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.