Friday, March 30, 2012

Man's Wants - Frédéric Bastiat - 1

Man's Wants

It is perhaps impossible and, in any case, not very useful to present a complete and methodical catalogue of all of man's wants. Almost all those of real importance are included in the following list:
Breathing (I keep this want here as marking the absolute limit where the transfer of labor or the exchange of services begins), food, clothing, housing, the preservation or recovery of health, transportation, security, education, amusement, enjoyment of the beautiful.
Wants exist. This is a fact. It would be childish to inquire whether it would be better if they did not exist and why God has made us subject to them.
It is certain that man suffers and even dies when he cannot satisfy the wants that it is his nature as a human being to feel. It is certain that he suffers and can die when he satisfies certain of them overmuch.
We can satisfy most of our wants only by taking pains, which can themselves be considered suffering. The same is true of the act by which, exercising a noble restraint over our appetites, we deprive ourselves of something.
Thus, suffering is unavoidable, and we have little more than a choice of evils. Furthermore, suffering is the most personal, intimate thing in the world; consequently, self-interest, the impulse that today is branded as selfish and individualistic, is indestructible. Nature has placed feeling at the ends of our nerves, at all the approaches to our hearts and our minds, like an outpost, to warn us where there is a lack or an excess of satisfaction. Pain, then, has a purpose, a mission. It has often been asked if the existence of evil can be reconciled with the infinite goodness of the Creator—an awesome problem that philosophy will always grapple with and will probably never solve. As far as political economy is concerned, man must be taken as he is, inasmuch as it has not been vouchsafed to the imagination to picture—and to reason even less to conceive of—an animate and mortal being exempt from pain. All our efforts to understand feeling without pain or man without feeling would be vain.
Today, some sentimentalist schools reject as false any social science that has not succeeded in devising a system by means of which pain will disappear from the world. They pass a harsh judgment on political economy because it recognizes what cannot be denied: the existence of suffering. They go further; they hold political economy responsible for it. This is like attributing the frailty of our organs to the physiologist who studies them.
Of course, a man can make himself momentarily popular, can attract to himself men who are suffering, and can arouse them against the natural order of society by telling them that he has in mind a plan for the artificial arrangement of society that will exclude pain in any form. He can even say that he has stolen God's secret and has interpreted His supposed will by banishing evil from the face of the earth. And yet the sentimentalist schools call irreverent the science that refuses to make such claims, accusing it of misunderstanding or denying the foresight or omnipotence of the Author of all things!
At the same time, these schools paint a frightening picture of present-day society, and they do not perceive that, if it is irreverent to predict suffering for the future, it is no less irreverent to note its existence in the past or in the present. For the Infinite admits of no limits; and if, since Creation, even one man has suffered in this world, that is reason enough to admit, without irreverence, that pain has entered into the plan of Providence.
It is certainly more scientific and more manly to recognize the existence of the great facts of Nature, which not only do exist, but without which mankind could not be imagined.
Thus, man is subject to suffering, and, consequently, society is also.
Suffering has a role to play in the life of the individual and, consequently, in that of society as well.
The study of the natural laws of society will reveal that the role of suffering is gradually to destroy its own causes, to restrict itself to narrower and narrower limits, and, finally, to guarantee us, by making us earn and deserve it, a preponderance of the good and the beautiful over the evil.
The catalogue presented above puts material needs first.
We live in times that force me to warn the reader once again against the sentimental affectation so very much in vogue.
There are people who hold very cheap what they disdainfully call material needs, material satisfactions. They will doubtless say to me, as Bélise says to Chrysale:
  • Is the body, this rag, of sufficient importance,
  • Of sufficient worth, that we should give it the slightest heed?
And these people, though generally well provided for in every respect (on which I sincerely congratulate them), will blame me for having listed food, for example, as coming first.
Certainly I recognize that moral improvement belongs to a higher order of things than the preservation of the body. But, after all, are we so beset by this mania for cant and affectation that we are no longer permitted to say that in order to attain moral improvement we must keep soul and body together? Let us avoid these childish attitudes, which stand in the way of science. By trying to pass ourselves off as philanthropic, we cease to be truthful; for it is contrary to logic and to the facts that moral progress, the concern for personal dignity, the cultivation of refined sentiments should have priority over the simple needs of preserving the body. This type of prudery is quite recent. Rousseau, that enthusiastic panegyrist of the state of nature, did not indulge in it; and a man endowed with exquisite delicacy, with appealing gentleness of heart, with a spirituality that led him to embrace quietism, and withal a stoic in his own mode of life, Fénelon, said, “In the final analysis, soundness of mind consists in seeking to learn how those things are done that are the basis of human life. All the matters of great importance turn upon them.”
Without professing, then, to classify human wants in a rigorously methodical order, we may say that man cannot direct his efforts toward the satisfaction of his highest and noblest moral wants until he has provided for those that concern the preservation of his life. Hence, we can already conclude that any legislative measure that makes material life difficult is harmful to the moral life of nations, a harmony that I call to the reader's attention in passing.
And, since the opportunity has arisen, I shall point out another one.
Since the inexorable necessities of material life are an obstacle to moral and intellectual development, it follows that more virtue will be found in the more affluent nations and classes. Good Heavens! What have I said, and what an uproar assails my ears! Today there is a veritable mania for attributing to the poorer classes a monopoly of all the devotion, all the self-sacrifice, all the noble qualities that constitute in man moral grandeur and beauty; and this mania has recently spread further under the influence of a revolutionthat, by bringing these classes to the surface of society, has not failed to raise up about them a horde of adulators.
I do not deny that wealth, and especially opulence, particularly when unjustly distributed, tends to develop certain special vices.
But is it possible to admit as a general proposition that virtue is the privilege of the poverty-stricken, and that vice is the unlovely and unfailing companion of the well-to-do? This would be to affirm that moral and intellectual development, which is compatible only with a certain degree of leisure and comfort, works to the detriment of intelligence and morality.
And I appeal to the honest judgment of the unfortunate classes themselves. To what horrible discords would such a paradox not lead?
We should therefore have to say that humanity is faced with the terrible alternatives of either remaining eternally poverty-stricken or of moving toward ever increasing immorality. In accordance with this logic, all the forces that lead to wealth, such as enterprise, thrift, orderliness, skill, honesty, are the seeds of vice; whereas those that hold us back in poverty, like improvidence, idleness, dissipation, negligence, are the precious buds of virtue. Could a more discouraging discord be imagined in the moral world? And if such were the case, who would dare speak to the people or proffer any advice? You complain of your sufferings, we should have to say, and you are anxious to see them end. You groan under the yoke of the most pressing material wants, and you long for the hour of deliverance; for you, too, desire a measure of leisure to develop your intellectual and emotional capacities. For this reason you seek to make your voice heard in the political arena and to protect your interests. But learn the nature of what you desire, and realize that the granting of your wishes would be fatal to you. Solvency, easy circumstances, wealth engender vice. Cling lovingly, then, to your poverty and your virtue.
The flatterers of the people thus fall into an obvious contradiction when they point to wealth as a vile cesspool of selfishness and vice, and at the same time urge the people—and often, in their haste, by the most illegal of means—toward that region which they consider so abominable.
No, such discord is not to be found in the natural order of society. It is not possible that all men should aspire to live in comfortable circumstances, that the natural way to attain it should be through the exercise of the strictest virtue, and that on reaching it, they should, nevertheless, fall again under the yoke of vice. Such rantings are fit only to kindle and keep alive the fires of class hatred. Were they true, they would give humanity only the choice between dire poverty and immorality. Being false, they make lies serve the cause of disorder, and, by their deceit, set against each other classes that should mutually love and assist each other.
Yes, unnatural inequality, inequality that the law creates by disturbing the natural and orderly development of the various classes of society, is, for all, a prolific source of resentments, jealousies, and vices. For this reason we must make sure whether or not this natural order leads to the progressive equalization and improvement of all classes; and we should be stopped short in this study by what is known in law as a peremptory exception if this twofold material progress inevitably entailed a twofold moral deterioration.
On the subject of human wants I have an observation to make that is important, even fundamental, for political economy: they are not a fixed, immutable quantity. By nature they are not static, but progressive.
This characteristic is to be noted even in the most material of our wants; it becomes more marked as we advance to those intellectual tastes and yearnings that distinguish man from beast.
It would seem that, if there is any one thing in which men must resemble one another, it is in their need for food; for, except for abnormalities, all stomachs are about the same. Nevertheless, foods that would have been a delicacy in one era have become coarse fare for another, and the diet which suits a lazzarone would cause a Dutchman anguish. Thus, this want, the most immediate, the most elemental, and, consequently, the most uniform of all, still varies according to age, sex, temperament, climate, and habit.
The same is true of all other wants. Hardly has man got himself a shelter when he wants a house; hardly has he clothed himself when he wants adornment; hardly has he satisfied the needs of his body when study, knowledge, art open to his desires a new and endless vista.
It is quite worth while to note the speed with which, through continued satisfaction, what was only a vague desire becomes a taste, and what was only a taste becomes a want and even a want that will not be denied.
Take, for example, a rough and industrious artisan. Accustomed to coarse fare, humble clothing, mediocre lodging, he thinks that he would be the happiest of men, that he would want nothing more, if he could mount to the rung of the ladder that he sees immediately above him. He is amazed that those who have got there are still tormenting themselves. Let the modest fortune he has dreamed of come his way, and he is happy; happy—alas! for a few days.
For soon he becomes familiar with his new position, and little by little he ceases to be aware of his longed-for good fortune. He dons with indifference the garment he had once coveted. He has created a new environment for himself, he associates with different people, from time to time he touches his lips to a different goblet, he aspires to climb another rung; and, if he will but look into his own heart, he will be well aware that, if his fortune has changed, his soul has remained what it was, an inexhaustible well of desires.
It would appear that Nature has given habit this peculiar power in order that it should be in us what the ratchet wheel is in mechanics, and that humanity, ever urged on toward higher and higher regions, should never stop at any level of civilization.
The sense of one's own worth acts, perhaps, even more powerfully in the same direction. The Stoic philosopher has often blamed man for wanting to appear rather than to be. But, if he take a broader view of things, is it quite certain that appearing is not for mankind one of the forms of being?
When, through industry, orderliness, and thrift, a family rises step by step toward those social regions where tastes are more and more refined, relations more polite, sentiments more delicate, minds more cultivated, who does not know the poignant grief that accompanies a reversal of fortune? In that case it is not the body alone that suffers. The descent breaks habits that have become, as we say, second nature; it impairs the sense of one's own worth and with it all the faculties of the soul. Therefore, it is not unusual, in such cases, to see the victim give way to despair and fall at once into a state of brutish degradation. As with the air we breathe, so with the social milieu. The mountaineer, accustomed to his pure air, soon wastes away in the narrow streets of our cities.
I hear a voice crying: Economist, already you falter. You had announced that your science was in harmony with ethics, and here you are justifying sybarite luxury.
Philosopher, I shall say in my turn, divest yourself of those garments you wear, which were never those of primitive man, break your furniture, burn your books, feed yourself on the raw meat of animals, and I shall reply to your objection. It is too easy to challenge the force of habit while readily consenting to be the living proof of what it can do.
It is possible to criticize this inclination that Nature has given the organs of our body, but criticism will not prevent it from being universal. We note its presence among all peoples, ancient and modern, savage and civilized, in the antipodes as in France. Without it, it is impossible to account for civilization. Now, when an inclination of the human heart is universal and indestructible, has social science the right not to take it into account?
Objection will be raised by the political theorists who claim the honor of being disciples of Rousseau. But Rousseau never denied the phenomenon of which I speak. He comments positively on the elasticity of our wants, on the force of habit, and even on the role that I assign to it of preventing humanity from taking any backward step. But what I admire, he deplores, and it could not be otherwise. Rousseau conjectures that there was a time when men had neither rights nor duties nor contacts with other men nor affections nor language, and that was the time when they were happy and perfect. He could not fail to abhor, therefore, the complicated social machinery that is ceaselessly moving mankind away from its earlier perfection. Those who believe, on the contrary, that perfection is to be found, not at the beginning, but at the end, of the evolutionary cycle, marvel at the driving force that impels us forward. But in regard to the existence of this driving force and the way it works, we are in agreement.
“Men,” he said, “enjoying much leisure, used it to procure for themselves various types of commodities unknown to their fathers, and this was the first yoke that they unconsciously placed about their necks and the beginning of the woes that they prepared for their descendants; for, in addition to the fact that they thus softened their bodies and their minds, these commodities having, through habit, lost nearly all their charm, and having at the same time degenerated into real wants, their loss became much more cruel than their possession had been sweet, and men were miserable at losing them without ever being happy at possessing them.”
Rousseau was convinced that God, nature, and man were wrong. I know that this opinion still sways many minds, but mine is not one of them.
After all, God forbid that I should attack man's noblest portion, his fairest virtue, dominion over himself, control over his passions, moderation in his desires, scorn of ostentatious luxury! I do not say that he should let himself become the slave of any artificial want. I do say that, generally speaking, his wants, such as both his physical and his immaterial nature makes them, combined with force of habit and his sense of his own worth, are capable of being indefinitely multiplied, because they stem from an inexhaustible source—desire. Who will censure a man merely because he is wealthy, if he is sober, restrained in his dress, not given to ostentation and soft living? But are there not loftier desires that he is permitted to gratify? Are there any limits to his longing for knowledge? Are his efforts to serve his country, to encourage the arts, to disseminate valuable information, to aid his less fortunate brethren, in any way incompatible with the proper use of wealth?
Furthermore, whether or not the philosopher approves, human wants are not a fixed and unchangeable quantity. This is a fact, certain, not to be gainsaid, universal. In no category, whether food, lodging, or education, were the wants of the fourteenth century as great as ours, and we may well predict that ours do not equal those to which our descendants will become accustomed.
This is an observation that holds good for all the elements that have a place in political economy: wealth, labor, value, services, etc., all of which share the extreme variability of their source, man. Political economy does not have, like geometry or physics, the advantage of speculating about objects that can be weighed or measured; and this is one of its initial difficulties and, subsequently, a perpetual source of error; for, when the human mind applies itself to a certain order of phenomena, it is naturally disposed to seek acriterion, a common measure to which it may refer everything, in order to give to the particular field of knowledge the character of anexact science. Thus, we note that most authors seek fixity, some in value, others in money, another in grain, still another in labor, that is to say, in measures exhibiting the very fluctuation they seek to avoid.

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