Why can’t everything be free?

I assume the question is whether there’s a better way to allocate resources than the market.

Relatedly, the question is whether scarcity can be eliminated, and whether its elimination will make it unnecessary to allocate resources by a principle according to which some receive more than others. If so, then the only principle we’d need is Marx’s: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

Can scarcity be eliminated? Some say that capitalism has artificially multiplied our needs. The idea is that in order to prevent crises stemming from weak demand, capitalist societies create desires for unnecessary things. Without capitalism there would be no need to create these “false needs,” and we would be able to determine what we truly need. If our true needs turn out to be simple and straightforward, we can achieve the elimination of scarcity.

Since we don’t know in advance what our true needs will turn out to be, we can’t know that we’ll be able to eliminate scarcity with respect to them. But for speculative purposes let’s distinguish between things the unavailability of which causes death, and things whose unavailability does not cause death. The first kind are needs, and the second kind are wants.

Even at the level of need, there will still be scarcity because it will be necessary to make choices about where to put resources required to sustain the lives of people who would die without them. Not every possible medical treatment for every possible condition can be developed, and carrying out research into one disease uses resources that will not be available for research into diseases from which others suffer. To keep people with condition X alive is to let people with condition Y and Z die.

So we will always have to think about how scarce resources ought to be distributed. Normative questions will always be unavoidable. Maybe things should be distributed in accordance with work and talent, because individuals have a natural right to keep what they make. Perhaps the wise should decide, or a religion, or perhaps we should distribute resources based on an idea of the common good or general will. Maybe we should distribute goods in accordance with a vision of the best way of life. Or maybe we should let markets allocate goods.

No matter how much we produce, how effortlessly we produce it, and how little we need, we will always have to face the question of how what we produce should be distributed.

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