The Wealth of Nations: the first of many

On pg. xixx, there is mention of a view that, though perhaps debatable as to what it genuinely means, would nevertheless benefit from a discussion. That is to say, even if it turns out to be the case that our interpretation of this view is wrong, a discussion on the wrong interpretation will still prove to be useful.

So, whatever is the view? I’m glad you asked.

Adam Smith, as said on pg.xixx paragraph two, conflated the idea of consumption with, “the natural wants of mankind.” That is, he makes no distinction between “the natural wants of mankind which are to be supplied,” and consumption.  Now, there are of course many possible interpretations, such as that Smith was being stylistic in his writing rather than rigorous in his writing, but I, nonetheless, want to assume the simplistic interpretation as a means for discussion.

The simplistic and straightforward interpretation leads to an issue. More specifically, it assumes that what a person wants is necessarily reflected within the idea of consumption, like how unmarried man is necessarily reflected within bachelor. This is simply not the case; humans can consume without wanting, and want without consuming.

Consider the first instance, to consume without wanting. An unhealthy individual may want nothing more than the immediate cessation of medications; however, they are wise enough to know that the gap between reality and their wants is vast, and so they readily do away with their wants in favor of reality. Now consider the second instance, to want without consuming. There are many folks that want to consume marijuana, but they neglect to do so; only because they would much rather abide by the law.  So, there is a legal motivation that raises enough anxiety to stop that person from pursuing their want. So, there are external motivators which influence behavior, and thus make people perform decisions based on practicality.

The point here, then, is that to conflate consumption with human psychology is misleading. Consumption should be left as a description alone since we do not sufficiently understand the human brain: human psychology. When someone purchases Michael Jordan’s shoes, it could be for many reasons: namely, that the purchaser had had a pseudo-scientific belief that it would make them a better player, that the person wanted to save money and so happened to have a discount voucher, or that they were pressured to purchase the shoes by a peer. If there were only 3 options available, and we relied upon consumption to reflect human wants, then we would have a massive misunderstanding in front of us.

Thus, we should never conflate consumption with human psychology, for it is far from an apriori truth that consumption and reflects, entirely, the wants of mankind.


Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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