Time is one of the most fascinating and impactful aspects of our human experience. Calendars and clocks can be little dictators. At the same time, if you’re like me, movies and stories that involve time travel are particularly engrossing.
Einstein’s special theory of relativity showed that time is an elastic concept, a relative rather than an absolute construct. Each of us has experienced periods of time that dragged on slowly while others passed far too quickly.
Time is also a crucial factor in the study of economics and sociology.
In economics, “time preference” deals with higher and lower values—the premiums and discounts that people place on the present compared to the future. These time preferences shape the structure of interest rates—or at least they used to. Today, interest rates reflect desperate official manipulations, such as zero– and negative-interest rate policies, rather than humans’ actual time preferences.
Sociologists have studied “time horizons.” Cultures in which people have relatively short time horizons are characterized by people devoting little time to thinking, worrying, and planning for a long-term future, and instead focus on maximizing happiness in the present or in the near future. Short time horizons correlate significantly with poverty. Conversely, in wealthier cultures, people defer consumption and accumulate savings to make sure they have the monetary means to support themselves even after they quit working.
There is (at least) one other identifiable social subgroup besides the poor that tends to have short time horizons: politicians. They focus almost exclusively on the next election. Thus, they are unwilling to make helpful but inconvenient preventative adjustments today to avert serious crises in the future. The vote-craving politician kicks the can down the road, even though the “can” (the problem) will be much larger, more costly, and more difficult to fix then.
It’s an ominous parallel that both poor people and politicians have short time horizons.
Although I’m not aware of social scientists applying the concept of “time horizons” to the past, I believe that backward time horizons could be as significant in their societal impact as forward time horizons. Short backward time horizons can cripple future prosperity as effectively as short forward time horizons.
I’m sure that professional historians (at least those who have not become ideological propagandists) would agree with me. Historians have long urged humans to learn from history’s lessons. Similarly, the philosopher George Santayana framed a great truth with his famous dictum about those not learning from the past being condemned to repeat it.
Losing a historical perspective about how our society got to where we are today is dangerous. Short backward time horizons can lead to utopian blindness about how the world works and substitute impracticable utopian theories and ideologies for practical, viable (albeit imperfect) solutions.
Urban vs. Rural
For years, our country’s large cities have become more politically progressive (i.e., increasingly in favor of more government laws, controls, and plans) than their rural counterparts. Last month, for example, The Washington Times posted an article entitled, “Conservatives losing ground in cities across globe.”
Why would urban dwellers tend to be more progressive?
My theory is that urbanites have shorter backward time horizons. They have become so used to modern affluence that they have forgotten how poor Americans were just a century ago. It’s too easy to take our unprecedented wealth for granted and to forget the crucial fact that it was our market-based economy that led to this explosion of wealth creation.
Furthermore, urbanites have adapted so completely to a dizzying array of amazing conveniences—an almost magical world where all they have to do is flip switches, push buttons, send texts, etc., to get almost anything they want—that they often act as though all they have to do to change the world is vote for a certain political agenda.
In their desire for “quick fixes,” they fall prey to seductive perfectionistic political proposals. They lack the wisdom embodied in the venerable adage, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”
Basically, many city-dwellers have become insulated from “real life” and forgotten how difficult it can be. Rural folks live closer to the natural world. They know how merciless, resistant, and even deadly it can be to grow food, extract raw materials, harness energy, and otherwise make possible the ease of the urbanites’ daily lives.
Urbanites are more dependent on rural Americans than they realize. Perhaps, if they recognized this truth, they might not be so inclined to look down their noses at them as “deplorables” who read the Bible to keep going in the face of harsh adversities or have guns because they know life to be a struggle.
Demanding the Impossible
As a society, we very much need to have a more expansive time horizon toward the past. We can’t afford to let the instant gratifications of modern life blind us to how inescapably complicated and challenging life can be. We must not lose sight of how difficult, costly, and time-consuming such grandiose proposals as converting the entire energy infrastructure of the country to renewables from fossil fuels in 10 or 20 years would be.
We can’t simply vote such a massive change into existence in a mere decade or two. It’s beyond the ability of human will and human politics to give us a new physical reality to supplant the old one.
Like it or not, to proceed toward the world we would like to have, we can’t avoid dealing with the world as it is. We must consider the enormous economic costs as well as the physical limits of what can be done quickly. Without this perspective—much clearer to those with a longer backward time horizon—we run the risk of a political majority demanding the impossible and then raging at fellow Americans for not being able to turn their fantasies into hard reality. (Stalin would have denounced those pointing out the impossibility of attaining unrealistic goals as “saboteurs.”)
Without a healthy awareness of and appreciation for how we have gotten to where we are and a realistic sense of how the world works, we may imprudently abandon time-tested practices and viable policies, and thereby inflict a grim future upon our children.
With mature, clear backward time horizons that keep us moored to reality, we can prudently build a prosperous future on a solid foundation. To use a biblical metaphor, we have a choice between continuing to build the house of our economy on the solid rock of experience or on the unstable sands of utopian idealism.
Let us maintain healthy time horizons and choose wisely.
Mark Hendrickson, an economist, recently retired from the faculty of Grove City College, where he remains a fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.