Economics and rationing.

Economics, as I have said before, is the study of cause and effect relationships in the distribution of scarce resources that have alternative uses.

“Scarce” means, simply, that there’s never enough to completely satisfy everyone who wants it.  As my Intro to Microeconomics professor put it back in college, “Resources are limited.  Wants are unlimited.”

Scarcity does not necessarily mean, by itself, that there exist ultimate limits in the amount of resources available.  There probably are, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but not because of scarcity.  If, for instance, the universe is infinite in extent and we’re the only sapient life form in it, then that infinite universe, and the infinite resources it represents, would be available to us.  Of course, current understanding of physics and cosmology suggests that the universe is not infinite and it’s still an open question whether there’s anybody else “out there.”  And, if that understanding is correct, the universe being finite would mean that there is an ultimate limit on the resources available.

That there are ultimate limits does not mean that we’re anywhere close to them.  That said, scarcity is not a factor about reaching or approaching ultimate limits.  It’s a statement of what we have available to use, economically, now.

“Alternate uses” is equally important to scarcity.  If each resource only had one use, then we would use it for that and there would be no choices to make.  Resources, however, can generally be put to a number of uses.  Iron ore can be used to make auto bodies, butter knives, or surgical scalpels among many other things.  Wood can make paper, homes, or furniture.  Land can be used for farming, a base for a skyscraper, or left as wilderness.  And so on and so on.

How the decisions on how much of each resource is to be allotted to each use is the subject of economics.  It doesn’t necessarily tell you what that decision will be, only how one might make such decisions.

One thing, however, will be universal in any economic system:  there will be rationing.  Because of scarcity–there’s never enough of everything for everyone who wants it.  That means that some uses are going to get more and others less.  The only question left is how that decision is to be made.

The problem comes when people ignore that reality and try to say “we can provide all of fill-in-the-blank that anybody could ‘need’ (actually ‘want’) if only we…”

Unfortunately, reality doesn’t work that way.  Wants are unlimited.  Resources are limited.  And providing more of one thing means that we’ll have less of the things that were the alternate uses of the resources used, other things that people want/need.

Politicians and their promises are not limited by economic realities.  If there’s one thing that scarcity does not apply to, it’s promises.  Politicians can make promises as much as they want and never seem to run out.

Actually providing the things promised?  That’s a whole other ball game.  And even if they do, they rarely tell you what other things (scarce resources that have alternative uses) you’re giving up for the thing promised.

There’s an old saying, old when Heinlein used in in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” It dates back to bars with signs offering “free lunch.” In those cases the “free lunch” was only for people who were drinking and the cost of the lunch was simply figured into the price of the drinks.  And like a sign offering “free lunch” could not make the cost of the lunch go away, so too politicians’ promises don’t make costs go away.  They simply hide them in something else, or simply refuse to pay them.  But if they refuse to pay them, the folk providing the good or service soon stop.

The only option at that point is force, the threat of violence, to get them to keep providing.

There is a term for that.

So when a politician, or anyone really, who offers to make scarcity go away, to provide all you could ever want of something, of anything, then hold onto your wallet.  Then count your fingers, and your toes, and your relatives.

Because you’d better believe they are doing it for their benefit, not yours.


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