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.

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I think there are a few reasons why this is very unlikely to work in practice, at least in society today (maybe it would work if most people were longtermists of some sort):

  • Focusing on such far-off issues would be seen as "silly," and would thereby hurt the political careers of those who focused on them
  • Political inertia is generally strong, meaning that, by default, most things in politics don't happen, even if there's slightly more support than opposition. Here, you'd be shifting the policy proposal to one that wouldn't affect the lives of constituents, and taking away any argument for urgency, making it even harder for the policy to gather enough momentum to overcome the political inertia
  • Due to cognitive dissonance/motivated reasoning/reciprocity/etc, most people who benefit from policies that are on net harmful come to believe that the policy is actually good (e.g., rich homeowners conveniently becoming ideologically NIMBY), and so approaching this from a transactional perspective of "okay, we'll let you personally benefit but let's end the policy after that so it stop hurting everyone else" will likely fail to gain any headway with the current beneficiaries of the policy
  • Etcetera

As an aside, regarding this point:

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.

I decently strongly suspect that the main opposition to changing the presidential system in the US (say, to a parliamentary system) is not that the Democratic and Republican politicians would lose power (I think they'd wind up relatively similarly powerful under that system, though possibly parties would fragment), but instead some combination of status quo bias/Chesterton’s Fence conservatism/sentimentality towards the current system/political inertia/etc. 

Interesting points. 100 years is unnecessarily long, it just simplified some of my arguments (every politician being dead, for instance).

If it were, say, 50 years, the arguments still roughly hold. Then it becomes something that people do for their children, and not something for “the unborn children of my unborn children” which doesn't seem real to people (even though it is). I think this probably solves the silliness issue, and the constituency issue.

But I also think it might seem silly because no one has done it before. In December, putting a tree in your house and covering it with lights doesn't seem silly because it's something that everyone does. The first successful instance of this will be much harder than every other attempt.

Politicians who only advocated for these policies would seem silly, because current issues also matter. So I'm not suggesting that, just that it plays a part in their overall policy portfolio. And normally when policies are passed, several go through at once. If no one else cares about what happens in 50 years time, they have a chance of slipping by.

So my question is, why not try it on something uncontroversial that has a short-term sticking point? What do you gain from not seeing if this works?

More from FCCC
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities