An Introduction to Time Preference

Jack Parkos | United States

Suppose someone offers to pay you 20 dollars. You have the choice to receive the money today or tomorrow. In choosing the former, you are like everyone else. You would prefer wealth sooner rather than later. This economic concept is Time Preference. Time Preference affirms that current satisfaction is preferred over future satisfaction. People would prefer not to wait for wealth when it is easily achievable now. Wealth could be monetary, assets, experience, etc.

“Satisfaction of a want in the nearer future is, other things being equal, preferred to that in the farther distant future. Present goods are more valuable than future goods” – Ludwig Von Mises

However, the choice is not always equal and simple. Suppose someone offers you 20 dollars today, or 30 dollars tomorrow. The choice becomes a bit more complicated. We see a divide in people with high time preference and those with low time preference. Someone with high time preference puts their focus on their present well being. They would take the 20 dollars today. On the other hand, A person with low time preference puts emphasis on future satisfaction. This person would take 30 dollars tomorrow. A good example would be comparing savers and spenders. Those with low time preference tend to save their money and make wiser investments. Those with high time preference are more likely to blow through cash.

Real World Examples

Criminals tend to have extremely high time preferences. They are not willing to work to obtain wealth as that involves waiting for future wealth (paychecks). They would rather steal to achieve wealth in the present.

Another example of high vs. low time preference is in the context of college students. One who chooses to stay in and study over going out and partying has a lower time preference. The reasoning being, there will be a future benefit; a better chance at a higher grade, meaning better opportunities down the road. On the other hand, one who chooses to go out has a higher time preference; they prefer the instant short term gratification of partying.

Furthermore, different goods could be preferable in the future than in the present. During winter, ice has a low demand and is preferable in future (summer). However, it still is a general rule people value current wealth to future wealth.

Different groups of people tend to have different levels on time preference. Age is one of the biggest factors in determining one’s time preference. Young children tend to have high time preferences as they are not concerned with the future. A child would likely spend all of his money on ice cream. Adults tend to have lower time preference as they need to save for the future. However, The elderly tend to have higher time preference as they have less time for future consumption. Moreover, someone who has (or is planning to have) kids tends to have lower time preference as they need to save for the future.

Relation to Interest

In “Man, Economy, and State”, Murray Rothbard writes

“The time-market schedules of all individuals are aggregated on the market to form market-supply and market-demand schedules for present goods in terms of future goods. The supply schedule will increase with an increase in the rate of interest, and the demand schedule will fall with the higher rates of interest. A typical aggregate market diagram may be seen in Figure 44. Aggregating the supply and demand schedules on the time market for all individuals in the market, we obtain curves such as SS and DD. DD is the demand curve for present goods in terms of the supply of future goods; it slopes rightward as the rate of interest falls. SS is the supply curve of present goods in terms of the demand for future goods; it slopes rightward as the rate of interest increases. The intersection of the two curves determines the equilibrium rate of interest—the rate of interest as it would tend to be in the evenly rotating economy. This pure rate of interest, then, is determined solely by the time preferences of the individuals in the society, and by no other factor”.

The Time Preference Theory of Intrest explains how rates relate to one’s time preference. Demand for capital is driven by investment and the supply of capital is driven by savings. Interest rates fluctuate, eventually reaching a level at which the supply of capital meets the demand for capital.

Relationship to Civilization

In “Democracy the God That Failed”, Hans Hermann Hoppe notions that concern for future wealth is a key to the prosperity of civilization. If the majority holds a low enough time preference for the process of production, civilization would then be able to thrive. When one allows someone to use capital and resources, an economy forms with Division of Labor and private property. As previously mentioned, criminals have high time preference and will steal resources, slowing down production.

Hoppe describes that the state also has a high time preference. The state violates property rights and steals resources to give to others. The recipients in turn usually also have a high time preference. Hoppe describes this as “decivilizing”.

Time preference is arguably one of the most important parts of economic thought. It is the foundation of saving and interest. Furthermore, it distinguishes spending and saving.

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