A genealogy of the concept of merit wants

Desmarais-Tremblay, Maxime. 2017. A genealogy of the concept of merit wants. The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 24(3), pp. 409-440. ISSN 0967-2567 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

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

Item Type:


Identification Number (DOI):



Merit wants, merit goods, Richard A. Musgrave, social wants, public goods

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Institute of Management Studies


1 June 2015Accepted
9 June 2016Published Online

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

29 Jul 2018 20:48

Last Modified:

11 Jun 2021 22:06

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.



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