Monday, May 28, 2012

Time preference and the sexual marketplace

Although time preference is usually utilized to help qualify habits of saving and borrowing, it can also be used in regards to other human behavior.  For instance, exercising and eating a balanced diet is indicative low time preference; binge drinking and chain smoking is more in line with high time preference.  In short, if the benefits of a particular action are likely to be experienced in the long term, the action is low time preference.  In economics, we don't pass judgment on such behaviors, but sociologically and ethically considered, low time preference is preferable.

This generalization holds true in the sexual marketplace as well.  Those who imbibe in short-term thinking, either by coupling with undesirable partners, or, setting aside the Catholic position on the morality of birth control, practicing unsafe sex, are exhibiting high time preference.  The result of which is bastard spawn who will grow up without a father figure.  Such an environment is poisonous for the child.  Moreover, since, as Aristotle observed, humans accrue habits in part by observation--and practice--the child will likely exhibit the same time preference as his mother.  Hence the vicious cycle of human poverty.

Two things seem clear to me.  First, what is needed to be done is simple, if not especially easy.  Those who wish to avoid the vicious cycle of poverty must adapt low time preference behavior.  In the middle and upper class, this is easy enough to do, both because one's friends, family and neighbors are more likely to practice low time preference behaviors, but also because, for the women, there are more desirable men available, with whom to marry.  For the underclass, such men are far less available; this formed one of the themes of Charles Murray's recent book, Coming Apart.  Women's time preferences may change if the pool of desirable men becomes larger.  Just how one achieves this is an entirely different, and possibly even larger, problem.

Second, the Government can do very little about this sort of thing, and actually adds slightly to the problem by offering short-term incentives to the poor.  Welfare benefits single mothers, which is another way of saying that it incentivizes them.  This is not to say that assisting single mothers is ethically unsound, or that the Government is trying to create as many single mothers as possible as part of some diabolical plot to further undermine the underclass.  Neither is it my intention to argue that destroying the Welfare State will fix the problem; it won't.  It is nonetheless clear that if single motherhood is to be discouraged, the State would be wise to offer incentives to men and women alike to marry and remain together until the child reaches adulthood.

It might seem odd that a libertarian would be agitating for a Government program.  In truth, I'm not particularly keen on the idea of subsidizing marriage, myself.  However, if the State is to do something along this front, it would resemble this idea.  So even if it's not worth implementing, it's worth examining.  Even if it's a difficult goal to achieve, altering the time preference of Americans is a valuable goal if we wish to reverse the decivilizing trends of recent decades.

No comments: