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The Difference Between Wants vs. Needs in Economics

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  • 0:00 Wants vs. Needs
  • 0:40 Wants, Needs, and Economics
  • 1:54 The Invisible Hand
  • 3:24 Wants, Needs, and Substitutes
  • 4:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and is currently working on his PhD in Higher Education Administration.

The field of economics is focused on how the market uses supply and demand to generate a price and influence producer strategy and consumer behavior. In this lesson, we'll learn how consumers' wants and needs impact supply and demand.

Wants vs. Needs

Two people could argue for hours about whether a given product or service is a need. Obviously, circumstance and frames of reference are important in this discussion. What one person needs, another person wants. Also, there are a variety of ways to meet a need or a want.

For example, we all need to eat. But does that mean we need to eat a filet minion with fresh steamed vegetables and a nice glass of white wine? While at first glance it's easy to assume the difference between wants and needs, when you really start getting into it, the differences can be difficult to articulate.

Wants, Needs and Economics

Quite simply, the economic definition of a need is something needed to survive. In economics, the idea of survival is real, meaning someone would die without their needs being met. This includes things like food, water, and shelter.

A want, in economics, is one step up in the order from needs and is simply something that people desire to have, that they may, or may not, be able to obtain. Again, with those two simple definitions, it doesn't seem like there should be much to talk about, but there is. Economics deals with how we allocate scarce resources, and those scarce resources may be needed to meet someone people's needs and other people's wants. So, we do need to talk about wants and needs.

Imagine a farmer of barely. After his harvest he can has two potential customers: one that wants to buy his barely in the hopes to make an import beer and the other that wants to use the barely to make bread. Most people, if answering seriously, could acknowledge that bread is more important in a healthy diet than beer. Who does the farmer sell to? Should the reason someone wants to buy his product matter? Shouldn't he just sell for the highest price? These are the difficult questions about wants and needs that economics struggles to answer.

The Invisible Hand

Adam Smith, the father of modern-day economics, suggested that most economic issues will be resolved by the invisible hand. The invisible hand is the name of the market forces that are at work as buyers and sellers negotiate prices and seek their own self-interest. Consumers pick their favorite producers by rewarding them with sales while chasing others with poor services or products out of business. The idea of the invisible hand is important in economics - especially in free market systems, but it doesn't always perform well when it comes to allocating resources associated with a need. It assumes that consumers will pay more for what they need than what they want, but it doesn't consider people that aren't able to pay for their needs.

Go back to our barley example, what would the invisible hand have happen? Since the luxury beer would bring in a higher price, the producers of that beer would be more willing to pay a higher price for the barely. So, the invisible hand would claim him the high bidder and award him the barely.

But, the luxury beer sells for more because a smaller group of wealthy individuals -comparably - buy the beer than the larger group of financially challenged buyers. So, did the invisible hand and the self-serving behavior of the profit motive work in that situation? No, it didn't. The price for the beer producers was higher because they were able to pay higher, while the consumers that needed the bread weren't able to pay more; perhaps they would have, if they could.

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