Politics, society and long-termism

by michaelhodges3

Today is a beautiful, sunny day.  Not the kind of day to be sitting indoors at a computer.

Nevertheless, I am sitting indoors at a computer, typing this.

One big problem with UK politics, as with politics in general globally, is short-termism.  I’m not knocking a short-term outlook per se, because a government of wise, ‘elf’-like beings who can only see the long term is likely to make mistakes in practice.  The world is a chaotic place, and short-termism is a response to that.

However, too much emphasis on the short term is a mistake.  In instances where we can see a long way ahead, it is wise to take that knowledge on board, and to act accordingly.

I suppose that in the UK, a key reason for not doing this is democracy.  Partly beacause leaders’ terms in office are quite short, compared to a human generation-span or lifespan (and they are reluctant to look too far beyond the next election), and partly because in a democracy, government mirrors society, and society itself often has quite a short-term outlook.  If leaders are to see beyond the next election, and plan beyond the next election, part of the answer has to be public opinion.  If politicians think that taking a longer term view is going to win them votes, then they will take a longer term view.

Why does society have such a short-term outlook?  Could it be to do with the failings of the education system, in that better educated people tend to be better at seeing the long view?  Could it be that a short-term outlook is a hardwired part of human nature?  Not sure.  And does it actually have such a short-term outlook as it seems?  It does seem fair to say that modern British society does look further ahead than was the case a couple of generations ago, and that this may have something to do with climate change.

What else gives people a longer term view?  One thing is longevity.  The longer people live, the further ahead they are likely to look.  Likewise, having a culture of sensible, worthwhile public debate and discussion is likely to help flag up for attention longer-term issues that are of particular importance.  Another factor is wisdom.  A society in which wisdom is valued and nurtured is likely to contain more individuals who look further ahead.  And, I suppose, a good society, in which compassion and morality are important, is likely to take a more responsible outlook towards future generations and their wellbeing.