A Genealogy of the Concept of Merit Wants

Forthcoming in the European Journal of the History of Economic Thought

42 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2016

See all articles by Maxime Desmarais-Tremblay

Maxime Desmarais-Tremblay

Goldsmiths, University of London; Centre Walras-Pareto, Université de Lausanne

Date Written: March 10, 2016


This paper proposes a genealogy of the concept of merit wants coined by Richard A. Musgrave in his Theory of Public Finance (1959). The concept of merit wants can only be understood as a complement to the concept of public goods. I suggest that Musgrave invented the concept to apprehend some considerations that have been left out in the process of consolidation of the concept of public good. The narrow definition of the latter could not account for important state responsibilities that have been asserted by many economists.

I attempt to reconstruct Musgrave’s intellectual background. First, I select examples of arguments for state intervention from authors influential in Musgrave’s formative period (J.S. Mill, H. Sidgwick, E. Sax, H. Ritschl, G. Cassel, A. Wagner). Second, I argue that the invention of the concept in the 1950s reflected contemporary concerns for redistributive policies. I show that critics of the New Welfare approach (G. Colm, A. Hansen, W. Heller, H. Bowen) have held similar views, which were also in line with the liberal policy spirit of the post-war era in the United States.

Keywords: merit wants, merit goods, Richard A. Musgrave, social wants, public goods

JEL Classification: B29, B31, H40, H42

Suggested Citation

Desmarais-Tremblay, Maxime, A Genealogy of the Concept of Merit Wants (March 10, 2016). Forthcoming in the European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2746047

Maxime Desmarais-Tremblay (Contact Author)

Goldsmiths, University of London ( email )

Lewisham Way
New Cross
London, SE14 6NW
United Kingdom

Centre Walras-Pareto, Université de Lausanne ( email )

Quartier Chambronne
Lausanne, Vaud CH-1015

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