Economic Harmonies: Chapter Three Review – The Inexhaustible Nature Of Wants and What Keeps Them In Check

By Scott Albright

The process of how man’s wants are satisfied as described by Bastiat in chapter two of Economic Harmonies may seem a little dry and methodical to some, but chapter three goes deeper into the depths of a mans essence and being on top of elucidating on some causal relationships.

There have always been deep seated fears that automation emerging in the market via innovative capital investments would make people lazy and create many idle hands. Coupled with this fear is the claim that unfettered capitalism and the full unleashing of free market forces would give rise to immorality and a societal degradation, so to speak.

Chapter three highlights that although suffering is inevitable in our world, it also can and often does act in a manner that tends to rid itself of its own causes.

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. [1]

Part of the reason that people seem to fear that capital investment and wealth creation will eventually lead us to become lazy and idle is that they tend to assume that mans wants and desires are a fixed quantity beyond which people will just consume leisure. They forget that self-interest is the mainspring force that drives humanity and that the well of desires in man is endless.

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. [2]

Also, there is much to be learned from one of the most poignant statements concerning the problems that arise when people believe that wants are a fixed quantity to be desired:

It is impossible to find a good solution to the problem of the machine, foreign competition, and luxury, as long as wants are considered as an invariable quantity, or their capacity for indefinite multiplication is not taken into account.

But if man’s wants are not fixed quantities, but progressive, capable of growth like the inexhaustible desires on which they constantly feed, we must conclude, granting that a balance between the means and the end is the first law of all harmony, that Nature has placed in man and about him unlimited and constantly increasing means of satisfaction. This is what we shall now examine. [3]

Not everyone desires solely economic and monetary gains as their most valuable ends, as the essence of one’s being often desires to enjoy more nobler goals, such as the continual learning and expanding of knowledge, the cultivation of ones intelligence and sensibilities to become more learned and refined, the charitable giving to their less fortunate brethren, close relationships with family, friends, community and extended ranges of society beyond the individual are high on the lists of many.

But we must not forget that enjoying these said desires of a higher order can only be realized after we can provide for our own basic needs.

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. …

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. … 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;. [4]

This certainly would not be espoused by most of the media, the political class, and academic heads of today. Many rant as if the U.S. and the Western World is the problem and that the developing and poverty stricken third world are the benevolent and selfless ones. Today, it is no different sentimentally speaking, as it was in the days of Bastiat. The illogical paradox that this places these claims in is exposed very gracefully by Bastiat, once again.

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?[5]

Another aspect of the nature of mans wants that is lost in most analyses of political economy is the nature of foresight, of anticipating future demand for goods and services, which necessarily includes forgoing/delaying some consumption of goods, or what Murray Rothbard referred to as the lowering of one’s time preferences. This is necessary so that one can consume more in the future, hence the saying “savings is delayed consumption.”

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. [6]

The fact that we must delay consumption, restrain our appetites, grow savings to enable more investment in capital, so that we can consume more in the future, is what helps to naturally keep mans wants in check. No one person or nation ever enriched themselves by consuming away all that they produce. It is this necessary lowering of time preference which forces man to be prudent, frugal, to have an eye for the future, not just to live here in the moment.

Foresight is one of man’s noblest privileges, and it is hardly necessary to say that, in almost all the circumstances of life, the odds are all in favor of the man who best knows the consequences of his decisions and his acts.

Restraint of one’s appetites, control of one’s passions, acceptance of present privation for the sake of future, though distant, gain-these are the essential conditions for the building up of capital; and capital. as we have seen, is itself the essential prerequisite for all the undertakings that are at all complicated or extensive. [7]

Once we examine these truths, we see that one of the harmonies of capital is that it acts as an incentive in and of itself, to promote a bettering of society because it necessitates a foregoing of consumption and an exercising of foresight which requires us to be more wise in all of our decisions and to think more long term. It is not reasonable to think that we can just act a fool, so to speak, live in the moment having no regard for the future, and still expect to prosper.

I shall not dwell on this. We need only look about us to realize that all our strength, all our faculties, all our virtues, work together for the advancement of man and society.

By the same token there is not one of our vices that does not contribute directly or indirectly to poverty. Idleness paralyzes the very sinews of production. Ignorance and error give it false direction. Lack of foresight opens the way to miscalculations. Yielding to the appetites of the moment prevents the building up of capital. Vanity leads to dissipating our energies on illusory satisfactions, at the expense of real ones. Violence, fraud, provoking violence and fraud in return, force us to surround ourselves with burdensome protective measures, to the great depletion of our energies. [8]

Chapter three also reiterates the truths established in chapter two concerning how man attains his ends via using both onerous and gratuitous utility, always attempting to substitute the latter for the former.

However, it is more important for this chapter review to show how mans wants are held in check by the necessities of delayed consumption and foresight necessary to build up capital and to correctly anticipate future demand.

If everyone were to be a spendthrift, uncaring for the future and potential lot of their posterity, this natural harmony of interests could not exist, as the poorer classes could not expect to obtain goods and services on better terms enabled by future capital investment, the productive job opportunities would be more grim for everyone, and there would be more uprisings as a result, especially considering what people grow to expect in terms of living standards and opportunities would be crushed.

The more nobler desires of moral and intellectual development, refining of tastes and cultivation of sentiments would only be available for the few rich who are frugal, if any. The next chapter review will be on exchange, it’s benefits and necessity for economic growth.


[1] Bastiat, Frederic. Economic Harmonies, p. 36, The Foundation for Economic Education, 1996

[2] Ibid, p. 39

[3] Ibid, p. 43-44

[4] Ibid, p. 37

[5] Ibid, p.38

[6] Ibid, p. 34

[7] Ibid, p. 55

[8] Ibid, p. 56

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