Far-Future Commitments as a Policy Consensus Strategy

In government, it’s not just a matter of having the best policy; it’s about getting enough votes. This creates a problem when the self-interests of individual voters don’t match the best interests of the country.

For instance, voting researchers widely consider the presidential voting system in America to be inferior to many alternatives. But if you want to change it, you require consent from Democrats and Republicans—i.e. the very people who benefit from the status quo.

Or consider the land-value tax. This tax is considered among economists to be uniquely efficient (i.e. it causes zero reduction in the good being taxed). When implemented correctly, it can address edge cases, such as new property developments, and can even prevent reductions in new land production, like the creation of artificial islands. However, this policy is against the interests of current land owners. So any politician who advocates this policy would not only fail but also likely end their political career.

What do these policies have in common? Well, both policies yield long-run benefits, and as we’ll see, they impose short-run costs. (If you disagree that these policies are actually beneficial in the long run, I’m sure you can think of policies that you like that have long-run benefits and short-run costs. The examples I’ve given are simply for clarity.)

What if rather than asking American politicians to vote against their own interests, we ask them to pass a policy today that will only be enacted after a 100-year period? Significant advances in medicine notwithstanding, by that time, most of today’s politicians will be dead. In other words, they no longer have to vote against their own interests.

The same strategy can be applied to land value taxes. If today, we passed a policy for a 100-year delayed land-value tax, the effect on house prices is approximately zero (see the widely-accepted net present value model of asset prices).

I believe this strategy offers a significant opportunity. Policy in the EA community is often seen as too hard because of how crowded it is. Yet almost no policy makers are thinking about the future in 100 years. It might be possible to pass a lot of “unpassable” policies. We just have to ensure the policies we propose are actually good (see my unfinished series on the topic), and have large barrier to reversal, so that the politicians of the future can’t renege on the government’s commitment when the day of implementation arrives.

I have a follow-up post here: Enforcing Far-Future Contracts for Governments.