The Human Condition:

Needs vs. Wants – April 5, 2015


I actually knew someone who won the California lottery. It was back in the 1980s, and the man lived in my mother-in-law’s San Francisco neighborhood. He was retired from the phone company with a pension, a modest house that he and his wife had lived in for decades, having raised children there, and they now had even more grandchildren. I don’t recall the exact amount of his winnings, but for tax purposes they were structured so that he would receive $400,000 a year for twenty years. He kept living in the old house and used that money to get a nice car, buy a vacation cabin on the Russian River, and put his grandchildren through college. Being a prudent man, I’m sure he also set up some generous trust funds. The money greatly improved his lifestyle and his family’s prospects.

I also knew a woman in that neighborhood who wished this man well, but she once told me, “Nobody needs that kind of money. That’s excessive. The lottery should pay out at most about $5,000. That’s enough for anyone.” In other words, keep buying your tickets and dreaming big, but expect to win just enough for a nice vacation—then go back to work.

Shortly after this, the U.S. Congress enacted and the first President Bush signed a luxury tax on expensive goods that people obviously didn’t need. On target were boats costing more than $100,000, cars costing more than $30,000, private aircraft more than $250,000, and furs and jewelry more than $10,000. (Those were big numbers in those days, but slightly more laughable a quarter century later after years of inflation.) To each of these purchases would be attached a ten-percent surcharge designed to reduce the federal deficit as well as discourage such “conspicuous consumption.” The theory was that nobody would mind seeing the millionaires deprived of their toys.1

More recently, on an episode of CNBC’s Closing Bell, I caught an interview with Thomas Piketty, the Parisian economist and author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He was apparently denying that his book was all about income inequality, but he did say that no one really needed a billion dollars. That’s excessive.

This interview coincided closely in my experience with a poster someone was displaying on Facebook: “Why does anyone need an AR-15 with 30 rounds of ammo?” The presumption was that such firepower is excessive. People should be happy with a smaller gun—or maybe with just a cell phone, so they can call 911 when trouble occurs. That’s all anyone really needs.

The presumption in every such case is that, if you don’t need it, you don’t actually deserve to have it. And so you won’t mind if wiser heads decide to take it away from you.

I am averse to all these forms of social control that begin with “Why does anyone need …?” Whether it’s a gun, a yacht, or a billion dollars, the question still presumes that a fair-minded, “normal” person has the right to deny anyone possession of the specified object based on “reasonableness.” Questions of legal use aside,2 this presumption flies in the face of personal freedom and property rights, among others.3

I may not need the object of my desire, or the fortune in the case of lottery winnings, but I do want it. In most cases I must spend time and energy, or their equivalent in money, to obtain the desired object. To have a chance at winning the lottery, I must remember to buy the tickets, seek out lucky numbers or other winning strategies, and sacrifice the other pleasures that the price of those tickets might buy each week. To amass a personal fortune by playing the stock market or climbing the corporate ladder, I must be bold, take risks, focus my talents and energies, and prepare to lose everything during a market collapse or a corporate coup. To acquire that gun, I must—at least in California—take training, pass tests, and submit to a background check. To have that yacht, sports car, airplane, or jewelry, I must spend money that is not available for other purchases or investments. This is my choice. These are my sacrifices. And they are nobody’s business but mine.

The presumption that nobody should be allowed to waste their time, energy, and money on these frivolous desires goes back to the central tenet of Marxism: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” That sounds fair enough—if you are twelve years old, have not yet had to make any tough decisions, and do not yet know how the real world works. But an adult must ponder the parallel questions: Who determines those abilities, and what part do effort and coercion play in exercising them? Who determines what a person needs, and what part do desire and freedom of choice play in acquiring them?

I may have the strength to shovel three tons of coal during an eight-hour shift, but that doesn’t make me willing to do it. I may also have the creative imagination to invent a new kind of energy-efficient light bulb or battery, but that doesn’t mean I want to give it away without what the lawyers call “consideration.” Similarly, I may be able to sustain life on three slices of stale bread and a turnip each day, but that doesn’t mean I won’t beg, borrow, or steal for more. I may be able to survive being packed three to a room and sharing a bed with strangers, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be happy about it.

The Marxist presumption is that I do not have either freedom or rights, other than those granted to me by overseers in the name of “fairness” and “reasonableness.” It presumes that my time, my energy, the strength of my body, and the power of my mind do not belong to me but are surrendered to the control of others who act and speak for a vast, nebulous, inarticulate thing called “society.” It presumes that I do not belong to myself, that I have no authority to enter into contracts and seek my own benefit and advantage. It presumes that I am a slave—and a docile, willing one at that.

Who needs a billion dollars, or a yacht, or a thirty-round magazine? Personally, I don’t. But if that’s where you want to put your time and effort, your energy and your money, I won’t stop you. Knock yourself out, as they say. Life is short. The road is hard. And personal salvation comes in many forms.

1. I don’t know what this luxury tax did for the fur and jewelry market, but my family has always been interested in yachting, including cabin cruisers and sailboats in the 30-foot range. At something north of $100,000, they were in the price range of a summer cabin on the lake, except you could take off and cruise the canals and waterways of the eastern United States. Most of the power boats in this country were made on the Great Lakes, and the tax just decimated that business. The really big yachts—the millionaire’s mansion on a 150-foot hull—are now made in Taiwan or the Philippines, and potential buyers will still pay for them because, in that price range, ten percent more is nothing. But the luxury tax priced the middle class out of the pleasures of boating.

2. The law says I may own a gun, a yacht, or a billion dollars. So long as I don’t use the gun to threaten and/or kill other people, or the yacht to smuggle contraband, or the billion dollars to overthrow the government—or take similar actions which only become illegal through their execution and not because of the ownership of the means—then my right of possession should be secure.
       And for those of you who believe that my possession of any amount of wealth denies other people or my society of an equal amount of money, I refer you to my earlier blog It Isn’t a Pie from October 3, 2010. Money expands by being used and contracts when hoarded.

3. Such as the Second Amendment, in the case of a gun.