Frank Ramsey and the Rate of Interest

I first came across Frank Ramsey in the preface to Piero Sraffa’s classic Production of Commodities by the Means of Commodities: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory (1960). My recent interest in Ramsey is primarily motivated by the following news. Cheryl Misak, a philosopher based at the University of Toronto has recently completed a biography of Ramsey. This blog post provides an introduction to Ramsey’s life and his contribution to the growth theory literature. [It was reassuring to notice that I first blogged about History of Economic Thought (HET) explicitly more than 10 years ago.]

Ramsey was born in 1903. In the year 1920, he read around 45 books, which included Karl Marx’s Capital, Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb’s The History of Trade Unionism, J. A. Hobson’s The Industrial System, J. S. MiIl, and Alfred Marshall’s Industry and Trade. At the age of 19, he was commissioned to review Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), a significant treatise in philosophy, for the journal Mind; the review was published in 1923. Subsequently, he was commissioned to translate Wittgenstein’s work into English. In Wittgenstein’s later work, Philosophical Investigations, there is an explicit acknowledgement of Ramsey. He was acknowledged for his critique/interventions of Bertrand Russell’s and Alfred Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica in a new introduction by the authors. Sraffa, in his PCMC, had acknowledged Ramsey for mathematical help. In 1929-30, Ramsey met with J. M. Keynes, Sraffa, and Wittgenstein to discuss the theory of probability advanced by Keynes and Ramsey and also to discuss Freidrich Hayek’s theory of business cycles. Ramsey also had a close engagement with AC Pigou, a leading marginalist economist who was also the target of criticism in Keynes’s General Theory. Ramsey died in 1930.’

Under the patronage of Keynes, who was the editor of the’ Economic Journal, Ramsey published in it articles on the ‘theory of taxation’ (1927) and the ‘theory of saving’ (1928). In my 2019 article which critically evaluated the Nobel contributions of Paul Romer and Nordhaus, I had highlighted that Nordhaus employs a marginalist growth model drawing from Ramsey (without further comment). Ramsey’s question was the following: how much should a nation save today for future consumption tomorrow so as to maximise consumption across generations’ Nordhaus employs the optimal growth model with environmental protection as an important constraint. And, the rate of interest is seen as a price which equilibrates the society’s time preference. In other words, the rate of interest equilibrates the society’s preference for the future with that of the present. The policy implication when marginalist economists have a significant say in practical matters is as follows. Since the (actual) rate of interest captures the time preference of the society, this rate can be used to decide how much of current gross domestic product (GDP) should be devoted to environmental protection. In effect, not enough resources are being allocated to mitigate climate change and undertake environmental protection.’

Ramsey’s optimal growth theory also underlies Thomas Piketty’s position on economic growth. In his 2015 article in the American Economic Review, he writes that in the standard model ‘where each individual behaves as an infinitely lived family, the steady-state rate of return is well known to be given by the modified ‘golden rule’ r = + ‘ g (where is the rate of time preference and is the curvature of the utility function)’ (p. 2). The reciprocal of is the intertemporal elasticity of substitution which captures how much the representative family wishes to smoothen consumption over time. He uses this to point out that in general (marginalist) economic theory, we arrive at the r>g result–the focal argument in his book Capital in the Twenty First Century (2015; for a critical assessment see Thomas 2017). Furthermore, ‘in steady-state each family only needs to reinvest a fraction g/r of its capital income in order to ensure that its capital stock will grow at the same rate g as the size of the economy, and the family can then consume a fraction 1 ‘ g/r‘ (p. 3). To a marginalist (or neoclassical) economist, as Joseph Stiglitz wrote in an article in 1974, ‘interest rates are just intertemporal prices’ (p. 901).’

Therefore, for both Nordhaus and Piketty, interest rates are ‘intertemporal prices’ which allocate today’s income between today’s consumption and tomorrow’s consumption (today’s saving). As Ramsey (1928) writes, ‘The more we save the sooner we shall reach bliss, but the less enjoyment we shall have now, and we have to set the one against the other’ (p. 545). It is also interesting to note that their use of optimal growth models yields vastly different policy suggestions. While Nordhaus is conservative in his proposals for environmental protection, Piketty is progressive in his proposals to tax wealth.’

The rate of interest in Ramsey, as in Alfred Marshall, is a reward for waiting. Therefore, inequality in Ramsey necessarily arises from the heterogeneity of tastes or preferences; if a family is (relatively) more patient, it saves more than the (relatively) impatient one, and ends up owning all the capital stock (Attanasio 2015). How does this conception differ from the notions of interest rate found in Marx and Keynes’ For Marx, the rate of interest is the part of surplus value which is expropriated by the financial capitalist; the source of it is from the value added by labour. Keynes views the rate of interest as an expression of the preference for liquidity. To conclude, is the conception of the rate of interest found in Ramsey satisfactory for understanding a competitive economy’


Attanasio, Orazio P.’ (2015), ‘Frank Ramsey’s Mathematical Theory of Saving’, The Economic Journal, 125 (March), pp. 269’294.

Duarte, Pedro (2017), ‘Frank Ramsey’, In: Robert Cord (ed.) The Palgrave Companion to Cambridge Economics, Palgrave Macmillan, vol. 2, pp. 649’671.

Monk, Ray (1990), Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, London: Vintage Books.’

Stiglitz, Joseph E. (1974), ‘The Cambridge-Cambridge Controversy in the Theory of Capital; A View from New Haven: A Review Article,’ Journal of Political Economy, vol. 82, no. 4, pp.’ 893903.

Further reading

Collard, David (2011), ‘Ramsey, saving and the generations’, Generations of Economists, London: Routledge.’

[Most of the contents of this post was informally discussed with my Economics colleagues at Azim Premji University on 19th February 2020.]


Author: Alex M Thomas

A passionate student of economics!