Tyler John & William MacAskill have recently released a preprint of their paper “Longtermist Institutional Reform” [PDF]. The paper is set to appear in an EA-motivated collection “The Long View” (working title), from Natalie Cargill and Effective Giving.
Here is the abstract:
There is a vast number of people who will live in the centuries and millennia to come. In all probability, future generations will outnumber us by thousands or millions to one; of all the people who we might affect with our actions, the overwhelming majority are yet to come. In the aggregate, their interests matter enormously. So anything we can do to steer the future of civilization onto a better trajectory, making the world a better place for those generations who are still to come, is of tremendous moral importance. Political science tells us that the practices of most governments are at stark odds with longtermism. In addition to the ordinary causes of human short-termism, which are substantial, politics brings unique challenges of coordination, polarization, short-term institutional incentives, and more. Despite the relatively grim picture of political time horizons offered by political science, the problems of political short-termism are neither necessary nor inevitable. In principle, the State could serve as a powerful tool for positively shaping the long-term future. In this chapter, we make some suggestions about how we should best undertake this project. We begin by explaining the root causes of political short-termism. Then, we propose and defend four institutional reforms that we think would be promising ways to increase the time horizons of governments: 1) government research institutions and archivists; 2) posterity impact assessments; 3) futures assemblies; and 4) legislative houses for future generations. We conclude with five additional reforms that are promising but require further research. To fully resolve the problem of political short-termism we must develop a comprehensive research program on effective longtermist political institutions.
In the rest of the post, I am going to ask a few pointed questions and make comments. Fair warning: I am trying to get back into frequent low-overhead blogging, so this post is less polished by design, and won’t be very useful if you don’t read the paper (since I don’t summarize it). My comments are largely critical, but needless to say I usually only bother to comment on the tiny minority of papers that I think are important and interesting, which this certainly is.
I know this is just an early attempt at formalizing these ideas, but I would want to see substantially more discussion of the public choice problems that will arise with all these proposals, not just the legislative house. I think such problems are immediate and large (i.e., not just a perturbation that can be handled later), and would strongly drive the best solution. In particular:
- How will (short-term) vested interests try to capture these in-government research groups, and how will that be prevented? Why is this better done within the government rather than done in academia using grants from the government or philanthropists?
- What will incentivize the citizen assembly to actually benefit future citizens? Merely because they are “explicitly tasked with the sole mandate”, with no enforcement or feedback? Does thinking that the citizen assembly would be effective imply that most government assemblies should be selected by sortition (which, right or wrong, has deployed pretty rarely worldwide)? Or is there something about the future and/or soft-power that makes sortition particularly well suited for this body? (Personally, I like sortition as a governing mechanism in general, but if we can’t get hardly anyone to use it generally, why might they here?)
- Will prosperity impact statements obviously improve the long-term future more than it will be used to block/delay projects for near-term reasons? Certainly, environmental impact statements suffer from this problem, and EIS have the advantage that at least there is often some way to objectively check whether they were right or wrong in a reasonable amount of time. I would also have liked to see more concrete discussion of “hard” liability mechanism in a realistic hypothetical example.
- I do appreciate the acknowledgement of the issues with Hungary’s and Israel’s Commissioners for Future Generations, and the (albeit modest) attempt to address public choices issues with the proposal for a (hard-power) legislative body.
- Regarding “A subset of the legislators might be selected at random from among eligible experts, stratified by area of expertise, in order to ensure technocratic competence across a range of issues.”: has this sort of technocratic sortition ever been used effectively before?
Lastly, some tangents:
- Could any of these proposed reforms be usefully adopted by non-government organizations like universities or industry groups, which would probably be substantially easier to effect? I predict for instance that a future assembly at a university would immediately become dysfunctional.
- Are there any reforms involving the reduction of government power that would promote longtermism? Many threats to the future — and indeed most of the worst such threats — require active government involvement, e.g., nuclear war, entrenched dictatorships, long-term stagnation of economic growth. Practically, I’d think the emphasis on additional government institutions and power undermines one’s ability to build political support for longtermism reform with government-power skeptics.
- What are the prospects for longtermism government reforms in non-democracies? Might the CCP be more likely to adopt such a proposal, and might it to do more relative good in China?
Edit 2022-Mar-9: See also this recent criticism of UK’s Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill.