This section is from the "Economics In Two Volumes: Volume I. Economic Principles" book, by Frank A. Fetter. Also available from Amazon: Economic
§ 14. Choice by primitive men. In simpler human societies, choices are mostly confined to physical necessities; that is, in the earlier stages of society, man's choices are very much like those of the animals. Man, like the animals, feels the pangs of hunger and he strives to secure food. He yearns for companionship, for it is only through association and mutual help that men, so weak as compared with many kinds of animals, are able to resist the enemies which beset them. He needs clothing to protect him against the harsher climates of the lands to which he moves. To protect himself against the cold and rain, he needs a shelter - a cave, a wigwam, or a hut. Man is thus impelled to bend his energies to the choice of the things necessary to survival.
In the rudest societies of which there is any record, savages are found with desires developed in many directions beyond those of any animals. Men are not passive victims of circumstances; their desires are not determined solely by their environment, but are drawn to things beyond and outside of the provisions of nature.
§ 15. Desires and progress. As men become more the masters of circumstances, their desires anticipate mere physical needs; they seek a more varied, food of finer flavor and more delicately prepared. Dress is not limited by physical comfort, but becomes a means of personal ornament. Men seek and choose the beautiful in sound, in form, in taste, in color, in motion. The rude hut or communal lodge to protect against rain and cold becomes a home. Out of the earlier rude companionship develop the sentiments of friendship and family life. And finally, as the imagination and intellect develop, there grow up the various forms of intellectual pleasures - the love of reading, of study, of travel, and of thought. Desires develop and transform the world.
In recent discussion of the control of the tropics, the too great contentedness of tropical peoples has been brought out prominently. It has been said that if a colony of New England school-teachers and Presbyterian deacons should settle in the tropics, their descendants would, in a single generation, be wearing breech-clouts and going to cock-fights on Sunday. Certain it is that the energy and ambition of the temperate zone are hard to maintain in warmer lands. The negro's contentedness with hard conditions, so often counted as a virtue, is one of the difficulties in the way of solving the race problem in our South to-day. Booker T. "Washington and others who are laboring for the elevation of the American negroes, would try first to make them discontented with the one-room cabins in which hundreds of thousands of families live. If only the desire for a two- or three-room cabin can be aroused, experience shows that family life and industrial qualities may be improved in many other ways.
§ 16. Function of modern discontent. Not only in America, but in most civilized lands to-day, is seen a rapid growth of desires in the working-classes. The incomes and the standard of living have much of the time been increasing, but not so fast as have the desires of the working-classes. Regret has been expressed by some that the workers of Europe are becoming "declassed." Increasing wages, it is said, bring no welfare, but unhappiness, to the complaining masses. If discontent with one's lot goes beyond a moderate degree, if it is more than the desire to better one's lot by personal efforts, if it becomes an unhappy longing for the impossible, then indeed it may be a misfortune. But a moderate ambition to better the conditions of one's self, of one's family, or of society, is the "divine discontent" absolutely indispensable if energy and enterprise are to be called into being.
It is a suggestive fact that civilized man, equipped with all of the inventions and the advantages of science, spends more hours of effort in gaining a livelihood than does the savage with his almost unaided hands. Activity is dependent not on bare physical necessity, but on developed desires. If society is to develop, if progress is to continue, human desire, not of the grosser sort, but ever more refined, must continue to emerge and urge men to action.
§ 17. Luxury as an incentive to progress. It is impossible to know just how important the service of luxury as a pacemaker has been in this progress in the past, tho doubtless it has been great. But what is needed now is a rising standard of taste in the lives of the many, not excessive display or indulgence by the few. But a dead level of conditions seems to be unfavorable to invention, arts, and industry. There must be some motive for emulation, and for ambition to attain finer material means of enjoyment after the bare necessities of life are provided, or no new forms of wealth will be demanded. Necessities, strictly understood, are things absolutely essential to life and health. No hard line can be drawn between necessities and comforts, between comforts and luxuries. The level rises; it is a trite and true saying that the luxuries of one age become the necessities of the next. The rise of the bathtub in the nineteenth century is an epitome of the progress of civilization in that period. The free baths in our cities surpass the hopes of the wealthy of a century ago. The automobile was first the toy of the rich, but is becoming the necessity of daily life. Even the meaner motives of envy may have their social and economic functions. The lower social grades, emulous of the higher standard held before them, labor with greater energy. The successful and capable enterprisers, not content with necessities, continue to give their efforts to production. Even abstinence may be stimulated by the hope of attaining for one's self and one's family the imaginary joys of conspicuous display. Doubtless these effects are more or less offset by the temptations to live beyond one's income, and to seek wealth in devious ways to make luxury possible. Still, luxury in a moderate measure has had, and still has, a part among the forces of dynamic society.