Democratic Shortsightedness: False Prophets?

By Teddy Tawil

This is the second article in a series on shortsighted policy-making in democracies. It will explore the question of whether crafting policy for future generations is not just thankless, but also, fruitless: is it unwise to try to think too far ahead? Or paternalistic to try to constrain the decision-making authority of our successors? Continue reading to find out.

To read the first article, please click here: Part I

To read the following articles of this series, see the following links:

Part III

Part IV

I have a strange favorite wrong prediction. 

The most (in)famous failed predictions are those that were so brazenly (or even, perhaps, comically) wrong that one can’t help but laugh at their ineptitude. There was overpopulation oracle Paul Ehrlich’s 1969 warning that “sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come”; by 1984, the world did not look like 1984 or regress to experience the “great increase in the death rate” about which his infamous bestseller The Population Bomb warned. (This is not to comment on the extent to which overpopulation is or isn’t an issue today.) Or hilariously misguided denials that technologies which would go on to define modern life would ever catch on: there is the example of the prophetic banker who proclaimed “the horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad,” or the case of the clairvoyant movie executive who claimed “television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” Dewey didn’t defeat Truman, Iraq didn’t have WMDs, we’re still waiting on “peak oil,” and the world did not face a cataclysmic technological reckoning from the first digit of the year changing in the new millennium.

My favorite preposterous prognostication, though, is a foolish piece of foresight that is exceptional because it was so close to being astoundingly prophetic. In February 1966, as Jeff Bezos learned how to read, Time magazine predicted the rise of remote shopping — a genuinely impressive feat of foresight. But there was a caveat: the futurists who made the prediction were also convinced that “remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop,” largely “because women like to get out of the house.” Just like that, the statement went from one of profound prescience to something that, looking back, seems quite silly.

However, are these failures of foresight merely notable exceptions, or just the tip of the iceberg? Between 1987 and 2003, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Philip Tetlock sought to find out. In a seminal study, Tetlock compiled 82,361 predictions from 284 pundits whose jobs involved “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends.” They were asked to assess the probability of various potential future scenarios, both in and out of their fields of expertise. Would Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would apartheid end nonviolently? They assigned percentages to the chance of each possibility, and waited to see which came to fruition. 

The results? The supposed experts were shockingly inaccurate, to the point where their performance was almost no better than random chance (or, as many say for dramatic effect, a dart-throwing chimp). Events the experts said were impossible or virtually impossible occurred 15% of the time; more than one-quarter of those they said were certain to happen didn’t. Perhaps most alarmingly, Tetlock found that specialists were worst at predicting the future in their areas of expertise, in which they averaged more than a decade of experience — the strength of their belief in certain theories made them overconfident and reluctant to adjust their views in light of new information.  

Tetlock’s surprising finding presents an important question: how can we legislate for the future when we are so breathtakingly bad at predicting it? Along with this appeal to uncertainty are a number of other thoughtful objections that would make even the most prudent observer think twice about long-term policymaking. Why invest our time and resources into the distant future when it’s so murky, when we might impair our future instead of improving it, and when there are real problems to address now? While these are valid concerns, there is still a compelling case to be made for prioritizing our duty to serve as good stewards of our society. 

How can we legislate decades ahead when the future is so uncertain?

This is an objection that initially seems very persuasive. It provides a reason to stop short of overzealous policymaking that relies on precise assumptions about how the world will look decades from now; a limiting principle for overcorrecting our collective myopia.

However, even putting aside the fact that Tetlock has since demonstrated that people can be trained to make far better quantitative forecasts, we need not know exactly what the future will look like to take action that we know will likely improve it. One illuminating example comes from the area of disaster preparedness. Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise details how the quest for detection systems capable of warning about earthquakes days, weeks, or months in advance has proven entirely fruitless. However, just because we don’t know exactly when an earthquake will hit does not mean it isn’t wise to engage in long-term policymaking and invest in mitigating the potential future damage. Instead, Kathryn Schultz of the New Yorker describes in foreboding detail how the Pacific Northwest in particular is woefully unprepared, even when there is a sizable possibility the region will endure a devastating earthquake over the coming decades. Society needs no crystal ball to tell us that we should spend more on disaster preparedness when every dollar spent prevents an average of $15 in future damages. Yet between 1980 and 2009, just 3.6% of disaster-related assistance was spent on preparedness while 96.4% was spent on relief, perhaps because it has been shown that spending on relief rather than prevention is more visible and gains politicians more votes. Thus, this chronic underinvestment continues, even when it takes lives and destroys livelihoods. 

Thoughtful skeptics might counter that natural disasters are so-called known unknowns whose frequency we can predict with reasonable confidence. What about more speculative “unknown unknown” risks truly fraught with uncertainty, like those associated with biotechnology and artificial intelligence? Some apocalyptic observers warn these advances pose great danger, while others are adamant that their unease is overblown. 

Giving too much attention to these issues could prove to be a futile endeavor, but when there is the plausible potential for civilization-wide catastrophe (or inversely, in the cases of both examples, unprecedented advances in our quality of life), greater research and modest investments to insure ourselves against the worst outcomes seem warranted. If our descendants are likely to be far better informed on the potential and threats of emerging technologies, society ought to at least buy ourselves time. Instead, global government has entirely neglected these issues, and the international body tasked with regulating bioweaponry (the Biological Weapons Convention) receives less funding than the typical McDonald’s franchise. It is also important to note, without being an alarmist, pitchfork-wielding luddite, that it’s just as likely we are underestimating the danger that stems from technological advances as it is that we are overestimating it. In fact, many scholars argue we are more likely to be unjustifiably dismissive: recall that events Tetlock’s experts said would never happen transpired 15% of the time, and others like Nassim Nicholas Taleb argue we have cognitive biases that cause us to systematically underestimate the probability of seemingly rare events.

There is another group of intergenerational issues whose eventual severity remains uncertain, but that are imposing costs now. It remains to be seen whether climate change will truly lead to the unimaginable suffering that some prophecy, but a 2017 report issued by 13 government agencies and authored by more than 300 experts showed that it has already cost the government $350 billion over the past decade, costs which are only set to escalate. Experts are also unsure whether international creditors will ever lose faith en masse in America’s ability to repay them due to our spiraling national debt; if they did, it could spell hyperinflation and fiscal ruin. Regardless, our mounting liabilities have resulted in a steep interest bill equal to the combined budgets of the Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, and State even at historically low interest rates. The fact that the worrying effects of these issues could be mere preludes for what’s to come intensifies the imperative to act, whether they become catastrophes or remain just concerns.  

Acknowledging our shortcomings at divining the course of the future thus does not preclude us from working to improve it, or at least to avoid disaster. 

By crafting policy that governs the generations to come, are we exercising too much power?

This reservation about long-term policymaking is also thoughtful, and deserves consideration. Its advocates raise a number of provocative points. Thomas Paine was one famous proponent: he objected to intruding on the autonomy of future generations as a matter of principle, arguing that each living generation is sovereign and assailing the desire to dictate “the world to come” as motivated by a “covetousness of power beyond the grave.” University of Virginia School of Law Professor Julia Mahoney contends that reaching too far ahead may be unwise in addition to unjust, writing:

Some of us believe future people would be best served by a decent environment. Others believe that future people would prefer us to speed up economic development since the more wealth future people have available, the better they will afford the costs associated with environmental degradation and so forth. Whether the one or other assumption is correct cannot so easily be decided. As a consequence, we should as far as possible avoid ‘substantive’ judgements about the interest of future generations.

Mahoney poses a powerful question: does acting too soon risk shooting ourselves in the foot?

Perhaps there’s a small risk, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. Paine and Mahoney’s arguments are substantially weakened when we consider that the window for action on many lingering issues is closing rapidly. When an endangered species goes extinct, the ecosystem is irreparably damaged. Failing to reduce carbon emissions soon enough will likely trigger climate feedback loops that would “lock in” the effects of climate change. (An example of one such loop, which is due to the evaporation of water: A warmer atmosphere means more liquid water evaporates into water vapor. Warmer air holds a greater amount of water vapor, which retains even more heat, amplifying the initial warming and causing the cycle to begin yet again.) For these reasons, journalist Paul Wood responds that when we fail to take actions that will leave options open for our successors, we exercise a sort of “preemptive tyranny over future generations” that constrains them rather than preserving their autonomy. For example, because of climate feedback loops, a global failure to reduce emissions soon or drastically enough may render many of the mitigation strategies currently available to policymakers ineffective. This could force our successors to resort to “geoengineering,” a risky set of strategies that would involve tampering with the climate in order to counteract the effects of climate change (by, for instance, injecting aerosols into the stratosphere to cool the planet), for lack of a better option. Paine is thus incorrect: making decisions that expand or preserve the choices available to our successors shows humility rather than avarice, empowering our descendants to proactively decide their fate rather than forcing them to clean up our mess.

Mahoney’s warning that taking premature action risks backfiring is still a fair concern. Waiting makes the problems we seek to address worse — emissions and debt rise, infrastructure deteriorates — but also helps us learn more about how best to approach them. In deciding when and how to take action, these considerations must be weighed against each other; as a result, Ludvig Beckman, a Professor at Stockholm University, writes that we are justified in acting in service of our future only when there is very compelling evidence that the costs of inaction exceed what the value of what we’ll learn from being patient. Harvard Professor Dennis Thompson proposes an even more demanding standard, writing that we should only craft intergenerational policy when doing so is necessary to protect the democratic process over time. However, indefinite idleness is inexcusable: waiting too long for information often means losing the ability to act on it. 

At the crux of Paine’s argument is also a mistaken proposition that fails to acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe past generations, including his. Paine’s point is predicated on the idea that each living generation is sovereign, making intruding on the authority of generations to come unjust. However, the success of our generation is enabled by the innovations, knowledge, and institutions we inherited from our ancestors. The scientific revolution laid the intellectual foundation for our society, crafting theories and frameworks for discovering them on which so much of our current knowledge relies. The industrial revolution enabled the mass production of goods that has turned extreme poverty from a fact of life to a scourge that the world has made great progress in eradicating. Paine and the rest of our founders themselves drew from the intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment to create a nation that made liberty a sacred ideal. While we have not always lived up to the lofty principles on which our nation was founded, Americans in my generation owe those from Paine’s era for establishing the groundwork for the freedom and security that we now take for granted. The way to honor the contributions of those who came before us is by paying it forward, serving as good ancestors and stewards of democracy for those who will succeed us. Not by gambling our future to marginally improve the present and claiming it makes us considerate.   

How can we turn our backs on those suffering now?

It’s hard to make significant commitments to plan ahead, or to those who are yet to be born, when thinking about how they may come at the expense of those currently suffering, especially in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic that has caused immense pain. Putting the nebulous world of decades or centuries to come over those afflicted by poverty and disease might technically be utilitarian, but it also feels cold and heartless. 

However, thankfully, exercising greater prudence doesn’t have to mean turning our backs on the present. The first step to addressing many lingering issues simply consists of greater research and deliberation on them, which does not need to come at the expense of more pressing problems.   

In addition, while prioritizing the issues of the present is natural, it can also be dangerous. It perpetuates a vicious cycle in which government is reduced to a dog chasing its tail, constantly scrambling to deal with crises it could have prevented or minimized with more foresight. In the words of sociologist Elise Boulding, “if one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future.” 

But thankfully, we need not constantly be mental panting. Think about how liberating it would be if many governments hadn’t been caught so off-guard by COVID’s exponential spread. Or if there was less of a need to rebuild cities destroyed by natural disasters because they were built to be more resilient. The government would be empowered to set a prudent, proactive agenda instead of stuck doing damage control, and needless suffering could be avoided. It takes just one courageous leader or coalition to break the cycle, looking ahead (in a time of greater calm rather than when we’re still reeling from a pandemic, of course) and, by doing so, freeing up time and resources for their successors to do the same. 

A call to action

Addressing the critics of less myopic policy is a must, for silencing rather than reasoning with their objections stifles the kind of thoughtful discourse that is necessary for wise long-term decision-making. However, resting the case for forward-thinking policymaking only on responses to their reservations seems reactive — much like the governmental action I’ve argued against! 

A more stirring case for addressing shortsightedness comes from philosopher Roman Krznaric, whose powerful rhetoric forces us to reckon with a difficult reality: 

The disturbing truth is that we have colonized the future. Especially in wealthy nations, we treat it as a dumping ground for ecological degradation, technological risk and nuclear waste – as if there is nobody there. And there is little that the unborn citizens of tomorrow can do about it. They cannot throw themselves in front of the King’s horse like a Suffragette, block an Alabama bridge like a civil rights protestor, or go on a Salt March to defy their colonial oppressors like Mahatma Gandhi.

Just as the life of someone born in the Roman Empire is not worth more than mine because they came thousands of years before me, my life is worth no more than those of people who will be born thousands of years into the future. And those in the future would likely be willing to pay the current generation huge sums for even a slight increase in our efforts to leave them a better world to inherit, because actions that damage the world could be dire and irreversible. How can we ethically justify saying no?

And how can we take concrete action to address what many call our “political presentism”? The series’ final article will explore this issue. 

 

Selected works

Beckman, Ludvig. “Democracy, future generations and global climate change.” European Consortium for Political Research. Accessed December 17, 2020. https://ecpr.eu/Filestore/PaperProposal/43e7b47f-8d8a-49df-8938-0788bba923ce.pdf.

Bostrom, Nick. “Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority.” Global Policy 4, no. 1 (February 2013): 15-31.  

Fisher, Richard. “The perils of short-termism: Civilisation’s greatest threat.” BBC Future. January 9, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190109-the-perils-of-short-termism-civilisations-greatest-threat.

Krznaric, Roman. “Why we need to reinvent democracy for the long-term.” BBC Future. March 18, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190318-can-we-reinvent-democracy-for-the-long-term.

Krznaric, Roman. “Four ways to redesign democracy for future generations.” Open Democracy. July 12, 2020. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/four-ways-redesign-democracy-future-generations/.

Ord, Toby. The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity. New York: Hachette Books, 2020. 

Tetlock, Philip. Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 

Thompson, Dennis. “Representing Future Generations: Political Presentism and Democratic Trusteeship.” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 13, no. 1 (2010): 17-37.

 

Title Image Credit: Christian Adams/The Telegraph