Tyranny of the local-present

We live under an irrational tyranny that the people in the present are more important than people in the future.

This is probably obvious: certainly, we spend much more treating diseases than it would cost to prevent the diseases in the future.  Also, we experience this phenomenon in other areas of our lives; being unable to delay ‘gratification’ and going for early gains.  But is it acceptable when delivering aid?

Tyranny is a strong word, but I think that it’s apt.  People in the present are the only ones with a voice and a claim for resources, resources that are finite.  From health to the environment we are selling those yet to exist short.  Granted, people in the future don’t exist now just as people in the past don’t exist now.  The difference is that our decisions now will affect people in the future.  And they don’t have a say in our decisions, they live under our tyranny.

Delaying gratification is often cited as a mark of maturity and rationality.  The idea of credit and investment is central to this.  We would save more lives, in the long run, if we invested in future generations with the money that we spend on the present.

There is another tyranny plays out as an irresponsible bias: the tyranny of location.  This has two features: tyranny of things that happen close to us (local) and tyranny of things that happen more often in one place (locality).

The first is well known and complicated by the fact that people close to us are also like us.  The second, the tyranny of things happening in the same place, is different.  We pay much more attention to tragedy when it is localized than when it is spread out.  Bono tells us that 30,000 children have died in the last 3 months in Somalia because of the Famine.  When he tells us this he does so as if this is some dirty secret that no-one wants to talk about.  But we are talking about it.  We’re not talking about the estimated 3,000 children that die each day from malaria, for example.  That happens in their own homes and is difficult to capture within one shot.  The numbers are not the issue, it is the concentration of misery which is attracting celebrity attention.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Tyranny of the local-present

  1. Lavanya

    Calum, your blog is right on point…I agree with many of your sentiments with regards to public health/prevention and where and how we place our focus and our efforts. I signed up to follow your blog and look forward to reading more! Thanks for writing about these very important issues.

  2. shari

    you are right but how do we find a balance between helping people that exist now and helping people that will exist in the future. yes, people in the future have to deal with the outcomes of what we do now, but resources are finite and limited. we can’t not do all that we can to deal with the immediate problems just because we want better future outcomes. better programming and more efficient financing of humanitarian programs will lead to a more equal distribution of “help” among people in the present and people in the future, but i think this will be a long process.

    i know you are not suggesting that we help people in the present less than we do now (because we could probably be doing so much more!), but we have to be careful in how much we invest in the future, making sure that we still help the people in the present as much as we can.

    • samsondaily

      I agree that overall we need to spend more on everything/everyone, present and future. I also agree that efficiency and fairness could improve things in all aspects without anyone having to lose out.

      But I am saying that there is an imbalance in the attention that we give to present and future suffering. Present suffering makes us feel bad and so we act to alleviate it (our feeling bad and their suffering). However, if we could care equally about all those we can affect – present and future – then we would see that we are spending much much more on people presently suffering than on preventing suffering in the future. And this has no rational basis, it is only because of a difference in how it feels.

      Now, I don’t think we should over-rationalize this because feelings matter, but in the humanitarian sector this imbalance is massive. We are willing to spend relentlessly to alleviate suffering in a disaster, an emotional response to the problem. A pure rationalist would say, ‘if it costs too much, leave them to fend for themselves,’ which is horrible. But, what we are doing instead is, ‘if it doesn’t make me feel bad/I don’t know about it, then they can fend for themselves’. So, moderate malnutrition, malaria, mental health, NGTs – these are all things that we are ignoring. The rational view, though it sounds harsh, at least has helping people at its core. The emotional response does not.

      • Lavanya

        Two things came to mind when I read your comments:
        1) human psychology – the (in)ability of people to delay immediate gratification…this concept is somewhat applicable, as humans naturally, I believe, tend to overemphasize their present emotional needs and act on these immediate emotions more often rather than anticipating the long term outcome/consequences of their actions and acting with that in mind
        2) sensationalism/perception – as we all know, the media (and to a certain extent I think it may also be human nature) focuses on quick-fix problems – issues that you can identify and solve immediately, as there is a sense of satisfaction/closure by being able to tackle something and finish it. I think sometimes, we strive for this feeling of immediate satisfaction (tied to #1 above) rather than thinking of what’s best in the long term, and we justify this in our minds because we know that we have done something good NOW, whereas many long-term solutions take time, and as there are often many conditions for their success, are uncertain, so in our justification we could say “I’m not sure if I would have been able to do x (long term solution) anyway, but I KNOW I’ve done something good today”. Also, the media tends to focus on dramatic things, visual indicators of ill-health (i.e. a bleeding wound vs. malnutrition) that trigger immediate, visceral emotional responses, and create a sense of urgency to act. Once again, these problems tend to be the quick-fix type. Also, I think that for many individuals, the desire to help/do good is motivated largely by improving how they are perceived in the eyes of others. Therefore, someone who wants to look good in front of someone else is more likely to tackle a problem in the present, that he can solve immediately, rather than take on a long-term problem, since he would see results faster, which would make him look good to his peers. Also, I think generally speaking, thinking of the future and long term solutions requires a great deal of patience, planning, flexibility, and consideration of complex, intertwining factors – overall, it’s not as easy to conceptualize as a short-term solution. Perhaps it’s just the nature of the beast.

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