Democratic Shortsightedness: The Overlooked Threat

By Teddy Tawil

This is the first in a series of articles that will explore shortsighted policy-making in democracies, detailing the problem and discussing why it is so severe. Future entries will investigate how best to address democratic myopia: can democracy be reformed to address this seemingly intractable issue? Do we even have the right to dictate policy for future generations? Continue reading to find out.

In 2016, Dr. Peter Hotez toiled away in relative obscurity on a project few saw as important: developing and testing vaccines for viral illnesses that had been eradicated years ago. Hotez recalls that he and his team “tried like heck to see if we could get investors or grants” to test a promising SARS vaccine candidate on humans, but abandoned the project because they couldn’t find anyone who was interested. Four years, more than 1.5 million deaths, and one pandemic 80% similar to the one Hotez could have cured later, and we should be kicking ourselves for squandering a critical potential head start.

This missed opportunity is emblematic of a larger problem that plagues global democracies: The combination of pressing issues, shortsighted voters, and election-focused politicians creates immense pressure for immediate results, leaving looming threats unaddressed and future generations worse off. This inaction provides an opportunity for distant threats to turn into imminent catastrophes that we wish we’d addressed earlier. It all begs the question: will human nature lead to the devastation of both humans and nature? And if not, how can we prevent it without resorting to benign despotism? (Which, in practice, has almost always proven to be an oxymoron.)

In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison argued that representative democracy would serve as a powerful palliative to our myopic impulses, writing that it would “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”

Madison would have been horrified to observe our contemporary cycle of irresponsibility, in which we have become accustomed to the political pursuit of short-term windfalls over long-term solutions. The combination of climbing emissions and warnings about the unsustainability of our current ecological trajectory are a reliable constant during tumultuous times, and the raising of the debt ceiling to worrying levels has become an annual tradition in American politics. Policymaking that treats the next generation with reckless abandon has simply become the norm in American government.

However, the problem may be even worse than you think. Indeed, there are a number of features of our political system, human psychology, and big problems themselves that result in future generations receiving the short end of the stick time and time again: 

The first three problems are due to (if not worsened by) our psychological idiosyncrasies. 

First, we often don’t realize the gravity of long-term issues — or even realize that there is an issue at all — until we’ve lost valuable time. One tragic example is chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs): their use in refrigeration became widespread during the early 20th century, but only in the 1970s was it discovered that they damaged the ozone layer. (Thankfully, this case provides a rare piece of good news: despite suffering severe damage, the ozone layer has gradually recovered in large part thanks to the signing of the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement that banned CFCs, among other substances. Over the coming decades, the ozone layer is projected to fully restore itself.) 

“Shifting baseline syndrome,” or our psychological tendency to constantly revise our expectations to fit a new reality, exacerbates this issue. Our habit of normalizing problems that develop slowly over time fosters a mindset in which gradual environmental degradation or fiscal irresponsibility, for example, can slip under the radar. 

Second, there’s the problem of the identifiable victim. We are moved towards action when we see clear images of suffering. One influential study on charitable giving provides a particularly striking example of this phenomenon. Researchers conducted an experiment in which they divided prospective donors to the charity Save the Children into two groups. They showed the first group a picture of an emaciated 7-year-old Malawian girl named Rokia, and told them that “her life will be changed for the better by your gift.” On the other hand, they simply told the second group broad statements about the need for aid, such as “food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children.” Participants who saw the image of Rokia, a vivid, human victim, gave significantly more than those in the second group. Unfortunately, the victims of problems that will predominantly affect future generations are generally yet to be seen, and the would-be victims of disasters averted due to diligent preparation are impossible to observe. We must resort instead to models projecting temperature increases or graphs showing the climbing debt-to-GDP ratio. This abstract, general data is often no match for the stirring images of hardship today, even when the scope of the suffering is slated to be even greater. 

Third, we have myriad other cognitive biases that lead us to defer taking action on lasting problems. Among them are an optimistic inclination to overestimate our ability to solve future problems, the parochial desire to prioritize helping those to whom we feel personal bonds, and a tendency towards procrastination and maximizing short-term gain. Research suggesting that people are indifferent between receiving $15 now and $60 in a year provides powerful evidence of the latter behavior, often called pure time preference or, simply, impatience. These biases were logical adaptations in a tribal environment in which life was nasty, brutish, and short and reproduction was paramount, but these relics of the past now impair our ability for sober, responsible decision-making. Indeed, our brains evolved to ensure personal and tribal survival over the immediate future; it’s no wonder they have trouble with ensuring our entire civilization’s survival through the long-term future. 

The next four problems have to do with our political system and the environment that surrounds it. 

The first such political problem involves the tendency for voters to associate incumbent elected officials with — and thus, reward them for — policy that pays off in the short-term. Thus, politicians have a strong incentive to pursue short-term windfalls, even when they come at the expense of larger long-term harm that will occur only when they leave office and for which they are less likely to be held accountable. David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director, made this point with striking candor in 1981; when asked about how he intended to address the issue of Social Security’s long-term solvency, Stockman allegedly replied that he didn’t see why he should have to use up “a lot of political capital on some other guy’s problem in 2010.” (Now apparently 2031.)

Second, many who will have to live with (or perhaps, grimly, will not be born because of) the decisions reached lack any power over how they are made. This undermines the great advantage of democracy over other forms of government, which is that citizens are given the opportunity to hold politicians accountable for decisions that affect them. Future generations are left disenfranchised, and thus, shortchanged. The United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, now the Brundtland Commission) made this point eloquently in 1987 when they wrote that “we act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.”

Third, an ecosystem of interest groups, 24-hour news, and periodic spending reviews reinforces a reactive government that responds to the issues of the day rather than the issues of our time. Rent-seeking lobbyists adversely affect political decision-making, putting their clientele’s narrow interests over the long-term health of our society. Meanwhile, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo offers a scathing criticism of the role of the press, writing that “an ideological media imbues and reinforces a culture of short-termism among politicians and political classes as politicians scramble to act and react to an agenda set by the press.” Trivial minutiae like how the President made a typo on Twitter can spark national conversation while problems on which action is overdue fade into the background.

Fourth, many long-term policy questions suffer from what I’ll call the “Wool Problem.” During World War II and the Korean War, the U.S. imported half of the wool it used to produce military uniforms. As a result, Congress declared wool a strategic material and subsidized its production in the National Wool Act in 1954. Wool was removed from the strategic materials list in 1960, but the subsidy remained in place for more than three decades after. Why? Politicians had an obvious incentive to support it, even if the public as a whole would not, because that single issue would be extremely important to wool farmers who supported the subsidy but was largely invisible to the rest of the electorate. Thus, lest they alienate the wool farmers and lose their votes, elected officials had no reason not to support this wasteful (but relatively inconsequential) subsidy. By the same token, the harms of rising emissions and debt are spread out among the general public; as a result, addressing these issues matters far less to the median voter than the consequences of such reform do to the unfortunate few whose livelihoods would be threatened by the necessary layoffs and funding cuts. The inevitable result is an undesirable analogue to tyranny of the majority — tyranny of the impassioned minority. 

The final two issues, perhaps the most formidable, are due to the very nature of future problems. 

The first such problem is that intergenerational issues defy conventional solutions. Rising emissions or debt pose a sort of tragedy of the commons across time — each administration and generation has an individual incentive to underregulate and overspend, which, over time, leaves the country and world worse off. The ways in which these public goods problems are typically solved involve making offenders personally bear the costs that their actions pose to others, through, for example, a carbon tax for emissions or a congestion tax for contributing to traffic. When the cost of polluting or driving increases, companies and commuters will do less of each, and the problem is solved. However, this solution fundamentally cannot work across time because it is impossible to fully bind future governments to the commitments of their predecessors; there is always the possibility they will repeal the measures imposed by a previous government. One example is the Pay-As-You-Go (PAYGO) Law: it was passed in 1990 as a noble attempt to stabilize the budget deficit by requiring Congress to commit to offset any new spending with equivalent cuts. However, over time, exceptions began to proliferate; three decades later, due to constant circumvention, PAYGO has been far less effective than many had initially hoped. 

Second, the inherent uncertainty of the future is an obstacle to proactive action. The stinging memory of unwarranted precautions like the overhyped Y2K preparedness campaign has soured many voters on the idea of devoting more focus to the future, for it may simply lead to more misfires. Even among those who agree that failing to address climate change, the national debt, and other potential future disasters is playing with fire, it’s difficult to commit to action or decide what should be done when we have trouble envisioning what the effects of these issues will look like 20, 50, or 100 years down the line. 

Taken together, these nine factors suggest a troubling conclusion: our political system may be fundamentally ill-equipped to craft precautionary policy to guard against many of the issues that should concern us most. Though opportunistic politicians and self-interested voters deserve some of the blame, the problem runs far deeper: it is a structural feature of our democracy as it is currently constructed. Enlightenment philosopher David Hume may have been right to observe that “men are not able radically to cure, either in themselves or others, that narrowness of the soul, which makes them prefer the present to the remote” — but instead of solving the problem as he suggests, government may make it worse. Government is not beyond reproach, but it can be reformed; we’ll explore some promising proposals to deal with democratic myopia later in the series. 

Remedying this defect of democracy may be one of the defining challenges of our time. But with foresight and courage, to paraphrase journalist Richard Fisher, we stand a better chance of making the difficult but necessary commitment to help those whom we might never live to see. 

Selected works

Beckman, Ludvig. “Democracy, future generations and global climate change.” European Consortium for Political Research. Accessed December 8, 2020.

Caney, Simon. “Democratic Reform, Intergenerational Justice and the Challenges of the Long-Term.” Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity. July 2019. 

Fisher, Richard. “The perils of short-termism: Civilisation’s greatest threat.” BBC Future. January 9, 2019.

Moyo, Dambisa. “Why Democracy Doesn’t Deliver.” Foreign Policy. April 26, 2018.

Krznaric, Roman. “Why we need to reinvent democracy for the long-term.” BBC Future. March 18, 2019.

Randers, Jørgen. “The tyranny of the short-term: why democracy struggles with issues like climate change.” Democracy Audit. September 2, 2015.


Title Image Credit: Mike Keefe / Denver Post