How long is long term?

23 June 2015

by Dr Dominic Roser

Dominic Roser's research focuses on intergenerational justice, global justice, risk, non-ideal theory as well as the relation between economics and ethics. This combination of topics has arisen out of his interest in climate change. Currently, he wor...

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Short-termism is a common plague in policy-making. Politicians constantly criticise it in their speeches (albeit much less in their actions). The Oxford Martin Commission’s Now for the Long Term report provides insightful analysis and powerful recommendations against short-termism. Around the world, there are various experiments for countering short-termism at the institutional level.

However, while the opposition to short-termism is clear, it is much less clear what the alternative is. Presumably, it is long-termism. But what is ‘the’ long term? The long term is, to put it mildly, a broad category: the future might, for all we know, go on forever. What segment of the future do we have in mind when we call for better attention towards the long term?

It is astonishing how rarely this is made explicit. Implicitly, the long term often refers to the time span up to 2030 or 2050. Frequently it refers to a date that is already salient in a policy area for one reason or another. Sometimes, the long term even refers to a much shorter horizon: anything beyond the next elections.

Some might object: why does it matter what we mean by the long term? Isn’t any step that shifts attention from the short to the long term to be welcomed?

The answer is no. There are three separate reasons why we need to be more specific about the meaning of the long term:

1.Ethics vs. self-interest. The further into the future we look, the more our care for the long term must be based on ethical reasons. The closer to the present we look, the more our care for the long term can also be based on prudently acting in our own self-interest. Note that, in principle, taking the end of the century into account should already have advocates among the youngest today based purely on their self-interest. And the mid-century is even covered by the rational self-interest of a majority of today’s voters. Thus, exclusively ethical reasons for long term thinking come into play only after the time span often considered to be the long term.

2.Types of drivers. The drivers for neglecting the near and distant future differ (and therefore, the countermeasures for tackling these drivers differ as well). For example, one of the drivers of short-termism is the lack of overlap between those who are affected by a political decision and those who make the decision. This can be remedied for the near future by giving more power to the young. But it can hardly be remedied for the distant future since the unborn simply cannot speak up for themselves. Another driver of short-termism is uncertainty about the future effects of present actions. This driver is much more pronounced in the distant future than in the near future.

3.Types of challenges. The near and the distant future have challenges of different kinds in store. For example, people in the distant future are expectably better off than people in the near future but they also face graver small-probability-high-impact risks.

Some might object to making a big fuss about the distinction between the near and the distant long term. They might say: Shifting attention from the present to the near future is at least a step in the right direction. While this may often be so, it is not always true. For example, some climate change adaptation measures are beneficial in the near long term but they cause additional emissions which leads to additional climate change in the distant long term. Thus, sometimes, we don’t face a trade-off between the present and the future but between different segments of the future.

The near future can also be the enemy of the distant future because looking beyond the present election cycle, even if not much, can create a sense of complacency. We might think that we have overcome short-termism by managing to think about 2030. However, we should never be content with looking only a decade, or even a couple of decades, ahead.

Of course, there is no single ‘one-size-fits-all’ understanding of ‘the’ long term. Each policy domain calls for putting the spotlight on different time scales: while nuclear waste may call for taking tens of thousands of years into account, planning a one-off event may not demand thinking more than a couple of months ahead. Also, given how different countries face different challenges and exhibit different demographic structures, the alternative to short-termism must be tailored to national context as well. Such tailoring according to national context is not easy, however, given how the long term effects of today's policymaking are usually even more global than its short term effects.

Such tailoring of the long term thinking according to domain and national context is challenging, but important. Decrying short-termism is not enough: we must also carefully specify its alternative.