Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Laws of Human Want. - The Theory of Political Economy
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The Laws of Human Want. - William Stanley Jevons, The Theory of Political Economy 
The Theory of Political Economy (London: Macmillan, 1888) 3rd ed.
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The Laws of Human Want.
Economics must be founded upon a full and accurate investigation of the conditions of utility; and, to understand this element, we must necessarily examine the wants and desires of man. We, first of all, need a theory of the consumption of wealth. J. S. Mill, indeed, has given an opinion inconsistent with this. "Political economy," he says,1 "has nothing to do with the consumption of wealth, further than as the consideration of it is inseparable from that of production, or from that of distribution. We know not of any laws of the consumption of wealth, as the subject of a distinct science; they can be no other than the laws of human enjoyment."
But it is surely obvious that Economics does rest upon the laws of human enjoyment; and that, if those laws are developed by no other science, they must be developed by economists. We labour to produce with the sole object of consuming, and the kinds and amounts of goods produced must be determined with regard to what we want to consume. Every manufacturer knows and feels how closely he must anticipate the tastes and needs of his customers: his whole success depends upon it; and, in like manner, the theory of Economics must begin with a correct theory of consumption. Many economists have had a clear perception of this truth. Lord Lauderdale distinctly states,1 that "the great and important step towards ascertaining the causes of the direction which industry takes in nations... seems to be the discovery of what dictates the proportion of demand for the various articles which are produced." Senior, in his admirable treatise, has also recognised this truth, and pointed out what he calls the Law of Variety in human requirements. The necessaries of life are so few and simple, that a man is soon satisfied in regard to these, and desires to extend his range of enjoyment. His first object is to vary his food; but there soon arises the desire of variety and elegance in dress; and to this succeeds the desire to build, to ornament, and to furnish—tastes which, where they exist, are absolutely insatiable, and seem to increase with every improvement in civilisation.2
Many French economists also have observed that human wants are the ultimate subject-matter of Economics; Bastiat, for instance, in his Harmoniesof Political Economy, says,1 "Wants, Efforts, Satisfaction—this is the circle of Political Economy."
In still later years, Courcelle-Seneuil actually commenced his treatise with a definition of want—"Le besoin économique est un désir qui a pour but la possession et la jouissance d'un objet matériel."2 And I conceive that he has given the best possible statement of the problem of Economics when he expresses its object as "à satisfaire nos besoins avec la moindre somme de travail possible."3
Professor Hearn also begins his excellent treatise, entitled Plutology, or the Theory of Efforts to supply Human Wants, with a chapter in which he considers the nature of the wants impelling man to exertion.
The writer, however, who seems to me to have reached the deepest comprehension of the foundations of Economics is T. E. Banfield. His course of Lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge in 1844, and published under the title of The Organisation of Labour, is highly interesting, though not always correct. In the following passage4 he profoundly points out that the scientific basis of Economics is in a theory of consumption: I need make no excuse for quoting this passage at full length.
"The lower wants man experiences in common with brutes. The cravings of hunger and thirst, the effects of heat and cold, of drought and damp, he feels with more acuteness than the rest of the animal world. His sufferings are doubtless sharpened by the consciousness that he has no right to be subject to such inflictions. Experience, however, shows that privations of various kinds affect men differently in degree according to the circumstances in which they are placed. For some men the privation of certain enjoyments is intolerable, whose loss is not even felt by others. Some, again, sacrifice all that others hold dear for the gratification of longings and aspirations that are incomprehensible to their neighbours. Upon this complex foundation of low wants and high aspirations the Political Economist has to build the theory of production and consumption.
"An examination of the nature and intensity of man's wants shows that this connection between them gives to Political Economy its scientific basis. The first proposition of the theory of consumption is, that the satisfaction of every lower want in the scale creates a desire of a higher character. If the higher desire existed previous to the satisfaction of the primary want, it becomes more intense when the latter is removed. The removal of a primary want commonly awakens the sense of more than one secondary privation: thus a full supply of ordinary food not only excites to delicacy in eating, but awakens attention to clothing. The highest grade in the scale of wants, that of pleasure derived from the beauties of nature and art, is usually confined to men who are exempted from all the lower privations. Thus the demand for, and the consumption of, objects of refined enjoyment has its lever in the facility with which the primary wants are satisfied. This, therefore, is the key to the true theory of value. Without relative values in the objects to the acquirement of which we direct our power, there would be no foundation for Political Economy as a science."
[]Essays on some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy, p. 132.
[]Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Public Wealth, 2d ed., 1819, p. 306 (1st ed. 1804).
[]Encyclopœdia Metropolitana, art. "Political Economy," p. 133. 5th ed. of Reprint, p. 11.
[]Harmonies of Political Economy, translated by P. J. Stirling, 1860, p. 65.
[]Traité Théorique et Pratique d'Economic Politique, par J. G. Courcelle-Seneuil, 2me ed., Paris, 1867, tom. i. p. 25.
[]Ib., p. 33.
[]2d ed., p. 11.