Books / Digital Text

1. The Fundamentals of Human Action

4. Further Implcations: Time

Time is omnipresent in human action as a means that must be economized. Every action is related to time as follows:

... A is the period before the beginning of the action; A is the point in time at which the action begins; AB is the period during which the action occurs; B is the point at which the action ends; and B ... is the period after the end of the action.

AB is defined as the period of production—the period from the beginning of the action to the time when the consumers’ good is available. This period may be divided into various stages, each itself taking a period of time. The time expended during the period of production consists of the time during which labor energy is expended (or working time) and maturing time, i.e., time required without the necessity of concurrent expenditure of labor. An obvious example is the case of agriculture. There might be six months between the time the soil is tilled and the time the harvest is reaped. The total time during which labor must be expended may be three weeks, while the remaining time of over five months consists of the time during which the crop must mature and ripen by the processes of nature. Another example of a lengthy maturing time is the aging of wine to improve its quality.

Clearly, each consumers’ good has its own period of production. The differences between the time involved in the periods of production of the various goods may be, and are, innumerable.

One important point that must be emphasized when considering action and the period of production is that acting man does not trace back past production processes to their original sources. In the previous section, we traced back consumers’ goods and producers’ goods to their original sources, demonstrating that all capital goods were originally produced solely by labor and nature. Acting man, however, is not interested in past processes, but only in using presently available means to achieve anticipated future ends. At any point in time, when he begins the action (say A), he has available to him: labor, nature-given elements, and previously produced capital goods. He begins the action at A expecting to reach his end at B. For him, the period of production is AB, since he is not concerned with the amount of time spent in past production of his capital goods or in the methods by which they were produced.14 Thus, the farmer about to use his soil to grow crops for the coming season does not worry about whether or to what extent his soil is an original, nature-given factor or is the result of the improvements of previous land-clearers and farmers. He is not concerned about the previous time spent by these past improvers. He is concerned only with the capital (and other) goods in the present and the future. This is the necessary result of the fact that action occurs in the present and is aimed at the future. Thus, acting man considers and values the factors of production available in the present in accordance with their anticipated services in the future production of consumers’ goods, and never in accordance with what has happened to the factors in the past.

A fundamental and constant truth about human action is that man prefers his end to be achieved in the shortest possible time. Given the specific satisfaction, the sooner it arrives, the better. This results from the fact that time is always scarce, and a means to be economized. The sooner any end is attained, the better. Thus, with any given end to be attained, the shorter the period of action, i.e., production, the more preferable for the actor. This is the universal fact of time preference. At any point of time, and for any action, the actor most prefers to have his end attained in the immediate present. Next best for him is the immediate future, and the further in the future the attainment of the end appears to be, the less preferable it is. The less waiting time, the more preferable it is for him.15

Time enters into human action not only in relation to the waiting time in production, but also in the length of time in which the consumers’ good will satisfy the wants of the consumer. Some consumers’ goods will satisfy his wants, i.e., attain his ends, for a short period of time, others for a longer period. They can be consumed for shorter or longer periods. This may be included in the diagram of any action, as shown in Figure 2. This length of time, BC, is the duration of serviceableness of the consumers’ good. It is the length of the time the end served by the consumers’ good continues to be attained. This duration of serviceableness differs for each consumers’ good. It may be four hours for the ham sandwich, after which period of time the actor desires other food or another sandwich. The builder of a house may expect to use it to serve his wants for 10 years. Obviously, the expected durative power of the consumers’ good to serve his end will enter into the actor's plans.16

Clearly, all other things being equal, the actor will prefer a consumers’ good of greater durability to one of lesser, since the former will render more total service. On the other hand, if the actor values the total service rendered by two consumers’ goods equally, he will, because of time preference, choose the less durable good since he will acquire its total services sooner than the other. He will have to wait less for the total services of the less durable good.

The concepts of period of production and duration of serviceableness are present in all human action. There is also a third time-period that enters into action. Each person has a general time-horizon, stretching from the present into the future, for which he plans various types of action. Whereas period of production and duration of serviceableness refer to specific consumers’ goods and differ with each consumers’ good, the period of provision (the time-horizon) is the length of future time for which each actor plans to satisfy his wants. The period of provision, therefore, includes planned action for a considerable variety of consumers’ goods, each with its own period of production and duration. This period of provision differs from actor to actor in accordance with his choice. Some people live from day to day, taking no heed of later periods of time; others plan not only for the duration of their own lives, but for their children as well.

  • 14. For each actor, then, the period of production is equivalent to his waiting time—the time that he must expect to wait for his end after the commencement of his action.
  • 15. Time preference may be called the preference for present satisfaction over future satisfaction or present good over future good, provided it is remembered that it is the same satisfaction (or “good”) that is being compared over the periods of time. Thus, a common type of objection to the assertion of universal time preference is that, in the wintertime, a man will prefer the delivery of ice the next summer (future) to delivery of ice in the present. This, however, confuses the concept “good” with the material properties of a thing, whereas it actually refers to subjective satisfactions. Since ice-in-the-summer provides different (and greater) satisfactions than ice-in-the-winter, they are not the same, but different goods. In this case, it is different satisfactions that are being compared, despite the fact that the physical property of the thing may be the same.
  • 16. It has become the custom to designate consumer goods with a longer duration of serviceableness as durable goods, and those of shorter duration as nondurable goods. Obviously, however, there are innumerable degrees of durability, and such a separation can only be unscientific and arbitrary.