Natural Value (1889)

by Friedrich von Wieser (1851-1926)

Book I: The Elementary Theory of Value

Chapter III
Gossen’s Law of the Satiation of Want

NV-I-3.1 Every one knows that the desire for food decreases as the want is gradually satisfied, until, finally, when what we may call the “satiation point” is reached, the desire is for a certain time entirely allayed, and possibly changed into its opposite, surfeit and disgust. Every one knows that the same happens in the case of numerous other desires; satisfaction diminishes the craving, and in the end fully destroys and transforms it.
NV-I-3.2 There are several authors who have the merit of having, independently of each other, extended this observation scientifically speaking, and made it the starting-point of their theory of value. These have been mentioned in the preface. Among them Gossen is worthy of particular notice, owing to the fate of the book in which he gave expression to his discovery and to his ideas on economics generally. His Entwicklung der Gesetze des menschlichen Verkehrs und der daraus fliessenden Regeln für das menschliche Handeln, was published in Brunswick in 1854, but it almost entirely disappeared from sight in Germany, although its author had hoped to win for it a Copernican fame. Any one who reads the book will understand why, as well on account of the peculiarities of its excellences as of its faults, – both of which are great. Jevons, in the introduction to the second edition of his Theory of Political Economy, and also Walras, in an essay which appeared in the Journal des Economistes in 1885, have given somewhat detailed accounts of both book and author. Economics owes a great debt to Gossen, and it is with this feeling that I call the law of the satiation of want Gossen’s Law, although my statement of it is not entirely in accordance with his.
NV-I-3.3 It scarcely requires illustration. Gossen himself added to its clearness by the following addition. Alongside of the weakening effect which continued satisfaction has upon desire, we find also, in certain circumstances, the opposite tendency; that the desire grows by repetition and exercise, inasmuch as it is thus developed, gets to know itself, its own end and its own means, becomes purified and elevated. Thus, during the period of development, the law of diminishing desire meets with an opposite tendency, and the law applies unlimitedly only to wants which are entirely developed. Granting this, however, it applies to every want without exception. [Online editor’s note: see Mises’ critique of the conflation of diminishing marginal utility with psychological satiety. – RTL]
NV-I-3.4 There can be no doubt that it applies to those coarser material wants, which recur periodically, as, for instance, the desire for food. Here, however, we must distinguish between the want as a whole and the several feelings of want which are included in it.
NV-I-3.5 The want as a whole of course retains its strength so long as man retains his health; satisfaction does not weaken but rather stimulates it, by constantly contributing to its development, and, particularly, by giving rise to a desire for variety. It is otherwise with the separate sensations of the want. These are narrowly limited both in point of time and in point of matter. Any one who has just taken a certain quantity of food of a certain kind will not immediately have the same strength of desire for another similar quantity. Within any single period of want every additional act of satisfaction will be estimated less highly than a preceding one obtained from a quantity of goods equal in kind and amount.
NV-I-3.6 Many material wants are not intermittent, but require a continuous satisfaction. Such for instance is the need of warmth, the human body requiring to be kept at a certain temperature. Here also Gossen’s law applies. That action which is needed to secure the required minimum temperature, – that is, the expenditure for clothing, fuel, and so on, indispensable for keeping the body in sufficient warmth, – will be most intensely desired, while the multiplication of this necessary expenditure does not affect our well-being in the same degree, and will be much less eagerly desired. In the long run the prospect of any further increase will be met with aversion.
NV-I-3.7 With regard to the higher wants, – those which come into existence whenever the necessaries of life are secured, – the same law obtains. It is not, however, so noticeable to ordinary observation, and, indeed, appearances are rather against it. The wants of wealth appear to be the very opposite to those of poverty. The latter are urgent but narrowly limited; the former can be done without, but, when awakened, show themselves many-sided and extensive. Many-sided, because they are from the first rich in varieties, and become always more so, as one gives rise to another; and extensive, because they frequently include objects of great compass, increasing with the degree of culture attained. On this account it might well be thought that such wants were infinite and subject to no diminution. But on looking more closely at the matter we shall find that, when the same act of enjoyment is repeated without variation, – the very same, and neither extended nor changed, – the result is in this case also weariness and disgust. The thirst of a collector seems to be insatiable, and his object certainly is one of extraordinary compass, even though it be confined to one article. The man who collects books or pictures requires a great fortune, and may not even then be able to fully satisfy his wish. Every new book he acquires serves to stimulate instead of to weaken his desire, and this is not due to morbid extravagance: it is entirely justifiable, as it brings him nearer to his object, the possession of a perfect library or a perfect picture gallery.
NV-I-3.8 But how would it be, if he were offered a duplicate of some work he already had? This and this alone, as Gossen remarked, would be a case of exact repetition, – of the repeated satisfaction of the same impulse; and here, without doubt, the desire would be much lessened, probably entirely destroyed. And thus we shall ever find it to be if we direct our attention strictly to the proper object. Even desires such as that of power or of wisdom, even ambition, greed of honour, thirst for knowledge are not exempt from the same rule. The sum of what these crave, when at their height, is infinite; no man’s life or strength is sufficient to satisfy them wholly even once, not to speak of repeating it. But the single acts which make up this whole sum, the individual effects, exercises of power, acquisitions of knowledge can be repeated and tired of. The charm of the whole lies in the power to vary the items. Nothing on earth is of such a nature that man can go on enjoying it over and over again, and lose himself in its contemplation. This holds of all emotions, from hunger to love.

Previous section         Next section

Up to table of contents

Back to online library