Time preferences

This should serve as a cautionary tale to those who still believe that giving money to the impoverished is a rational solution to poverty. And yet, we can be confident that it won’t.

A short drive away, Hamon Matipe, the septuagenarian chief of Kili, confirmed that he had received that sum [$120,000] four months earlier. In details corroborated by the local authorities, Mr. Matipe explained that the provincial government had paid him for village land alongside the Southern Highlands’ one major road, where the government planned to build a police barracks.

His face adorned with red and white paint, a pair of industrial safety glasses perched incongruously on a head ornament from which large leaves stuck out, Mr. Matipe said he had given most of the money to his 10 wives. But he had used about $20,000 to buy 48 pigs, which he used as a dowry to obtain a 15-year-old bride from a faraway village, paying well above the going rate of 30 pigs. He and some 30 village men then celebrated by buying 15 cases of beer, costing about $800.

“All the money is now gone,” Mr. Matipe said. “But I’m very happy about the company, ExxonMobil. Before, I had nothing. But because of the money, I was able to buy pigs and get married again.”

Now, not everyone is capable of blowing $120,000 in only four months and winding up with nothing but another notch on the old bedpost. But this sort of behavior is seen all the time, from professional athletes to lottery winners. So long as an individual’s time preference is limited to the short term, he will never amass any wealth because he will immediately spend any amount of money that is given to him or earned by him.

This is why societies that insist on transferring wealth from those with long-term time preferences to short-term preferences are ultimately doomed. One can always eat a heartier meal if one does not save the pigs for breeding and the grain for planting, but there won’t be anything left to eat come the winter. And unfortunately, one cannot instill time preferences though education due to the human talent for rationalization.

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