Intertemporal Choice and Legal Constraints

American Law & Economics Review, Forthcoming

Yale SOM Working Paper

Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 432

31 Pages Posted: 10 May 2011 Last revised: 26 May 2011

See all articles by M. Keith Chen

M. Keith Chen

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - Anderson School of Management

Alan Schwartz

Yale Law School

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper


We study the effect of legal constraints in an environment in which agents face demand shocks they would like to smooth, but also have weakness of will: agents' long and short run preferences are misaligned. Some agents are sophisticated -- they know they will make inconsistent intertemporal choices -- while other agents are naive. The consequent public policy problem is complex. The state should facilitate consumer borrowing to help agents smooth consumption and cushion the effect of shocks, but should also facilitate pre-commitment, to help agents control excessive present-biased preferences. We show that in many simple settings, naive and sophisticated agents make similar consumption/savings choices, which simplifies the policy problem. We also show that all agents borrow when they experience consumption shocks, and that agents with relatively strong present-biased preferences who face relatively mild consumption shocks will borrow to finance excessive current consumption. Other agents save appropriately. Legal constraints that severely restrict agents' access to credit thus would be over-inclusive. Offering agents access to both a liquid and an illiquid savings vehicle appears to be welfare improving relative to either allowing agents complete freedom to borrow or strongly restricting their access to the credit market. Creating and regulating such vehicles are public goods that the market will not supply.

Suggested Citation

Chen, Keith and Schwartz, Alan, Intertemporal Choice and Legal Constraints. American Law & Economics Review, Forthcoming, Yale SOM Working Paper, Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 432, Available at SSRN:

Keith Chen

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - Anderson School of Management ( email )

110 Westwood Plaza
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1481
United States


Alan Schwartz (Contact Author)

Yale Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-4030 (Phone)
203-432-8260 (Fax)

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