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It may be irrational to fret about the solemn frippery contained in a BBC editorial. Still, I can’t help but shiver in absolute terror when I read pieces like this. Roman Krznaric, the author, believes that our political order is fatally flawed. Why? I’ll let him explain:
The time has come to face an inconvenient reality: that modern democracy – especially in wealthy countries – has enabled us to colonise the future. We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk, nuclear waste and public debt, and that we feel at liberty to plunder as we please.
…The daunting challenge we face is to reinvent democracy itself to overcome its inherent short-termism and to address the intergenerational theft that underlies our colonial domination of the future. How to do so is, I believe, the most urgent political challenge of our times.
This is an argument I’m hearing more and more — and not merely from progressives. (Roger Scruton expresses similar concerns.) Of course, it’s not wrong to worry about the ills of short-term thinking. On the contrary. (Need I remind Ricochetti about unintended consequences?) But Krznaric moves well beyond caution and obvious problems like the debt crisis. He gives no hard-and-fast recommendations, but he does cite various ambitious schemes dreamed up by similarly anxious academics. For instance:
[C]ould an assembly of today’s citizens really be able to step into the shoes of future generations and effectively represent their interests? A new movement in Japan called Future Design is attempting to answer this very question. Led by economist Tatsuyoshi Saijo of the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Kyoto, the movement has been conducting citizen assemblies in municipalities across the country. One group of participants takes the position of current residents, and the other group imagines themselves to be “future residents” from the year 2060, even wearing special ceremonial robes to aid their imaginative leap forward in time. Multiple studies have shown that the future residents devise far more radical and progressive city plans compared to current ones. Ultimately the movement aims to establish a Ministry of the Future as part of central government, and a Department of the Future within all local government authorities, which would use the future citizens’ assembly model for policy-making.
At no point in the piece does Krznaric grapple with the most obvious objection to such schemes: the fact that the future — unlike the past and present — is essentially unknowable. It’s difficult enough to make wise decisions with imperfect knowledge; it’s impossible to make wise decisions with no knowledge. When we make predictions about the future, we have no choice but to extrapolate, in a straight line, from the past and present — a technique which yields spotty results, at best (as anyone who visits EPCOT knows).
Paradoxically, this is precisely why the best solution to “short-termism” may lie in looking backward, not forward. Edmund Burke, hardly a futurist’s futurist, described society as “a partnership … between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Cultivating those institutions and modes of living which have proven to work seems, to me, a better way of cementing future success than any harebrained scheme involving politically sanctioned larping. Still, something tells me that Krznaric has little interest in Burkeanism. (Then again, if he has his way, we may all find ourselves in material circumstances quite familiar to Burke.)
Tradition may be the democracy of the dead. What exists now may be a democracy of the living. What Krznaric proposes is not “a movement for the rights and interests of future generations.” It’s not a democracy of the unborn. It’s a tyranny of the hypothetical — a tyranny of those who now, as always, claim to know best.Published in