The men who make us groan

I didn’t watch the first part of that French dude going on about “The Men Who Made Us Spend“, but I bet it went pretty much exactly like this:

There’s these rich guys, yeah? And they use, like, nice pictures and that as a way of totally tricking you into buying stuff that you don’t even really want, yeah?


This sort of thinking is common, all too common these days. And while there may be variations in jargon here and there, at bottom there is a single premise: it is unnatural for people to want to improve their lives. This is ludicrous.

Libertarians are often on the receiving end of attacks based on nonsense like this. For example, “Who would build the roads?”, a question libertarians get asked roughly once every three minutes and each time as if it was the very first time anyone had thought of it. The underlying idea is that, absent government no one would want to go somewhere else at faster than walking speed. Again, this is ludicrous.


Likewise for the related topic of street lighting. What, it’s simply down to the existence of governments that we prefer not to walk around in the dark? Likewise for questions about security: “What about police?” “What about national defence?” They rest on the presumption that, absent government people wouldn’t care about the defence of their person and property. Absurd, completely absurd.

Am I being unfair? These things are “public goods” after all. They couldn’t possibly be provided by the market, could they? Then again, a prime example of a public good is the fireworks display, but, curiously enough, I’ve never heard it argued that fireworks displays are provided in “suboptimal” amounts, that they are an instance of “market failure”, and must be taken into “public ownership”.


I have a post on the latest Westminster scandal and what liberals can learn from it, here The unpalatable truth about apples and oranges. There’s no kittens, but it’s still pretty cool.

  53 comments for “The men who make us groan

  1. Paul Marks
    Jul 16, 2014 at 6:35 am

    I like the cats (yes I know they are killers – but I like cats). As for people who “make us buy things” – that would be the GOVERNMENT (who make us buy their “insurance” stuff and so on). Fridge manufacturers have not made me buy a fridge (I do not own one), car manufacturers have not made me buy a car (I do not own one), and mobile telephone companies have not made me buy a mobile telephone (I do not own one). but money is deducted from my wages for the stuff the government wants to sell me – so I suspect that the government (and its “intellectual” supporters) are guilty of “projection”, they blame other people for what they themselves are doing.

    As every salesman knows you may be able to con a customer once – but you can not keep on conning them. So if you want a long term customer (and that is what boo-hiss “big business” wants) you have to sell a product the customers REALLY WANT. What a good salesman does is present a good product to people he (or she) thinks would like it (really like it – long term)

    As for the idea that the government (national or local) “must” provide street lighting (and so on) – sadly even famous liberals such as J.S. Mill are to blame for this attitude. The “everyone agrees” stuff one finds in Mr Mill – “everyone agrees” that the local government should ………. even though Mr Mill must have known that (in his time) this was massively contested, people did NOT agree. But then one could also ask why Mr J.S. Mill pretends (in “Principles of Political Economy” 1848) that the “theory of value is settled” with everyone agreeing with the labour theory of value of David RIcardo and his (John Stuart Mill’s) father, James Mill. This claim is made in spite or .J.S. Mill knowing that even in Britain his father’s theory was rejected by such economists as Samuel Bailey and Richard Whately.

    I wish this form of “liberalism” had not replaced the ideas of the Old Whigs – but there we go.

    • Jul 16, 2014 at 5:36 pm

      Schumpeter has a nice line about advertising: “not even the prettiest girl could sell a bad cigarette”.

      Regarding Mill, it’d probably be for the best if liberals dropped him completely.

      • Paul Marks
        Jul 16, 2014 at 8:58 pm

        Quite so Rocco. And Strand cigarette ads were renowned (“You are never alone with a Strand”) – it did not save the product (smokers did not like Stand cigarettes). Ditto the Edsel motor car – Ford pushed the ad campaign massively, but people did not like the car (so it ended).

        First rule of selling – have a product that is worth selling, a product that people will like (if you find the right people). If you can not think of anyone who would really like the product (someone you would not have to con into buying it) – then it is a rubbish product and you should call off the whole campaign before wasting money on it.

        As for J.S. Mill – yes and the rest of the rest of the Westminster Review crowd (those children of Jeremy Bentham – with his 13 Departments of State covering just about everything), paying for the works of Thomas Hobbes to be put in libraries – whist the works of Ralph Cudworth (so admired by the Old Whigs) were consigned to the Memory Hole, and going on about “free trade in land” as a cover for an actual desire for land theft (and on and on).

        Libertarians often make the mistake of thinking that fine language about “freedom” and “liberty” actually means that someone wants smaller government (government doing less things) – often it does not.

        As a young man (yes even I was young once) I made the mistake myself – about both Mr Mill and Mr Thomas Paine.

  2. Jul 17, 2014 at 7:29 am

    Did you leave out private law making in order to spare my objectivist blushes? Or, do you think law should be provided under a democratic mandate in order to be predictabe and

    • Jul 17, 2014 at 8:40 am

      No, man. I just didn’t think to put it in. (But it does seem quite likely that the demand for predictable law would not disappear with government.)

  3. Julie near Chicago
    Jul 17, 2014 at 7:45 am

    1. The Cats. I love the cats! They are adorable.

    2. The problem is not that without the government people won’t want roads. And those other things too. The problem is that without the government, the want will go unsatisfied, because “who will provide the roads?” …The hospitals … the schools … the garbage pickup … the housing …. etc. etc. &c.

    It’s not that people won’t want those things, but that only government can muster up the brains, the ingenuity, the organization, the sheer know-how to build or otherwise provide them.

    I mean, who will provide the babies?!

    Never mind, dear. The government will provide….

    3. I’m afraid that I don’t entirely buy the Party Line about trashily built or useless items’ not selling. It seems to me that a lot of that stuff does sell, and quite well too. People do get hooked on the latest craze (pet rocks? Tulips?) or fad (low-riders? orange wallpaper with black circles?) or whatever … diet crazes, supplements, ideological/political stances dictated by what’s In this decade …. I’ll be the first to defend the proposition that if you enjoy it, it’s not useless — to you, anyway, but “enjoyment” is, for certain values of “enjoyment,” a very low bar. Heroin is “useful” to a heroin junkie, but it’s trash all the same and the list of people it’s killed include Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Belushi, River Phoenix, and on and on and on. (Actually, I don’t know what their preferred drugs were, but whatever their poison they took it gladly enough, I imagine: “useful,” then, only in a sense. Useful, and deadly.)

    Companies (or individuals) can and do successfully sell all kinds of snake oil. Sometimes they know it’s snake oil, sometimes they honestly believe it’s good stuff. But either way, snake oil has a long history of selling well.

    But as for “who will build the roads?”, my answer is,

    “Where we’re going, we won’t need — ROADS!

  4. Jul 17, 2014 at 8:27 am

    Julie, like I said fireworks displays are, in the popular term, a public good but, somehow, they get provided.

    As to snake oil, it doesn’t matter if it works, only if it’s desired. This is obscured by the imaginary distinction between a ‘want’ and a ‘need’.

    • Julie near Chicago
      Jul 17, 2014 at 9:23 am

      Oh, Rocco, yes, we all hear that “every 3 minutes.” LOL! It makes me want to bite. Fireworks — I always assumed that the City of Chicago provided Chicago’s, but where I grew up we had a volunteer fire department, and I think the F.D. provided them. I don’t think it was the City of Amboy (pop. 1800).

      Point 3 addresses the issue of whether people will buy, and continue to buy, a product that either is useless or is poorly made. Now, both of those are to some extent in the eye of the user. As I said, however, “enjoyment,” which comes under the head of “utility” in the economists’ unfortunate jargon, is in some cases a very low bar. Heroin was desired by the late Miss Joplin, so in a peculiar sense it was “useful” to her. (Assuming, again, that it was heroin that she used.) As for the difference between “want” and “need,” this is an instructive case, because it shows that there are different degrees of need: in the short term she needed it badly; I mean, her body literally needed it to approach some sort of bearable functionality. But in the long term, her body need to NOT have it. The thing is both needed and not needed — and at the same time, but NOT in the same sense. This tells us that “need” itself needs context to be meaningful.

      There is in fact a distinction between “want” and “need.” “Wanting” is an emotion. “Needing” is a requirement. If I were in vegetative coma, I would not (so we understand, at any rate) want anything; the apparatus that results in my sensing myself, that is, in my consciousness of self, is shut down altogether. But I would still need: water, nutrition, expulsion of waste.

      I do not, for example, want to take my inhalant, but I need to do so.

      In common parlance, people say they “need” X meaning that X will help them to achieve some end Y which they either want to achieve for its own sake or know they must achieve as a step toward achieving something else — be it a new pair of socks or life itself. It’s entirely possible that while they want the socks but don’t actually require them: they have perfectly good socks at home but these are a different color; they don’t want life, not the life they’re living now, and the only reason they keep on with the chemo is that they understand that having hung onto life despite not wanting it, one day the disease may go away and they will want life again.

      • Jul 17, 2014 at 10:02 am

        Julie, if you were in a coma you wouldn’t need water, etc. Whoever wanted to keep you alive would need to give you water to achieve that result. But there’s no need for anyone to want that.

        If by need we mean the ‘this’ in “I must do this to do that”, then yes, there’s a difference between needs and wants. But the ‘that’ – the want – is never necessary. You can carry on up to “I need to eat to stay alive”, but why do you need to stay alive? Maybe “I need to stay alive to see my daughter get married”,.but why do you need to see that? Etc, etc, ec. The distinction disappears.

        • Julie near Chicago
          Jul 17, 2014 at 8:53 pm

          Rocco, one in a coma certainly does need water — to stay alive. He is simply unaware of the need. Most earthly life-forms, plant and animal, need water, which is a requirement for staying alive. But I haven’t heard lately of any carrots which are actually aware of the need, or aware of anything else for that matter.

          The fact that the carrot or the comatose does need water doesn’t mean that somebody has to (or “needs to,” in very very loose, but common, language) provide it. “Who will build the roads” is an entirely different issue from “Do we need roads?”

          “Why do we need to stay alive?” is a gotcha question that is going to get you into positivist territory. A need is a requirement if a certain end is to be fulfilled; if there is more than one way of going about fulfilling that end, then a need is a requirement if the end is to be fulfilled in a certain manner.

          “Need” requires context to be analyzed and understood. “Needs” do not exist in a vacuum; the term only makes sense when referring to some end that one has in mind. It’s important to note, however, that in most discussions of “need” there is an end that the discussants all tacitly if not explicitly agree upon as the standard of need in that particular discussion. If my daughter brings me her latest creation to taste, she may say “I think it needs something.” The end is a tasty dish and she and I both know that. The doctor says, “He needs adrenaline, STAT!” Why? to get his heart going. Why is that necessary? To sustain his life. Life is the ultimate standard, and certain conditions are needed for a living entity to go on living.

          Putting it in Aristotelian terms, the end of life is to live.

          And if there are no standards, there is no necessity.

          . . .

          Not to beat the dead horse, but in your example, seeing your daughter get married is not necessary to the furtherance of your physical life, but it is necessary to one aspect of the furtherance of your happiness. And your happiness is a perfectly worthwhile, legitimate, respectable end: end, in this case, meaning “a state or condition to be experienced as often and as fully as possible,” though the means of achieving it are constrained by external circumstances and internal judgments of what one may and may not permit oneself to do.

          . . .

          It is true that often we experience a wanting, a wish or desire for, so acutely that it feels, literally, like a need. That fact alone, however, doesn’t tell us whether there is any need to be fulfilled, beyond that of a minor momentary gratification. I bring this up only to point out one of the real-life points which tend to lead to confusion of the very different concepts of “want” and “need.” Generally speaking, people don’t say “I need this Hershey bar!” however much they may want it. Well, where the standard is mere gratification of a desire, the word “need” does apply if one wishes to be ultra-technical about it: So the Hershey bar is a necessity, at that particular instant, to the gratification.

          On the other hand, if one is on the edge of heat-stroke, one needs to cool off fast (that is, one’s body will malfunction very badly if its temperature is not brought down NOW, and quickly: this is the nature of the need in question) and one WANTS to cool off fast, or possibly simply to cease all activity. These two things, the need and the desire, are not the same, but the particular need arouses the particular wanting, or desire, to a very high level, so that the subject is consciously and urgently aware of the desire.

          • Jul 17, 2014 at 10:54 pm

            Yeah, it’s all about context, but the context is an infinite series of because-I-want-this’s. Which renders needs and wants indistinguishable. (Of course, anyone is entitled to pick an arbitrary point and say “this far and no further”. But no one else needs to take this seriously.)

            • Julie near Chicago
              Jul 18, 2014 at 1:21 am

              Rocco, let me ask you something. What are your definitions of the nouns “need” and “want”?

              Perhaps they are sufficiently different from mine that we are talking past one another. If so, we can either start fresh from a common understanding, or simply call it quits.

              However, I really would be interested in knowing what impels you to consider wants and needs to be the same; that is, that “Want” and “Need” are, literally, synonyms. Other than the fact that we commonly use the words loosely and to some extent interchangeably. That’s the only reason I can think of. Go back to the coma patient and the carrot. They both need water, and yes, they need it for a particular reason, but neither of them wants water because neither of them has the biological equipment required to want anything.

              The fact that you can then ask, “why do they need to live?” is neither here nor there in determining what the word “need” means, or whether it stands for a valid concept. But the answer to the question, “why does a living entity need to live?” is that its nature is fundamentally changed, that is, that it becomes something of an entirely different order of things, if it ceases to live.

              . . .

              As to your parenthetical observation, I would point out that in fact, (a) anyone can say anything (given only that they have the necessary vocal equipment), and (b) no one else needs to take the saying referred to in (a) seriously —

              For certain values of “needs,” that is. In this case, I’m guessing you mean something like “no one else has to take this seriously,” or “no one else is compelled to take this seriously.” Perfectly true. I can say “2 plus 2 make 4,” but you are not compelled to take this statement seriously except by your own self.

              . . .

              I will observe also that people often use the word “want” (whether as a noun or as a verb) in an anthropomorphic way. “This tomato plant wants water!” Used in this particular sense, “want” really is standing in for “need” and is used as a synonym. But that is not the sort of usage we’re discussing here.

  5. Julie near Chicago
    Jul 18, 2014 at 1:31 am


    All living entities have needs, some but not all living entities have wants, and non-living entities have neither.

    . . .

    And with that we are squarely in the area of Ayn Rand’s theory of values.

    • Julie near Chicago
      Jul 18, 2014 at 7:23 am

      CORRECTION: “Non-living entities have neither [needs nor wants].” This misstates the case: Non-living entities do “have needs” in that certain requirements must be met if they are to exist, as I point out below. Or, for example, fire needs oxygen if it is to exist.

      However, when we make such statements we commonly say something like “Fire needs oxygen” or “this sewing machine needs oiling.” We leave off “if it is to exist” or “if it is to work properly” when it seems to us that the reason for the need will be clear, though tacit.

  6. Julie near Chicago
    Jul 18, 2014 at 6:36 am

    For the sake of thoroughness: We do speak of the “needs” of non-living entities, of course. “This engine needs gasoline if it is to run.” But non-living entities don’t have “wants” in the same way that living things (certain animals) do.

    So in the discussion, since we’ve been looking at whether “want” and “need” are distinct concepts, I’ve been thinking only in terms of living entities.

  7. Paul Marks
    Jul 18, 2014 at 7:52 am

    An interesting discussion. As for the distinction between “needs” and “wants” – the left believes that “wants” are created by evil capitalists (via advertising) whereas they (the noble left) know what people really “need” and would really “want” if only they were not brainwashed by the evil capitalists of “big business”. it is really an attack upon agency – and it goes back to Karl Marx (false consciousness) and Rousseau (“the will of all” not being the true “general will”). It is actually projection – as it is they (the left) who seek to brainwash people – via the education system and the “mainstream” media (including the entertainment media). They blame “the capitalists”, “big business” for what (in reality) they (the left) try to do. Human agency does exist (we are NOT just “motivational drives”), but we have to make a real effort – and that effort is not helped by the left, in fact the left (via the education system and the media and so on) is what each person has to try and make an effort AGAINST (in order to resist the totally twisted picture of reality they try and implant within us). “Paul we know all this” – yes, but I love stating the obvious.

  8. Julie near Chicago
    Jul 18, 2014 at 9:07 am

    That, Paul, is because you and I as well both have a bit of the hobbit in us. Well, at least I sure do…. From memory: “They like books filled with things they already know, laid out fair and square with no contradictions.” :>))

    On the other hand, a good nail-biter is always a joy to read. Quiller, and the Butch Karp & Marlene Ciampi series (up through about book 13 anyhow) by Robert K. Tannenbaum. (He’s a NYC Assistant DA with a heavy moral sense; she’s also a NYC Assistant DA, but being Sicilian her moral sense is a little more intuitive and earthy. These two series are my all-time favorite adult series. Paul, I really think you’d get a kick out of Butch and Marlene. The stories tend to have dark material in them, but they are also good-natured, amusing, and nobody is still battling Demon Rum although he gave it up 800 years ago–which is what you get all the time in legal thrillers by Irishmen. American ones, anyway. 😉 )

    • Paul Marks
      Jul 18, 2014 at 9:19 pm

      Well Julie you do not have my “large, and hairy, feet” (and I do indeed have them) and you are not from the English Midlands – but I am happy to acknowledge a fellow Hobbit.

      American detective stories – I do not think I have any in the house, I know that sounds snobby but it was not meant to be. After all I always enjoyed listening to such stories on the radio.

      Not the really “hardboiled” ones though – as these always tended to be variations on the theme that “everyone is corrupt – especially the rich”, which was meant to be shocking but ended up a bore.

      Not that I let ideology ruin a good story though – my fellow Englishman (who became a West Coast drunk) may have written the same sort of story, but at least he did it with a bit of style.

      But again – I really know the stories via radio and film (not the actual books).

      • Julie near Chicago
        Jul 18, 2014 at 11:26 pm

        True, my feet are neither large nor hairy, though they have broadened with age. I used to be unable to get shoes that would stay on my feet after a few wearings, as the Slimy Capitalist Scum never offered to buy me custom-made ones, the rats. :>))

        Butch and Marlene are not hardboiled. The real author (Michael Gruber, Mr. Tannenbaum’s cousin) once said he thought of them as domestic comedies, and there’s surely an element of that. They fight the good fight, but actually the various Bad Guys share neither Class, nor Race, nor motivation.

        Your fellow Englishman? Who? Not Hammett, not Chandler….

        • Paul Marks
          Jul 18, 2014 at 11:36 pm

          Everything broadens with age… especially my belly.

          Yes I was thinking of Chandler (or at least of the films and radio adaptations) – yes he was a West Coast drunk whose stories had a lot of plot holes, but he had a certain style (and their was nothing vicious in the man).

          As for Mr Hammett not a likeable chap (not at all) – but at least he was not as bad as his wife.

          Now there was someone who lived up to her name…….

          • Julie near Chicago
            Jul 19, 2014 at 1:36 am

            My personal acquaintance with Mr. Chandler is limited to Mr. Robert Mitchum’s representation of Mr. Philip Marlowe — Farewell My Lovely — which was a heckuva good one. Great movie. And the first three or four times I saw it I thought it was absolutely chilling. Especially where that phat voman gives him the knockout-drug. (Her part is relatively small, but to my mind she’s the other really fine actor-ess in the movie.) I take it back, I also saw Mr. Bogart in the same rôle. I liked Farewell better. So sue me.

            I fancy you refer to the disgusting Miss Lillian Hellman. I did think The Children’s Hour was a terrific play, though some say that Mr. Hammett’s editing/rewriting/writing was what made her plays good. (I wouldn’t know, as my only acquaintance with Mr. Hammett is via Mr. Bogart as Sam Spade.) I read it in the afternoons, on the school bus going home. I was a teenager and in my Play Phase. (I even read Eugene O’Neill.) I was angry the entire time. (Because those snotty girls got their teacher into such deep trouble.) Interestingly enough, Tea and Sympathy came out about the same time. Very good movie.

            • Paul Marks
              Jul 19, 2014 at 8:28 pm

              Yes Lillian Hellman – the person who, in moral terms, could go through a closed door without opening it (by oozing under the crack). Jack Cashill in “Hoodwinked” gives an account of this person.

            • Julie near Chicago
              Jul 20, 2014 at 7:35 am

              Referring to your comment on Cashill on Miss Hellman, I haven’t read his book, but now I think I will see if it’s in the library. I would love to read what he says about her. *g*

  9. Jul 18, 2014 at 10:22 am

    Julie, a need is either a more strongly felt want; or a want that has some (usually patronising) normative connotation attached, eg, “You don’t really want this” or “You should want this” ; or – where it takes on the appearance of necessity – an inherent part of a larger desire (“I must have this because I want that”). But in this last case the desire itself is ‘hypothetical’ – there is never a necessity for the “that”.

    Usually death tries to ride to the rescue, eg, “if I don’t eat I’ll die, so I need to eat”. Yes, but only if you prefer to stay alive, and there’s no necessity to prefer that. So the “need” to eat is hypothetical. It has no more weight, no more ethical significance, than wanting a new jumper, or wanting to scratch an itch.

  10. Julie near Chicago
    Jul 18, 2014 at 10:40 am

    Well, Rocco, I’ve offered definitions of both “need” and “want” that clearly show they are in entirely different categories, and the definitions and their application to vegetable life and even to non-living entities make it equally clear that to consider them synonyms, or near-synonyms differentiated only by the degree of feeling/wishing/desiring/wanting by, say, the carrot, is a category error.

    You do not present any alternative definitions, but only assertions about whatever it is that you mean by these words.

    Thus we are at an impasse. But I thank you for the opportunity to clarify and present my own thoughts on the subject, and Simon for hosting the discussion.


    • Jul 18, 2014 at 11:09 am

      Yeah, it’s probably an Objectivist thing.

      But what about this, Julie. Your fundamental point is that “needs” are what is necessary for continued existence, yes? You need water, food, shelter, or else you’ll die. But how many people kill themselves over a broken heart? Or because they’re unattractive? Or because they lost their job? Or because they lost their house? Or because they just couldn’t be bothered? These people clearly “needed” something that other people merely “want” – their suicides demonstrated this. So literally anything can be a “need”, and as we can’t know until someone kills themselves, and anyone can kill themselves over anything at any time (now and until the end of time) any useful distinction between wants and needs breaks down.

      (Also, what’s the difference between an assertion about what I mean and an alternative definition?)

      • Jul 18, 2014 at 12:30 pm

        Objectivism does not, I think, make a distinction. It advocates that people ought to pursue a long happy life just as vigorously as they pursue a long one.

        Rand did also say that “need” is not a mortgage on the lives of others, so Rocco, with his gruesome examples is not a million miles away from Rand, but she would have criticised his choice of example. Philosophy, especially ethics, is for living in a civilised world and should not focus unduly on emergencies and gruesome edge cases.

        • Jul 18, 2014 at 1:17 pm

          I think that this issue requires gruesome examples. As long as “or else I’ll die” is a trump card State intervention is justified, morally and practically, in any case where “or else I’ll die” is applicable. Which, given the ever-present possibility of suicide, is everywhere.

          I wrote something about this here

          • Jul 18, 2014 at 2:07 pm

            The existential crisis is over if civilised life is possible. Getting in an emotional flap is not an existential crisis because you can volitionally not be in a flap at any time.

            • Jul 18, 2014 at 3:35 pm

              But the only way to know for sure is if a person kills themselves. Could you take that risk? Or rather, if you were an elected politician could you risk having “their blood on your hands”?

              Either way, the principle stands. If need is qualitatively different from ‘merely’ wanting something, and justifies intervention, wherever there is need there can (and even should) be intervention. There are, logically, no limits to “needing”; there are, therefore, no limits to intervention. (Consider what is thought to be “needed”, hence provided by the State, today compared with a century ago. And more than likely, a century from now there will be many times more needful things than today.)

  11. Richard Carey
    Jul 18, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    That there may be no clearly-marked and objectively agreed border between a want (a desire) and a need, does not mean that there is no difference between them. Likewise, the existence of hermaphrodites does not signify that there is no difference between males and females.

    • Jul 18, 2014 at 1:02 pm

      I don’t deny that some desires are felt more keenly than others, I deny that there is an independent class of desires that are somehow ‘more real’ than others. They are all just preferences, each as real (and as subjective) as the next.

      • Richard Carey
        Jul 18, 2014 at 3:28 pm

        There is a difference and it’s not subjective. If someone needs water and does not have any, he will die of thirst. His death is not a choice he makes, but a biological inevitability. If someone “needs” a coffee but cannot obtain one, he will not die. If he chooses to kill himself because he is so distraught over the absence of coffee (an over-reaction I would say, albeit one I could sympathise with) this is not the same as dying of thirst. Indeed his act of suicide will likely provide a further example of need, for instance if he hangs himself, he will be demonstrating the objective necessity of breathing air.

        The values each of these people attach to obtaining water in one case and coffee in the other are certainly subjective, but the physical need of water to sustain life is an objective, demonstrative fact, which is not at all changed by whether anyone in particular desires water or indeed values his own life.

        That this is the case does not validate the state providing water (or coffee), even if it is used to justify such a thing.

        • Richard Carey
          Jul 18, 2014 at 3:33 pm

          I suppose you will say that you do not recognise a distinction between being in a state of death, due to an absence of something fundamental (e.g. water, oxygen), and being in a state of dissatisfaction, due to the absence of something subjectively important (e.g. coffee). However, although dissatisfaction is subjective, surely death is not?

          • Jul 18, 2014 at 4:13 pm

            Why would I think that being dead is subjective?

            Re: need justifying State intervention. I don’t think it does (I wouldn’t be much of an anarchist if I did), you don’t think it does, no one in this thread does I’d guess, and no one reading this does I’d hope. But the majority of people do. If they didn’t we wouldn’t live in a “liberal democracy”.

        • Jul 18, 2014 at 3:51 pm

          If I want to go on living I need air. But the need for air depends on wanting to go on living. It’s a component part of that, an inherent part of that. If I don’t want to go on living, I don’t need air, it’s superfluous to my requirements. So needing air and wanting air are, to all intents and purposes, the same thing.

          • Richard Carey
            Jul 18, 2014 at 7:12 pm

            “… Suppose now that Crusoe is confronted with a choice of either picking berries or picking some mushrooms for food, and he decides upon the pleasantly tasting mushrooms, when suddenly a previously shipwrecked inhabitant, coming upon Crusoe, shouts: “Don’t do that! Those mushrooms are poisonous.” There is no mystery in Crusoe’s subsequent shift to berries. What has happened here? Both men have operated on an assumption so strong that it remained tacit, an assumption that poison is bad, bad for the health and even for the survival of the human organism—in short, bad for the continuation and the quality of a man’s life. In this implicit agreement on the value of life and health for the person, and on the evils of pain and death, the two men have clearly arrived at the basis of an ethic, grounded on reality and on the natural laws of the human organism.

            If Crusoe had eaten the mushrooms without learning of their poisonous effects, then his decision would have been incorrect—a possibly tragic error based on the fact that man is scarcely automatically determined to make correct decisions at all times. Hence, his lack of omniscience and his liability to error. If Crusoe, on the other hand, had known of the poison and eaten the mushrooms anyway—perhaps for “kicks” or from a very high time preference—then his decision would have been objectively immoral, an act deliberately set against his life and health. It may well be asked why life should be an objective ultimate value, why man should opt for life (in duration and quality). In reply, we may note that a proposition rises to the status of an axiom when he who denies it may be shown to be using it in the very course of the supposed refutation. Now, any person participating in any sort of discussion, including one on values, is, by virtue of so participating, alive and affirming life. For if he were really opposed to life, he would have no business in such a discussion, indeed he would have no business continuing to be alive. Hence, the supposed opponent of life is really affirming it in the very process of his discussion, and hence the preservation and furtherance of one’s life takes on the stature of an incontestable axiom.”

            Rothbard “Ethics of Liberty” chapter 6

            • Jul 18, 2014 at 7:55 pm

              And yet, Rothbard not withstanding, suicide is possible, and people top themselves every day of the year. For these people life was anything but an “ultimate value”. Their “demonstrated preference” (Rothbard, Towards a reconstruction…) was for death.

              We might also note that Rothbard is wrong about this. Life is not “the ultimate value.” No one lives for the sake of living, but for things in life. Eg, “I need to eat because I want to stay alive” “But why do you want to stay alive?” ” I want to see how Game of Thrones ends.”

  12. Julie near Chicago
    Jul 18, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    All: One more time.

    A “want” as I use it in this discussion, and as it its commonly used in America anyway, is an emotion. A feeling. These are not experienced by anything except animals, and probably not by them (do ants have emotions?).

    A need is a requirement. A thing that must be done or had if something else is to occur or be.

    Surely it is clear that an emotion isn’t a requirement. For example, I felt the emotion of pleasure when I when I ate a chocolate bar. But the fire needs oxygen to burn.

    Rocco, your “definition” of “needs” not at all clear to me at least, since for one thing you seem to thing that all needs are requirements for human life or at least for some aspect of it, and since you seem determined to simply state over and over that a need is a wish/want/desire. This is a perfect example of a definition that begs the question.

    Furthermore, the fact that some–SOME–needs, clearly not all of them, are a product of desire or wanting, and that they are required for the gratification of some further desire or wanting, does not mean that the concept of need is superfluous or is the same as the concept of desire or wanting.

    Is it the case that in British English people commonly use “want” and “need” interchangeably? — “For want of a nail a kingdom was lost,” although there “want” really means “shortage” or “lack,” though still the underlying problem is the unfulfilled need for the nail to shoe the horse properly. I doubt it, but that would explain the difficulty people seem to be having distinguishing between the two.

    . . .

    In the end, wants and needs are entirely different orders of things and to equate them is a category error and an obvious one at that. This is the crucial point. It is true that a want can generate a need — If I want to have a lobster dinner, I will need to earn the money to pay for it — the want and the need are not the same. I want a lobster dinner, therefore I need to earn the money to pay for it. I don’t particularly want to finish building this chair, but I want the money to buy my lobster dinner, and the best way to do that is to sell the chair, so I need to finish building it. I might say, loosely, that “the chair still wants a seat,” but that’s an alternative usage of the kind mentioned above, and what it means is that the chair still needs a seat in order to be complete: in order to be fully a chair.

    Rocco, one more time. Your body needs air to go on living. This is a perfectly true statement absolutely unrelated to the issue of whether you WANT to go on living. And if you do want to go on living, that’s absolutely unrelated to the issue of whether your body requires air to do so.
    . . .

    Richard Carey, above at 12:20, speaking within a much narrower context, is right within that context, as follows. It can be difficult to distinguish between a want and a need, because our experiencing of need is so often manifested in our awareness as the emotion we call a “want.” The result is that a lot of the time people dispense with the discussion about such a distinction, and think of “wanting” and “needing” as existing along a spectrum, at one end of which they locate wanting with virtually no “needing” involved and at the other, needing with almost all the wanting removed.

    That’s the standard counter-argument to the idea that needs are just wants, only maybe wants writ large, which is Rocco’s argument.

    • Jul 18, 2014 at 8:40 pm

      Rocco, one more time. Your body needs air to go on living. This is a perfectly true statement absolutely unrelated to the issue of whether you WANT to go on living. And if you do want to go on living, that’s absolutely unrelated to the issue of whether your body requires air to do so.

      No. It is anything but unrelated. Carrying on living is a choice. To say “I need air to live” is shorthand for “I want to keep living”. To say of someone who is starving themself to death “This person needs food” is shorthand for “I think this person should want to keep on living”.

      • Richard Carey
        Jul 18, 2014 at 10:12 pm

        “To say “I need air to live” is shorthand for “I want to keep living”.” Maybe, but to say “my body needs air to live” is an objective fact, irrespective of the individual’s will to live.

        Also, consider stating the opposite, and you will find there is a difference. To say “I don’t want to keep living” makes sense. To say “I don’t need air to live” makes no sense at all.

        “To say of someone who is starving themself to death “This person needs food” is shorthand for “I think this person should want to keep on living”.”

        It may be, but it may also be a paraphrase of “if this person does not eat something, he will surely die”. The idea may be “this person needs food – or else he will die”; an objective fact.

        I think your problem is you have taken subjectivity to the point of nihilism, where it becomes a rejection of any kind of objectivity.

        • Julie near Chicago
          Jul 18, 2014 at 10:49 pm

          Thank you very much, Richard. You’ve stated the problem (in the context of specifically-human wants vs. needs) excellently. Succinct and to the point. Well done.

          • Richard Carey
            Jul 19, 2014 at 8:37 am

            Thanks. I feel appreciated 🙂

        • Jul 19, 2014 at 11:39 am

          While I’m probably less bothered by the accusation of being a nihilist than most people, not only is it an inaccurate charge, it’s a bizarre one given I’ve repeatedly said there are objective necessities.

          Will a man starve without food? Yes. Will he die without oxygen? Yes. Will this car run without fuel? No. Can I reply to a comment on this thread without an internet connection? No. Etc, etc, etc. There is necessity here, I don’t deny it, no sane person would.

          But all this necessity, this need, counts for naught unless there is a desire, a preference, on the part of some person. Yes, I need a keyboard to reply, but only if I want to reply to you, Richard. There is no necessity for me to reply to you. No need exists independently of a want, a desire, a preference on the part of some individual. So, when someone says “I need X”, this is shorthand for “I want Y (so I must have X)”. The important part – the only important part from the political or social perspective – is “I want Y”. If this person didn’t want Y, they wouldn’t need X. Every expression of a need is nothing but the expression of a want, and has no more value, no more dignity, and no more or better claim to being fulfilled, than a “mere” want.

          • Richard Carey
            Jul 19, 2014 at 12:34 pm

            “Every expression of a need is nothing but the expression of a want, and has no more value, no more dignity, and no more or better claim to being fulfilled, than a “mere” want.”

            This seems to lack any trace of morality. Is it really the case that there is no difference between, for instance, a man runs up to you in the street, ascertains that you have a mobile phone, and then says (A) “please call an ambulance, there’s been a terrible accident” or (B) “please call Domino’s, I’ve got the munchies and I really need a pizza”?

            Now, let us suppose in both cases you refuse to make the call, and in both cases the man grabs the phone from you and makes the call himself before returning you the phone, and in both cases the police arrive, arrest, charge and prosecute him for assault. He pleads guilty, and faces punishment for his violation of your property rights.

            What does justice require with regards such punishment? Is there no distinction between the two cases? I would say there is a difference on the level of morality, and if justice is a moral quality, the distinction should be taken into account, not in the definition of what constitutes a crime, but rather in deciding what is an appropriate punishment for the offender and what is an appropriate recompense for the victim.

            The point of bringing morality into this matter is because, I think, in your reasoning you are going back beyond the correct starting point, and saying “if” when you should say “given that”. This is why I am saying you are taking subjectivity to the point of nihilism (which is not quite the same as calling you a nihilist), because I’m not sure how, from where you’re starting, you can construct any kind of defence of property rights or individual sovereignty which cannot be dismissed as a mere subjective whim.

            But maybe I’ve got the wrong end of the stick 🙂

            • Jul 19, 2014 at 3:19 pm

              So the same – objectively the same – property violation takes place, but in one case because of a mere want, in the other because of a “real” want or “need”. The latter should be treated as not really being a property violation because of the genuine “need“ of the violator (or those who he represents).

              And yet somehow I’m the one who must prove my commitment to private property? Yeah right, dude.

            • Richard Carey
              Jul 19, 2014 at 4:24 pm

              You don’t have to prove anything to me. I don’t doubt your commitment to private property. What I wonder is what you base it upon and how you would defend its legitimacy from the philosophical position that you are taking.

              I also note you do not acknowledge any difference in the two cases I mention (and somewhat misrepresent my point in your paraphrase). Why is this? Because, I think, your system of thought lacks a moral dimension. Which goes back to the point above. I don’t doubt your libertarian bone fides, but I think the logic you would use to defend it could be undermined by some of your own arguments.

            • Jul 19, 2014 at 4:35 pm

              My position is already a defence of property. It’s a defence against – or, better, an attack on – the popular idea that a “need” is a claim on another’s property.

            • Jul 21, 2014 at 7:55 am

              Perhaps you both have not gone far back enough. What is the point of a moral code in the first place?

            • Jul 21, 2014 at 11:02 am

              To minimise – ideally to eliminate – conflict.

              On the off-chance anyone is still reading at this point, here’s a restatement with reference to conflict and “need” in the modern world:

              We live in a world where, on the one hand, “need” is commonly thought to confer rights; on the other hand, ‘merely’ wanting something is not commonly thought to confer rights. These “rights” are, of course, rights to other people’s property, and are enforced by the State “at the point of a gun”. That is, these “rights” create conflict.

              Now (ignoring the opinions of passers-by and ‘disinterested’ or ‘enlightened’ observers), a need is either simply a ‘mere’ want more strongly felt; or the mechanically necessary non-independent component of some other ‘mere’ want. It is of utmost importance to realise that the “necessity” does not belong to that other want, it does not carry over to it. For it is the mistaken belief that it does carry over which gives the appearance of necessity to the now-not-so-mere want without which the “need” does not exist. And it is this appearance of necessity (the “something must be done”-ness) that leads to “needs” and “wants” being treated so differently in political life.

              If liberals ever want to do away with redistribution, we must delegitimise “need”. Or, to put it in gentler language, we must homogenize “needs” and “wants”.

            • Tim Carpenter
              Jul 22, 2014 at 3:42 pm

              To me, if the person was indeed taken to court, that the jury may nullify the charge if it was proven that the person temporarily took property in all sincerity to save life or property from clear and present danger. Of course, the common sense approach may be to not press charges to begin with, once the reality had unfolded.

              Due process should be available, and must be seen to be so, otherwise I suspect some would think any “need” or “want” would justify violation of freedoms and property.

              What am I saying – people do not have phones borrowed, but their wealth and earnings taken by force under the pretext of want and need of others.

  13. Paul Marks
    Jul 20, 2014 at 11:02 pm

    Julie – “Hoodwinked” by Jack Cashill is a wonderful book Apart from when he hints at his own position on biological evolution – although he does not formally state what his position is.

    Like the 19th century James McCosh I am a full supporter of the theory of biological evolution – I believe the scientific case for it is overwhelming.

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