Democracy and the Problem of Short-Termism

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by Jaakko Kuosmanen

Successful governance requires taking not only the short-term but also the long-term into consideration. Mitigation of climate change, for example, requires action now, but the benefits from policies adopted today will appear only in future. Similarly, investments in pensions, public infrastructure, or an educational system require long-term planning. Evidence, however, shows that politicians are not always very good at taking long-term into consideration in the design of policies and laws. This constitutes a major problem of governance, which is sometimes described as the ‘problem of short-termism’.

The problem of short-termism cuts across policy fields, and there are various reasons for its emergence. The psychological setup of humans, for example, is such that it can tilt our focus from future towards the present. Various cognitive biases make it harder for us to take long-term into consideration. Humans have, among other things, a tendency to be overly optimistic of the time it takes to complete tasks, and to overestimate their ability to influence outcomes.

In addition to psychological factors, the problem of short-termism can arise due to institutional factors. In democratic systems there is an important institutionalised incentive, which makes governance of the future even more complicated: elections. Short electoral cycles provide a motivation for politicians to engage in projects that will bring benefits in near-term rather than the long-term. Focusing on the needs of those living in the present over the needs of future generations can be an easy choice, as future generations do not cast votes.

This raises foundational questions about democracy: ’Are democratic societies inherently unfit for governing the future?’ Astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees recently declared that ‘only an enlightened despot could push through the measures needed to navigate the 21st century safely’.

Reconciling the tension between democratic governance and governance of the long-term is definitely challenging, and it is not immediately clear to what extent it can be successfully done. But it is also of crucial importance to do our best and attempt to solve the problem of short-termism without abandoning democratic principles. The power to elect and re-elect leaders is an essential part of legitimate governance.

We can be hopeful for two reasons. Firstly, democratic governments around the world are starting to increasingly recognise the problem of short-termism. Secondly, we are still at early stages of capacity building. Many initiatives to support long-term governance in democratic societies are actively being developed.

Both UK and Finland have been at the forefront of this work. Finland has developed various mechanisms that try to steer democratic governance away from short-termist approach. It has introduced a parliamentary committee for future, a report on the future done by each incoming government, and a new foresight unit.

In the UK, Wales recently adopted Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act, which aims to bring long-term goals at the heart of public governance. The Act, which was celebrated around the world, makes Wales a pioneer in long-term governance. At Whitehall there have also been active efforts to strengthen the government’s long-term governance capacities. In recent years we’ve seen, for example, a concerted effort to build effective foresight capacities, which aim to ensure that politicians are prepared for challenges of the future.

These much needed projects undertaken by the UK and Finnish government constitute a promising start. Overall, however, there is no room for complacency. The rise of systemic risks and our increasing capacity to harm the interest of future generations means that we need to act urgently. We need to revamp democracies for the 21st Century.

 

Jaakko Kuosmanen

Dr Jaakko Kuosmanen is the Co-ordinator of the Oxford Martin Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations and a Research Fellow at the Law Faculty at the University of Oxford. Jaakko received his PhD at the University of Edinburgh, and he has previously worked at the Council of Europe. Jaakko has lectured at various universities on public international law, public policy, and global justice. He is currently teaching at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. Jaakko’s research focuses on the design of long-term oriented governing institutions, and he also provides consultancy for various governments

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