Monday, March 16, 2009

The Long Run

Apologies for my relative silence; I have been traveling during the past week and had little opportunity to reflect and comment on the ever-present "political theory of daily life."

However, over at "The Front Porch Republic," I've posted a reflection on the ways that modern democracies and economics constrains our understanding of time. I offer a taste here:


The Long Run

It has become a commonplace to observe that the thought of John Maynard Keynes is back in fashion. Keynes argued strenuously on behalf of government spending - including deficit spending - as the essential avenue toward the end of “stimulating” an economy in recession in order to set it back on a path of growth. He rejected objections that this approach might saddle future generations with the irresponsibility of the current generation, much less that there might be inherent limits to a growth economy at all. Famously, he opposed the idea that “the long run” ought to bear much significance in considerations of current economic policy, stating: “But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.”

Doubtless there is some modicum of truth to this position - but only if we credit astrophysical evidence that eventually all forms of concentrated energy in the universe will dissipate, leaving someday a cold, dark, sterile and dead universe. In the very long run, we, the human race, are indeed all dead. Perhaps for some, the prospect of inevitable planetary annihilation when the sun begins to expand some 4 billion years from now, if not the eventuality of the relentless dissipation of all energy in the universe dictated by the second law of thermodynamics, suggests that we ought to live recklessly and irresponsibly in the present. Others who might give Keynes’s retort a modicum of reflection ought rightly to observe its utter falsity, if not perniciousness: in the short run we are individually all dead, but in the long run - it might be hoped - generations will follow us. As far as human beings are concerned, in our long run we properly hope that we - by which we might mean our children and theirs and theirs, and so on - are very much alive.

If Keynes is a preeminent proponent of short-term thinking on behalf of current prosperity, then we have ALL been Keynsians for an exceedingly long time. Indeed, this condition is one that is likely endemic to modern democracy, if Tocqueville is to be believed. One of modern democracy’s severest challenges is to preserve some capacity to think in temporally expansive terms - to think beyond the present. It is the nature of democracy to narrow our sense of time to a narrow band, to forget the past and neglect the future. Ways of life must be encouraged to preserve a more expansive sense of temporality - namely, widespread engagement in local civic affairs in which we are called upon as a matter of habit and ongoing practice to consider the generational implications of our actions; and, secondly, robust religious belief that directs our eyes above and beyond our current affairs and calls to mind our debts to the past and our obligations to people who have passed from this life, those with whom we share our short lifespans, and those who are not yet born.

The presence of the future depends on the presence of the past. If we think of time at all, we might be tempted to think of the past and future as opposites of a kind, one the accumulation of time past, the other time not yet realized. Yet, considered from the perspective of most creatures, the past and future are practicably the same - neither exists. Both are generally irrelevant to most living creatures which live constantly and necessarily in the present, generally guided by instinct that dictates actions without reflection or choice. Temporality beyond the present is irrelevant - they are no less likely to celebrate a birthday than to fear their own death.

In this regard, human beings are unique (yes, some will point out extraordinary features of chimps or dolphins and so on, but there are no chimp libraries and no dolphin investment funds). We are unique because we have the capacity to remember and to anticipate. Indeed, these two phenomena are fundamentally connected: without some capacity to recall the past, we would have no basis to consider likely events in the future; without our concern for the future, we might have little impetus to strive to remember. Neither the past nor the future are “present” in both senses: only the immediate moment is “real,” constantly passing out of existence and entering a future that moments ago did not yet exist. Yet for human beings - particularly inasmuch as we are creatures defined by culture, that is, the collected remembrance and inheritance of past generations as embodied in our daily practices - the past and the future are actually present for us. At the most basic level, the past is present in memory, and in all the ways that we seek to preserve memory: story, books, monuments, gravestones, libraries, the built environment, and so on. And the future is equally present to us, if less fully known, at least in the form of hopes, dreams, fears, anticipation, promises, plans, imagination. It is present in such basic features of human life as marriage, when we promise to remain with someone whom we love at least in the present, anticipating especially that in marriage our love and commitment will extend, and - we hope - we will propagate our species and our culture into the future. The past and future are profoundly present in our churches, the places we both remember and promise, where we recollect and where we hope (every human death properly commemorated combines the simultaneous presence of all aspects of time, past, present and future). Human culture is the remarkable achievement of the prolongation of our temporal horizon: in this capacity to make present those parts of time that are no longer or are not yet here, ours is a unique achievement among the creatures. Perhaps above all for this reason was Man given dominion over nature’s creatures - not because we were supposed to use such dominion to sate current appetite, but precisely because we had been given the unique capacity to learn from, and thus anticipate, the costs and benefits of our actions. Ours was a grant of stewardship, not rapine or devastation.

More here.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Patrick - Man was "given dominion" BEFORE THE FALL INTO SIN!!! (Gen.1:28) - granted when man was "newly-minted" from the hand of the Creator, i.e. before the fissioning into two sexes, before even man was cultivating the earth, much less exploiting it!!
Misunderstanding this point has deformed Christianity almost beyond recall, giving license to appetites that men were only too eager to rationalize and justify.
The question should be asked if whether God revoked the blessing of dominion consequent upon the Fall into Sin. We know not. But we do know that the joyful duty of cultivating the land ("to dress it and keep it") became a sorrowful necessity to labor in it ("in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread"), and that the creature formerly granted dominion was now, through his own action, to experience subjection and enslavement. This is certainly a radical modification of the "dominion" idea - which has wreaked such destructive havoc.