This is a summary of the GPI working paper “Longtermist institutional reform” by Tyler M. John and William MacAskill (published in the 2021 edited volume “the long view”). The summary was written by Riley Harris.
Political decisions can have lasting effects on the lives and wellbeing of future generations. Yet political institutions tend to make short-term decisions with only the current generation – or even just the current election cycle – in mind. In “longtermist institutional reform”, Tyler M. John and William MacAskill identify the causes of short-termism in government and give four recommendations for how institutions could be improved. These are the creation of in-government research institutes, a futures assembly, posterity impact statements and – more radically – an ‘upper house’ representing future generations.
Causes of short-termism
John and MacAskill discuss three main causes of short-termism. Firstly, politicians may not care about the long term. This may be because they discount the value of future generations, or simply because it is easy to ignore the effects of policies that are not experienced here and now. Secondly, even if politicians are motivated by concern for future generations, it may be difficult to know the long-term effects of different policies. Finally, even motivated and knowledgeable actors might face structural barriers to implementing long-term focussed policies – for instance, these policies might sometimes appear worse in the short-term and reduce a candidate’s chances of re-election.
In-government research institutes
The first suggested reform is the creation of in-government research institutes that could independently analyse long-term trends, estimate expected long-term impacts of policy and identify matters of long-term importance. These institutes could help fight short-termism by identifying the likely future impacts of policies, making these impacts vivid, and documenting how our leaders are affecting the future. They should also be designed to resist the political incentives that drive short-termism elsewhere. For instance, they could be functionally independent from the government, hire without input from politicians, and be flexible enough to prioritise the most important issues for the future. To ensure their advice is not ignored, the government should be required to read and respond to their recommendations.
The futures assembly would be a permanent citizens’ assembly which seeks to represent the interests of future generations and give dedicated policy time to issues of importance for the long-term. Several examples already exist where similar citizens’ assemblies have helped create consensus on matters of great uncertainty and controversy, enabling timely government action. In-government research institutes excel at producing high quality information, but lack legitimacy. In contrast, a citizens’ assembly like this one could be composed of randomly selected citizens that are statistically representative of the general population. John and MacAskill believe this representativeness brings political force –politicians who ignore the assembly put their reputations at risk. We can design futures assemblies to avoid the incentive structures that result in short-termism – such as election cycles, party interests and campaign financing. Members should be empowered to call upon experts, and their terms should be long enough to build expertise but short enough to avoid problems like interest group capture – perhaps two years. They should also be empowered to set their own agenda and publicly disseminate their results.
Posterity impact statements
Requiring posterity impact statements for legislation would provide another mechanism for creating political accountability and gathering high quality information on long-run policy effects. These statements would give an estimate of the expected impact of a policy on future generations, similar to the environmental impact statements that are already required in many countries. Posterity impact statements might utilise a “soft” enforcement mechanism – relying on voters to enforce good long-term policy creation – or a “hard” enforcement mechanism – for example, the government might have to take out insurance when implementing particularly risky policies.
Future generations ‘upper house’
A more radical reform would be to introduce an ‘upper house’ that represents future generations explicitly, to work with a lower house representing current generations. (Legislation would have to pass both houses). John and MacAskill suggest several things that might help such a proposal work:
Randomly selecting citizens and experts to serve in the upper house (to avoid the incentives that drive short-termism, such as election cycles, party interests, industry corruption and partisan polarisation).
Independent research institutions should create concrete performance metrics and members of the house should give public justifications that refer to those metrics.
The members should be relatively young, and given a pension a number of decades later based on their cohort’s performance in promoting the interests of future generations.
Further ideas for reforms
John and MacAskill also suggest several additional ideas for reforms that might be worth exploring further: longer election cycles, novel commitment mechanisms, giving parents additional votes to use on behalf of their children, taxation of negative and subsidy of positive long-run externalities, and long-term performance incentive schemes such as tying the pensions of politicians and public servants to national performance.
James S Fishkin and Robert C Luskin (2005). Experimenting with a democratic ideal: Deliberative polling and public opinion. Acta Politica 40⁄3.
James S. Fishkin, Roy William Mayega, Lynn Atuyambe, Nathan Tumuhamye, Julius Ssentongo, Alice Siu and William Bazeyo (2017). Applying deliberative democracy in Africa: Uganda’s first deliberative polls. Daedalus 146⁄3.
Tyler M. John and William MacAskill (2021). Longtermist institutional reform. The Long View: Essays on Policy, Philanthropy, and the Long-Term Future. FIRST. Edited by Natalie Cargill and Tyler M. John.
Christian List, Robert C. Luskin, James S. Fishkin, and Iain McLean (2013). Deliberation, single-peakedness, and the possibility of meaningful democracy: Evidence from deliberative polls. The Journal of Politics 75⁄1.
See Fishkin and Luskin (2005), Fishkin et al. (2017) and List et al. (2013).