Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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WANTS. Man alone, of all animate beings, possesses the faculty of constantly adding to his wants, and to the means of providing for them. This double faculty, in course of time, very materially modifies human life, and the life of most organic beings; it completely changes the primitive distribution of the different genera of animals and vegetables, as well as their respective proportions. It is that faculty which, in the words of Buffon, "ends by impressing our ideas upon the face of the earth"; the faculty which has given our intellect the exercise that has so prodigiously developed its power, and without which the human mind would have remained but little above that of the different species of apes. To this faculty we must also attribute the multiplication of our race upon the earth, whose spontaneous productions would not furnish sufficient sustenance for a millionth part of those who now dwell upon it.


—The faculty of increasing our wants should always be joined to that of increasing the means of satisfying them, for these two faculties are inseparable, they stand to each other in the relation of cause and effect, and the latter could never act but under the spur of the former; so that we can not logically deplore, with certain schools of pretended philosophers, the continual extension which is given to human wants by the onward march of humanity, without at the same time censuring the increase of the means of subsistence, and of the goods of all kinds which the second faculty, that is, industry, has procured for us.


—Of all the publicists who have maintained the doctrine of the limitation of wants, J. J. Rousseau is the most radical, and the only consistent one; for he is the only one who, looking upon the faculty of extending our wants as a direful gift, has entirely repudiated, at least in theory, all the goods whose production is due to that faculty. According to him, mankind entered upon the path of degradation, from the very day that they thought of substituting a cabin for a cave in the rocks and the foliage of trees, or determined to add the bow and arrow to their teeth or their nails. (Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité.) If Rousseau had reflected, that, in order to reduce the human race to this manner of living, it would be necessary to sacrifice it almost entirely, he would probably have acknowledged that the advantage of thus elevating a few rare individuals to the condition of the orang-outang, would not be worth such a sacrifice.


—The theorizers of to-day do not push the doctrine of the limitation of wants as far as Rousseau did; and, although they hold the same principle, they assign different motives for it. They consider the generalization of the desire for well-being the principal source of our ills, because it is calculated to develop cupidity, envy and other maleficent motives; and they would counteract it by inculcating austere religious tenets, a contempt for the pleasures of this world, and resignation to present suffering, in anticipation of happiness in a future life. They think of perfecting man's life on earth by contemning and despising it. They assure us that the general observance of their doctrines or precepts is the best means to secure the tranquillity and happiness of nations, and of strengthening social order.


—Unfortunately these modern defenders of what Bentham calls the principle of asceticism, do not preach by example. Fully provided themselves with all that can satisfy most completely awakened wants, it ill becomes them to censure in the impoverished classes the aspiration to a position more or less nearly resembling their own, unless they first themselves renounce the advantages of their position. This, however, they do not do; they very willingly make use of the goods which they pretend to despise; we generally find them very anxious to escape privation, and none of them has yet been able to persuade himself to live in a Diogenes tub. This contradiction between their theory and their practice gives ground for the belief that their faith in the truth and efficacy of their doctrine is not very lively or sincere, and this is probably one of the causes of the fruitlessness of their preaching.


—But even if they were to join example to precept, as did some of their predecessors in past ages, they would succeed no better than did these in inducing mankind to live a life contrary to their instincts. We can not change the nature of things by ignoring it; it remains what it is despite all our opinions and all our errors. The soul of man, such as God made it, and as it manifests itself during the entire time of its union with the body—from the cradle to the grave—is an inexhaustible source of desires (Frederick Bastiat, Harmonies Économiques); and a desire is nothing but a seeking for some satisfaction, or a shrinking from some pain, that is to say, a tendency to well-being.


—This tendency, therefore, is essential to the soul; it is as intimately connected with, and inherent in, our nature, as the mysterious force which attracts them to the centre of the earth is to heavy bodies. All that the will of man can do is to direct this tendency toward some gratifications rather than toward others; but we obey them in all our resolves, even when we constrain present wants in order to enjoy a future gratification, or impose a hardship upon ourselves to escape still greater ones, or resist the temptation to a physical gratification with a view to intellectual or moral pleasure, or even when we practice the greatest possible renunciation, and deny ourselves all of this world's goods with the hope of thus obtaining a happy existence in a better world.


—Among the infinite variety of directions that may be given to our wants, some are more and some less favorable, some are more and some less opposed to the perfecting or improvement of human life. Thus, for instance, nations whose desires are too exclusively directed toward sensual gratifications, soon degenerate, because it is the nature of such gratifications to weaken the vigor and manhood of those who give themselves over to them without restraint, to degrade their affective faculties, to render them at the same time less fitted for intellectual operations, and thus to weaken the principal element of our power. But too absolute a repression of the instincts which urge us to sensual gratifications would be attended with no less pernicious results. Whether this repression be inspired by religious belief, or prompted by the idea—an idea which bears the impress rather of laziness than of philosophy—that it is better for man to stifle his wants than to have to produce the means of satisfying them, the inevitable effect will be to degrade his most precious faculties by allowing them to remain inactive. For it is to their activity alone that we must attribute the immense development which they have acquired, a development which may be estimated by comparing the most civilized portions of the population of Europe with the tribes that have remained almost in their primitive state of barbarism.


—The science of morals point-out to us the reefs upon which our blind tendencies would wreck us; its duty is to show us as clearly as possible the good or evil courses which wants may take, by discovering and indicating to us all the consequences of our inclinations, whether proximate or remote. Of the many courses which these inclinations may take, there is one which will surely lead to our ruin, and others which lead as surely to the progressive improvement of humanity in every respect. It is the part of morals to tell us whither these different courses lead, in order that, while obeying the irresistible impulse of our nature to seek after well-being, we may be less exposed to losing our way.


—In the present state of science this mission of morals is scarcely even outlined, and the only real progress which we have made in this respect for over a century, is due to political economy.


—But, although political economy has thrown a great deal of light upon the consequences of some of the tendencies and habits of mankind taken collectively, its object is not so much to influence us in the direction of our wants as to enlighten us on the general means of insuring their satisfaction. It is for this reason that it takes these wants as they are, and recognizes utility in everything which they cause us to seek, without stopping to examine whether they are rational or not. Those who find fault with it for proceeding in this manner, do not realize that it could not act otherwise without extending its field of investigation beyond measure; that it could not furnish suitable rules to guide us in the choice of our satisfactions, and in the development of our inclinations and tastes, without creating out of whole cloth a science which does not exist. The principles of political economy are in every way independent of the direction our wants take, and they will be none the less true and useful when the progress of morality shall have made the general wants of man better understood, and more strictly conformable to well-being and the perfection of life than they are at present. The natural laws of production, distribution and consumption of the objects of our wants remain the same, no matter what the nature of the satisfactions which these objects procure, and independently of the favorable or injurious results which the habit of these gratifications may have upon individuals and nations. It is with the principles of political economy as with those of mechanics: they remain the same whether applied to the creation of an implement of warfare—an instrument of death and destruction—or suggesting rules for the better employment of the forces employed in the production of means of subsistence. Thus, for instance, the principles of political economy are as well adapted to point out to the savages of North America the general means of obtaining abundantly the alcoholic wants which degrade and kill them, as they are to enlighten civilized nations upon the social conditions most favorable to the increase and diffusion of all that can contribute to the improvement of physical life and of the intellect.


—It is nevertheless true that the progress of morality, without changing anything in the principles of political economy, must aid in rendering the application of those principles more profitable; and the realization of this truth has led most economists to some extent into the domain of morals, while they were seeking to measure the relative extent and merit of different classes of wants, while they were combating the errors and prejudices which favor luxurious and purely frivolous expenses, and condemning those which tend to enervate and degrade nations.


—The wants of nations are never a fixed quantity, they are constantly varying and generally progressive; but they are endowed with such elasticity, even in what concerns food, that experience has frequently shown that great variations may occur in their yearly alimentary production without exercising any proportionate influence upon the number of the population, that the population may increase without an equivalent increase in the quantity of products, and that an increase of general production may coincide with the stationary state of the population. In this latter case the wants of each are more fully satisfied; in the former cases they are necessarily restricted, and there is, consequently, more suffering.


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