“It should be the highest ambition of every [one] to extend his views beyond himself, and to bear in mind that his conduct will not only affect himself, his country, and his immediate posterity; but that its influence may be co-extensive with the world, and stamp political happiness or misery on ages yet unborn.”
Indeed, one of the major undecided questions of our times relates to how the interests of future generations are represented in our present days. This is more relevant when it comes to policy and decision making at the helm of affairs of institutions and nations. The general approach to policymaking has been to prioritize the interests of current generations i.e. preferring policies that somewhat deliver immediate results as opposed to deferred benefits. Policies that are long term in nature are questioned by orientations that are short-term in nature and which are prevalent in modern representative democracies.
Modern democracies and neglect of posterity
Democracies are prone to bias towards laws and policies that favour present generations over future ones. This phenomenon which is popularly known as presentism manifests in most leaders and citizens alike rubbishing the future and how current political and democratic processes can respond to their demands. This simply results in the neglect of posterity. It is not strange because this seems to be a normal human tendency – the tendency to prefer the immediate to the distant, “both in what a person fears and what a person desires.”
All this works together to produce a culture of short-termism which runs through all of political life and national development. This culture is even exacerbated by the rampant use and inclusion of social media into today’s governance mechanism. As a result, policymakers who are mostly politicians are made to see only up to the point of the next election and in doing so simply dance to the tune of the latest opinion polls and trends on social media. Only resorting too quick fixes to issues that flow spontaneously from the media.
Who is to blame?
Can policymakers totally be blamed? Not really. This is because democracy is skewed in favour of presentism with rulers being under the necessity of considering the interests of those who have suffrage. The inherent design flaw of today’s democratic systems coupled with the focus on electoral cycles produces short political time horizons. Leaders are by constitutional design saddled with temporal limitations and forced to exercise power for a limited period of time. This has made many argue that the world would be better off with the introduction of “benign dictators” who are not saddled with the cares of looking forward to the next election alone.
The way forward
All is not lost all the same! The present generation has a part to play in representing posterity by acting as trustees of the democratic process. Policymakers need to consider at all costs how every singular decision of theirs could affect the future generation. It is always better to do the right thing now than to incur the conscience of posterity. Today’s democracies need to prioritize sustainable development policies that are geared towards meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to also meet their own needs. By so doing, policymakers and politicians alike must use the quality of life of posterity as a benchmark when making policies and debating issues of national importance.
Governments must think systematically about the future in the face of pressing demands of the day. It is for this purpose that governments in themselves are elected and should be made to live the expectation of being the cure to short-termism rather than the cause. Democracy must be progressively reinvented to overcome its inherent short-termism so as to address the “inter-generational theft” that dominates the future.
Irrespective of possible electoral outcomes, Governments of the day should be willing and able to convince the current generation to pay a cost in the short term even if the benefits would be realized in the future. Such decisions would benefit our future selves and also future generations, as it is said, “a man does not plant a tree for himself, he plants it for posterity.” Today’s governments and policymakers must act as guardians of posterity by thinking for the longer-term so as to wipe the slate clean and ensure that posterity can thrive.
One thing is sure; “the difference between a politician and a statesman is that the politician thinks about the next election while the statesman thinks about the next generation.” More statesmen are needed at the helms of affairs!