Democracy, Short-Termism, and Outside Context Problems

An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilisations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop.

Iain M Banks, Excession

We’re used, by now, to the stories.

Story 1: Democracy is built in a way that means that it’s too short-termist in its thinking, incapable of taking slow-burn projects or problems seriously, happy to accept unknowns and uncertainties as long as this administration doesn’t have to deal with them. Tethered solely to the populist demands of election and re-election seeking, our representatives lack incentives to engage with the problems that are starting now but could become hugely impactful a little further down the road.

Story 2: Blinded by self-interest, or just our inability to imagine influences from beyond our usual sphere of experience, we fail to foresee the huge exogenous issue until it’s too late. It’s the scenario that we see occasionally in the movies – A big spaceship turning up in Independence Day, a rogue planet looming in the sky in When Worlds Collide, the Spanish boats bringing Catholicism, plague and cannon to the new world in Apocalypto.

Apocalypto (2006)

What connects these stories? Both of them entail the claims about the dangers of our limited epistemic perspective. Story 1’s short-termism is marked by our failure to comprehend the future implications of emerging problems (or our failure to care if the likely implications of such problems will be some future generation’s headache). In the end, it boils down to our response to risks, our comfort with unknowns and unintended consequences when their impact will be felt by people other than ourselves.

Story 2 removes the possibility of present-day intervention from the equation. Our ignorance is total, because the universe is serving up a curveball. While in story 1 we are ignorant of the ramifications of current trends (and lack incentives to invest our time and resources in evaluating their risks and responding sensibly to them), in story 2 we have had no opportunity to predict or prepare for the problems at hand. Such scenarios loom large in our cultural consciousness, as a trip to a cinema or book shop can demonstrate. They are Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns, Taleb’s black swans, Banks’ outside context problems.

Democracies are generally thought of as being especially vulnerable to problems like these. They may actually magnify human short-termism. There’s something natural about short-term thinking – human beings are lucky if they even get close to living for 100 years, and it may be relatively unreasonable to expect them to give a stuff about the possible state of affairs in hundreds of years’ time. But democracies don’t operate by human generations – they operate by political generations, terms of office. They shorten the scope of possible human foresight and long-termism even further than our biology does, so that issues spanning political generations, and not only actual generations, become someone else’s problem.

With random events, or events that cannot be anticipated, the emphasis shifts to the survivability of democracy. David Runciman views the robustness of democracy as a kind of puzzle, and a potentially dangerous one: by successfully surviving challenges, it has established a “confidence trap” which causes us to think of it as safer and more stable than it really is. When the big, unforeseeable challenges of the future come knocking, he argues, democracy will be in real trouble – we will be clinging to a form of social order that we imagine to be the most robust imaginable, but which cannot possibly protect us from a real shock to its system.

Discussions of democracy’s failings in these regards are often quite problematic. See, for example, Jørgen Randers’ recent article on short-termism and climate change for Democratic Audit UK. Norway’s popular rejection, in 2006, of a plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds by raising income taxes from 36% to 37% seems to Randers to be an extraordinary error:

In my mind, the cost was ridiculously low … given that this plan would eliminate the most serious threat to the rich world in this century. In spite of this, a vast majority of Norwegians was against this sacrifice. To be frank, most voters preferred to use the money for other causes – like yet another weekend trip to London (or Sweden) for shopping.

But there are some significant errors in reasoning here. For one thing, Norwegian voters may have been sceptical that such a plan could work as well as advertised, making the increased taxes less appealing. More importantly, Norway’s domestic action on green house gas emissions would not, as Randers states, “eliminate the most serious threat to the rich world in this century”, but rather represent a tiny part of all of the greenhouse gases emitted by human activity on the global scale. Voters are not always rational, but there is nothing particularly selfish or malign about Norway’s failure to accept this trade-off. Randers is eventually moved to appeal to “common sense”, “income security” so that we are less averse to the risks of significant structural change, and, finally:

[T]o install enlightened dictatorship for a time limited period in critical policy areas. Like the Romans did when the city was challenged. And which is the solution currently pursued by the Chinese Communist Party, with obvious success in the poverty/energy/climate area. But I agree that the obvious solution of strong government appears unrealistic in the democratic West.

The fact that this “obvious solution” is unlikely to be implemented speaks to the possibility that desperate times call for desperate measures: like Runciman, he is arguing that there are certain situations where democracy is not up to the job, and something (or someone) needs to step in.

With this in mind, I would like to make three further points of my own here:

  1. The line between short-termism and outside context problems is more blurred than we usually imagine
  2. Short termism is often justified by the positing of beneficial unforeseen consequences, or outside context benefits
  3. There’s no form of social order that is likely to outperform democracy in dealing with either long-term problems or outside context problems

1. Short-termism revolves around knowledge problems, just as outside context problems does. If we knew with real certainty that a given current trend is going to turn into an existential threat, it is likely that even a short-term political establishment would find means to address or mitigate it. Such certainty is hard to come by, because the future is, by definition, unknowable.

2. These two types of problems intersect in another important way. One of the reasons we might doubt that a current process will turn into an existential threat is our faith in human and technological innovation and progress. In this way, outside context benefits – the good things we cannot yet imagine – are often imagined to dwarf the threats of current trends.

3. Why do we imagine that democracy is worse than other types of social order for dealing with big problems? This assumption – that democracy goes hand-in-hand with complacency and softness – has been on the agenda since classical civilisation. But anyone who argues, like Randers, that some kind of dictatorship will outperform a democracy in confronting a big problem like climate change is making extraordinary assumptions about the way that knowledge is distributed in society. The possibility of an epistocracy – rule by the knowers – revolves around the idea that there really is some subset of a population that knows better than the rest. While it may be plausible that such a subset exists, it is deeply implausible that we are capable of recognising it when we see it. Willingness to act in the long-term interests of a species does not necessarily imply that we understand what those interests really are. Democracies already take steps to ensure longer-term institutional memory and agency – this is why the UK civil service stays much the same year by year, while different administrations come and go.

And when an outside context problem comes knocking, there are good reasons to expect a democracy to be more robust than other kinds of social orders – as shall be discussed in future posts. But a big, unexpected problem will have little respect for the long-termism of a benevolent dictator who is necessarily bound by the same epistemic limitations as the rest of us.

The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you’d tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass… when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you’ve just been discovered, you’re all subjects of the Emperor now, he’s keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.

Iain M Banks, Excession


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