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What’s Wrong with Aspirational Preferences?

April 15, 2009

Mickey Kaus responds to my defense of Samuelson saying “aspirational preferences” sound pretty good to him and that “It seems like it would be hard to achieve any desirable form of equality–equality before the law, equality of opportunity, or social equality–simply by aggregating the choices of individuals spending their own money.”

Perhaps, but here are a few caveats:

  • Going back to the context of Samuelson’s post, even if those are desirable things it is hard to see how increases in types of equality are signs of economic growth or economic progress. His point was that a number of Obama’s plans involve sacrificing economic well being to pursue aspirational preferences.
  • It is hard to know how to value aspirational preferences about people want their society to look because talk is cheap. We know how much I value a new car by the amount I’m willing to pay for it. Not so with aspirational preferences which are mostly expounded rhetorically rather than revealed by the cold hard test what people are willing to forgo to satisfy that preference. Aspirational preferences are mostly satisfied by spending other people’s resources.
  • Aspirational preferences have been used as an excuse for lots of bad policy. Welfare for example: people don’t want to live in a world where single mothers and their children go wanting.

None of this is to suggest that there should be no weight given to aspirational preferences, but I would probably accord them less weight than Mickey and remain highly suspicious of them as justifications for policies that make people economically worse off.

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