David R. Henderson  

Abba Lerner on Consumer Sovereignty

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One of the deepest scars of my early youth was etched when my teacher told me, "You do not want that," after I had told her that I did. I would not have been so upset if she had said that I could not have it, whatever it was, or that it was very wicked of me to want it. What rankled was the denial of my personality--a kind of rape of my integrity. I confess I still find a similar rising of my hackles when I hear people's preferences dismissed as not genuine, because influenced by advertising, and somebody else telling them what they "really want."
I quote this in my bio of Lerner in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. I called him "the Milton Friedman of the left."

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Arthur_500 writes:

I fully understand his anger as I also feel belittled when someone tells me what is supposedly going on inside my head. Am I unable to have any thoughts for myself?

This often comes out in political discussions. For example one might say that we don't really want some company or individual to fail or to be hungry. As cold as it may seem, I do want to see them fail. When they get cold and hungry then they will be more interested in working. When they fail they might be less able to take others on a ride into failure. Just as there are good aspects of "greed" there is also a good aspect to failure.

But then, I don't really think that way...It's those damned Republicans or Tea Partiers, or ...

Rick Hull writes:

Mr. Henderson,

Surely you are not referring to the author of "The Economics of Control"? TOC exerpt: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bob_roddis/5560086644/in/set-72157626353319778/

Here's Friedman on Lerner's EOC, 1947: http://www.jstor.org/pss/1825534

I can't read beyond the first page, but it does not seem like Friedman identifies with Lerner.

It appears that Mr. Lerner very much wanted to manipulate human action into a statist orgy of purported efficiency.

Clearly, Mr. Lerner held some multifaceted and complex ideas. I suppose I am suffering some cognitive dissonance in trying to relate this man to any concept of liberty.

I would be very interested to read an alternative biography that acknowledges and reconciles his desire for top-down control.

Tracy W writes:

A related one I find is that sometimes people say someone's belief "doesn't count" or wasn't free, because it was influenced by society, but us humans are naturally social animals, indeed there are hardly any cases of humans not influenced by society.

PrometheeFeu writes:

I fully empathize. I am always disgusted by the hypocrisy of such remarks. Wants and desires being grounded in nothing objective, it is (or should be) obvious that anyone who tells you that you do not actually want something is simply projecting their own equally irrational desires onto you laboring under the delusion that they are somehow imbued with special knowledge. The unwarranted arrogance of the remark is incredibly irritating.

Bryan Willman writes:

For sure, likewise the "you must ..." where people turn pale when I ask "and what law of man or physics requires it?"

To be fair, sometimes "you don't want..." is a way of saying "what you think you want works out really badly because of a non-obvious issue" - probably better to say "there are issues with that"...

Joe Cushing writes:

I think he took it the wrong way. The phrase, "you don't want that," is common. It's short hand and it simply means, "if you had all the information that I have, you wouldn't want that." It's an idiom. It doesn't mean what the words say they mean. English is full of these phrases. Somebody needs to tell Lerner about this.

English Professor writes:

I suspect the statement was not reflecting on young Abba's knowledge but his taste. When someone says "you don't want that," he usually means "you shouldn't want that" or "people like us don't want those things." In fact, such statements are intended to socialize the young person into "appropriate" behaviors. This can be either good or bad depending on situation and context. Every time we stop our children from watching a TV show that we think is inappropriate (and some people stop them from watching TV at all), we are telling them in effect that you don't (shouldn't) want to spend your time in that manner.

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