Wants vs needs: The Senior Dillard’s wisdom

People want things, and people need things. How much of each should other people be forced to provide? Photo: United States Constitution

WASHINGTON, DC, January 9, 2013 ― Though Dillard’s was recently named the second-worst place to work by 24/7 Wall St, there are good reasons why it has lasted as long as it has.

William Dillard Sr., the founder and brains behind the retailer, prepared sales training tapes that all employees were required to view. They covered the usual: how to run the registers, how to read tags and spot fraud, how to return items, and so on.

They also covered some of the customer service philosophy that the “old man” employed, while he was making the company great.

One clip was a sort of “fireside chat,” where Dillard explained why Dillard’s (or any clothing store) could be successful. He asked, “Why do people come into the store?” The stock answer was, “Because they need clothes.”

He then asked, “Have you ever been approached by a naked customer? Then you’ve never met a customer who came in because he needed clothes!”

Dillard made the point that people shop at Dillard’s for the experience: They came into his stores because they wanted quality merchandise at reasonable prices, served up in a pleasant environment (all Dillard’s stores were custom-built), and by knowledgeable, smiling, helpful sales people. They didn’t come there because they needed clothes.

What does this have to do with government?

People need certain things, and they want all sorts of things. People can, and should, provide for most of their own needs, and for all of their wants. Those few needs people have, needs that are impossible to fulfill by themselves (defense, protection against fraud and force), are the reasons why people establish governments. Everything else government does is because those in government realize that they can support themselves more-easily by granting (from someone else’s work) the wants of people who can support them in their poitically-funded offices, either through the trickery of monarchy or the treachery of democracy.

Unlimited democracy quickly degrades into a system of interest groups vying with each other for resources. Productivity is plundered; incentives disappear; poverty, collapse, and starvation follow. “Democracy” without limits, framework, or expectations of restraint is simply a vehicle for class or caste plunder, and the producing class soon loses the will – or ability – to produce.

That’s why political democracies have limits and procedures. (These limits are why unpopular former leaders aren’t executed or exiled when they leave office, even though that may be the peoples’ will.)

The problem with any government, and democratic governments in particular, is that the people who give out the gifts are always under the influence of those who want the gifts.

What if an apartment building were a democracy, where every resident and the landlord each received one vote? The residents could vote to lower the rent to, say, $1. The landlord could argue that the building would fall to dust in no time, but if the residents demanded the low rent, he’d have to grant it. Of course, the building would be uninhabitable in short order. The residents would simply move to other apartments, and do the same thing. This would “work” until there were no more apartments, no more landlords.

What if a democratic country’s voters and politicians agreed that the way to get elected was to grant the wishes – fill the wants – of the people? As long as there was wealth to be plundered, the system would look like it was working. But the producers would slow or stop production, and eventually all the confiscation of all the goods in the realm wouldn’t feed the people.

Those who could would then be forced to produce. Of course, their productivity wouldn’t be as high as it would be if they were going to get the benefit of their work, and more people would be producing less stuff. Poverty, again.

But if government were limited to meeting the needs that only government can supply (like national defense and a court system), things would be different. Most needs would be met by the people themselves, in the way that worked best for them. People would be free to earn a living the way they chose, and they could keep nearly all their earnings. They could then indulge in their wants, choosing from all the possibilities that existed (including charity) – or they could make new things, for other peoples’ undiscovered wants. Needs would be met more-efficiently, as people determined which of their own needs would be a priority, and which wants they would satisfy once those needs were met.

That is why our Constitution limits the size and power of our government; and why the Ninth (“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”) and Tenth (“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people”) Amendments were added, just in case some fool politician wanted to exploit the people, promising fulfilment of all their wants at everyone else’s expense.

Unfortunately, the fools seem to be winning. 

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Tim Kern

Tim Kern taught economics for fifteen years, and discovered that understanding life is easy; it’s recognizing reality that takes practice. He holds a music degree, and later earned an MBA in finance from Northwestern University. He has lived across the US, and now makes his home in Anderson, Indiana.

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