its deeper – meaning. To want something in an economically relevant sense is to be willing to pay full price for that something. Although I could certainly spend the time and effort necessary to learn to speak French fluently, the fact that I’ve not yet done so reveals that I really do not want to speak French fluently. My choices reveal that I actually want to be the English-speaking monolinguist that I am.
Beware of Politically Expressed Wants
This ambiguity of the verb “to want” means that we must beware of political polls.
When someone is asked by a pollster if she wants, say, a larger welfare state, this person responds free of charge. No matter what response she gives, she bears no material consequences of that response. Of course, this person might understand that a larger welfare state would mean higher taxes for her, but she also understands that her response to a poll question does not alone determine government welfare policy.
Because government’s welfare policy is not determined by the opinion of any individual, no individual incurs any personal cost in answering a question about such policies one way or another.
In other words, polls uncover only unconstrained wants – wants that people have independent of the costs of fulfilling those wants.
Compare the following two scenarios. First, you’re asked in a poll whether or not you want your city to build a subway system. Second, you’re asked by a Porsche dealer if you want to purchase a new Porsche 911. Your answer to the first question changes nothing. Whether or not the subway system is built is independent of your answer. Therefore, you will likely be much more cavalier in answering such a question. Your answer is without consequence - and, hence, without much meaning.
But you bear significant personal consequences when answering the question posed by the Porsche dealer. If you answer “Yes, I’d like to buy this new Porsche 911,” you commit yourself contractually to buy a very expensive automobile. If you say “No,” you do not commit yourself. Either way, your answer has immediate and personal consequences for you. Your answer matters; it determines directly whether or not you purchase the car and whether or not you must pay for it. As a result, you answer the Porsche dealer’s question carefully and prudently. If you’re not wealthy, you likely will say “No.”
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.