Unheavenly Time Preferences

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Lew, I thought it was interesting that you pointed to Edward C. Banfield’s Unheavenly City as a best-selling book for buyers from your site. Then I noted that both Charles Burris and Stephan Kinsella blogged about Banfield’s concept of social classes and time preferences last week on the blog. If I remember correctly, Banfield used the term “extreme present-orientation” to describe the time preferences of the instant gratification lower classes.

Years ago, when I would often write/blog on time preferences, I discovered it was one of the most taboo topics to dare bring up in the context of libertarianism or economics, especially among young, male, modal-nihilistic libertarians. Immediately, people would write you off as a moralist and social conservative and deep-six you from the libertarian movement. I was cyber-pummeled for this blog post on “The Unheavenly City” back in 2004. My favorite passage from Banfield’s book is this:

the higher the commuter is on the scale, the more important it is to him to ride to work in solitary splendor. For the lower-middle-class person a car pool will do — it is better than the bus; the upper-middle-class person, however, finds even that distasteful.

Still, to this day, I cannot convince many of my bus-taking co-workers that there is a very good reason why I place such a high value on my “alone time” (yes, solitary splendor) during my daily commute to/from downtown – gas prices be darned. Always, people apply this strange romanticism and pseudo-attachment to public transportation. Last week, I let a friend drag me onto a bus from UCLA to the Santa Monica Pier, and the whole experience was repulsive, including the homeless man who sat next to us, stinking of rotting flesh while staring me down. We eventually got off and just walked to our destination when my patience expired. To that point, Banfield writes about how space (physical arrangements in the city, home space, etc.) is much more important to the middle and lower classes with lower time preferences. Banfield goes on to write about the “slums”:

…slum apathy tends to inhibit individuals from putting forth sufficient efforts to change the local community. ‘They may protest and they may blame the slum entirely on the outside world, but at the same time they remain apathetic about what they could themselves do to change their world.

These were very extreme ideas at the time Banfield wrote his first edition. Years ago, Gary North pointed out to me that later editions of Banfield’s book had many of these un-pc comments on time preferences removed and/or downplayed. Maybe somebody can correct me or confirm this? By the way, when looking for something to link to for readers to look up the term “modal,” I found this online, and I was pleased to see that “modal libertarians” has made it into the Urban Dictionary.


9:08 pm on August 16, 2011