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Elaborating on the Austrian Time Preference Theory

Elaborating on the Austrian Time Preference Theory
by Alex Merced

I write this article after listening to Robert Murphys lecture Capital and Interest from Mises U 2010

While Listening to this having heard explanations of Time Preference theory plenty of times, I started having flash backs to an Austrian Scholars Conference lecture where Robert Murphey was actually giving a critic of the ATPT based on his dissertation, basically challenging the idea that a future good is always less valued than a present good. This made me start to think, I do understand ATPT, but I'm not sure if it fully explains why this preference exists fully other than a sort of hedonistic view of human nature to want to satisfy all it's wants now. Then again Patience is a virtue, and one can look at virtues as efforts to fight human nature.

First off let's recap the ATPT for those of you unfamilar...

Austrian Time Preference Theory

The Bottom Line: Present Goods are always more valuable then Future Goods

Example: Pre-Sale Tickets (future good) are cheaper than tickets at the door (present good)

This is an important theory for explaining the Austrians view on Capital and the Interest from Capital. For example I have a $100,000 and I have these two choices which would I make.

Buy $100,000 of Bonds and invest them in Bonds that yield 5%


Buy a $100,000 of fishing supplies expecting to catch enough fish to make $110,000 (10% yield)

So you see here the capital I have I'll put towards the fish equipment cause In the end I'll have a greater yield from my investments, this is how capital naturally gravitates towards it's most productive purpose. If my calculation was correct I can now buy another $100,000 of fishing equipment and next year catch enough fish to make $220,000. As you can see the more I go through this process the more capital I accumulate and the better my life gets even though no new science or technology has been developed, cause I've accumulated capital and can continue to re-invest that capital for interest.

This is what seperates developed countries from developing countries cause they may only be able to afford $20,000 of fishing equipment so a year later they'd only have $22,000 so it'll take some time and re-investment before the capital accumulation brings them to the developed level.

So where time preference theory comes into play is in the issue of why would someone pay me $110,000 for the fish if they can instead get the same fish by buying the Fishing Supplies for $100,000 and save themselves the $10,000. The reason is cause they have a time preference, they don't want to have to wait for a year of fishing to save $10,000 so they rather pay the extra $10,000 to have the fish now. So as we stated, the current good, these fish I've already fished is worth more than the future good, the fish they'd fish if they made the same capital investment.

Ok, so that should sum it up, so now for my addition...

Is it a "Time" Preference or a "Tangibility" Preference

I think the time preference exists not cause there is a time bias, but because there is a tangibility bias. A future good isn't as tangible as a current good so provokes less of a reaction. This Tangibility preference can not only be applied to intemporal scenarios but also other scenarios of differeing subjective values.

Example 1:

"The Stimulus Bill has saved the Jobs of Teachers and Public Sector Workers"


"If the Government had not gotten involved new jobs would've been created from capital reformation"

You ask the typical person which statement seems more plausible, they'd more than likely say the bizzarre keyensian statement I put up first. Why, it's more tangible to them cause they see the jobs that would've been lost, but they can't see the jobs that were prevented from being created. Now of course an Austrian is trained to understand opportunity cost so the increased tangibility from that understanding may have them choose the second statement.

Example 2

"Spend 10% of Income on Your Loved Ones"


"Have 10% of your income taxed which hypotheically benefit your loved once objectively just as much"

Which one you'd think a person would subjectvely value more, the first statement cause the results of this same expenditure is tangible, this would probably be true if the tax money got spent in the same way at the same time cause of it's tangibility. Although a left wing Keynesian might actually value the second statement cause they've been trained to value the benefit to society of impersonal expeditures like in the second statement so them it'd be more tangible.

So in conclusion, I feel time preference is a preference that exists but because of the tangibility of intemporal value. I would expect that a Austrian who is trained to think intertemporally would prefer future goods on occasion, cause it's more tangible. For example we prefer the future value of recession that the current good of stimulus spending. While it's a bit more complicated than simply jobs now versus jobs later a lot of Austrian theory actually emphasizes long term benefits over short term.

If you agree, we can still call this the ATPT, it'd just now stand for the Austrian Tangibility Preference Theory

Posted Aug 12 2010, 10:44 PM by Alex Merced