Finiteness vs Scarcity

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Jean Robert et al. :

"Scarcity is an inherently relational concept. It refers to the dearth, the insufficiency of something; that is, the quantity of something in relation to the need, want or desire for it. Scarcity should be distinguished from finiteness, which is not a relational concept. Finiteness is an objective property of things independent of the needs or purposes of men. Obviously, finite quantities do not imply fixed quantities – the quantity of rainwater in the Sahel may vary from year to year but in each year there is a finite amount. In contrast, whether a finite quantity of water is insufficient depends on the purposes of its use. The amount that is excessive for a home with a dry toilet will be insufficient for one with five flush toilets and a lawn. Thus insufficiency or scarcity necessarily entails judgments on the appropriateness of needs and wants. Evaluations of scarcity or abundance, of too little or too much, are non-quantifiable judgments utterly distinct from numerical measurements.26

This contrast between finiteness and scarcity is not sufficiently drawn either in economics or more generally.27 Scarcity is a relational measure of experience, inextricably binding the quantity of things to the purposes of men. It is a measure of the insufficiency of finite quantities and cannot itself be measured by number. In contrast, the finiteness of a thing can be measured in numbers. For example, ‘X gallons’ is a quantitative measure of the finiteness or limitedness of water. Scarcity cannot be reduced to finiteness since finiteness is only a necessary but not sufficient condition of scarcity. That water is finite is a truism that does not imply that water is scarce. Despite the conceptual distinction between finiteness and scarcity, the latter has a strange connotative power. Typically, the phrase ‘X is scarce’ draws attention to the quantity of X while passing over the purposes for which it is insufficient. The phrase ‘water is scarce’ tends to mistakenly emphasize only the necessary but not sufficient condition that makes water scarce; it tends to reduce the experience of scarcity to the quantity of water.

Neoclassical economists are heirs to the classical economists insofar as they accept acquisitiveness as a natural condition. To popularize constrained maximization as the ‘science of scarcity’, they however foster a systematic confusion between finiteness and scarcity. The ‘scarcity’ they invoke is endemic and ineradicable. It is not caused by the unavailability of things. After all, the landfills that have grown to the size of small hills are enough proof that modern societies waste more than previous generations have ever consumed or used. Instead, scarcity is now inexpungible because needs have proliferated into endless wants. Yet the tendency of ‘scarcity’ to be identified with limited quantities suggests otherwise. Perhaps the connotative power of ‘scarcity’ is a leftover from bygone days when needs were culturally bound and stable. Perhaps it is now actively maintained to prevent judgement on the appropriateness of wants and desires. In either case, the use of ‘scarcity’ today tends to reinforce the illusion that it is caused by the unavailability of things instead of the excessiveness of wants. And it is the mainstream of economic science since Adam Smith that has signally contributed to this illusion. On the one hand it legitimizes and propagates the sufficient condition of the experience of scarcity—insatiable desires; and on the other, proposes to solve the problems created by such limitless acquisitiveness.

This dual dynamic of attempting to solve a problem with the same thought style that contributes to it, is painfully obvious in the case of the growing concern with ‘water scarcity.’ "