…The Scottish philosopher was convinced that the institutions of government – such as political representatives and parliamentary debates – would serve to temper our impulsive and selfish desires, and foster society’s long-term interests and welfare.
Today Hume’s view appears little more than wishful thinking, since it is so startlingly clear that our political systems have become a cause of rampant short-termism rather than a cure for it. Many politicians can barely see beyond the next election, and dance to the tune of the latest opinion poll or tweet. Governments typically prefer quick fixes, such as putting more criminals behind bars rather than dealing with the deeper social and economic causes of crime. Nations bicker around international conference tables, focused on their near-term interests, while the planet burns and species disappear.
The 3 problems
…One problem is the electoral cycle, an inherent design flaw of democratic systems that produces short political time horizons. Politicians might offer enticing tax breaks to woo voters at the next electoral contest, while ignoring long-term issues out of which they can make little immediate political capital, such as dealing with ecological breakdown, pension reform or investing in early childhood education. Back in the 1970s, this form of myopic policy-making was dubbed the “political business cycle”.
Add to this the ability of special interest groups – especially corporations – to use the political system to secure near-term benefits for themselves while passing the longer-term costs onto the rest of society. Whether through the funding of electoral campaigns or big-budget lobbying, the corporate hacking of politics is a global phenomenon that pushes long-term policy making off the agenda.
The third and deepest cause of political presentism is that representative democracy systematically ignores the interests of future people. The time has come to face an inconvenient reality: that modern democracy – especially in wealthy countries – has enabled us to colonise the future. We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk, nuclear waste and public debt, and that we feel at liberty to plunder as we please. When Britain colonised Australia in the 18th and 19th Century, it drew on the legal doctrine now known as terra nullius – nobody’s land – to justify its conquest and treat the indigenous population as if they didn’t exist or have any claims on the land. Today our attitude is one of tempus nullius. The future is an “empty time”, an unclaimed territory that is similarly devoid of inhabitants. Like the distant realms of empire, it is ours for the taking.
Committee for the Future
A more fundamental point is that there may be ways to reinvent representative democracy to overcome its current bias towards the here and now. In fact, several countries have already embarked on pioneering experiments to empower the citizens of the future. Finland, for instance, has a parliamentary Committee for the Future that scrutinises legislation for its impact on future generations.
Perhaps the best-known contemporary example is in Wales, which established a Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe, as part of the 2015 Well-being for Future Generations Act. The role of the commissioner is to ensure that public bodies in Wales working in areas ranging from environmental protection to employment schemes, make policy decisions looking at least 30 years into the future.
Future Design is partly inspired by the Seventh Generation Principle, observed by some Native American peoples, where the impact on the welfare of the seventh generation in the future (around 150 years ahead) is taken into account.