In business and politics, often decision-makers make decisions that cause short-term gain, but long-term loss. So economically, this might be an unreasonable (lossy) and thus irrational process.

Is there a philosophical framework or metaphor that is useful in describing this phenomenon and to help find causes (such as the tragedy of the commons, or race to the bottom)?

Some examples:

  • Boosting industrial output while causing global warming
  • Releasing a faulty product too early/hasty (e.g. Boeing 737 Max)
  • Increasing national debt for projects that don't increase the economy
  • Buying cheap products that have higher accumulated maintenance costs than a product with higher initial price
  • Deciding on financial investments based on expected calendar-quarter profits, rejecting longer-term investments
  • Solely focusing on running a current business models/products instead of exploring future business models/products (e.g. NOKIA vs. iPhone)
  • Appealing to extremist voters to win a next election, thus causing extremist policies (e.g. Brexit)
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    This is more about psychology than philosophy. The effect is called immediate or instant gratification, and is captured in the Latin aphorism carpe diem (seize the day) and the acronym YOLO (you only live once). It isn't as irrational as it seems, since it depends on how much one cares about long term benefits, something not up to reason to decide. But one can make pragmatic or psychological arguments for delayed gratification as superior.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 7:09
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    What you are staring at is called decadence. We should all keep an eye on these private rocket programs that are not really private, and the supposedly high research costs of drug companies that are mostly paid for by the taxpayer (American taxpayer).
    – Gordon
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 12:26
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    From the philosophy of economics, you would be interested in rational choice theory.
    – J D
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 19:24
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    Causes seem obvious: This is an adaptive trait for a race that did not live past 25 most of the time. In the long run, we are all dead. And if you stand around thinking through how to build your house, the wolves might eat your children before you get started. Only once affluence is established, does a short memory and a general sense of urgency backfire. Because then we are maintaining a positive state, instead of struggling to achieve it. So take this in context. It is not a bad thing, just overdone because of how we got here. Commented Feb 6, 2020 at 0:41

5 Answers 5


I think it's good to distinguish a few things here from a theoretical perspective (even though some of the real-world examples given in the question have aspects of multiple of these).

1) Tragedy-of-the-commons type problems, where self-interest causes the outcome to be less good than it could have been for all. There isn't necessarily any short-term vs. long-term problem here; it could be that the only outcome of the process is tomorrow.

2) Short-term decision making for selfish reasons, e.g., someone who is now an elected politician and personally actually cares about the long-term future (diligently saving for retirement etc.) is now cynically making decisions that he knows are bad but look good in the short term, purely because he thinks it will get him re-elected.

3) People genuinely discounting the far future, thinking that the near future is just inherently more important.

1) and 2) are problems of aligning people's incentives with the common good; there is a vast literature on this in economic theory.

3), on the other hand, is a more philosophical problem -- should we discount the further future more? A nice introduction to this is Meghan Sullivan's Time Biases (who argues we shouldn't).


There's a good bit of writing on this in social theory, from the "Tragedy of the Commons" to Marx's work to Habermas' "Between Facts and Norms." I don't know that the concept itself has a particular name — partly because the manifestations of it cross the boundaries of many disciplines, making it difficult to construct a unified framework — but it is not difficult to find people writing about it from one perspective or another.

I tend to think of it as a moral-value scoping issue. The larger the scope of a moral issue, the more difficult it is to evaluate moral standards, and the less simple and definitive moral evaluations become. The bumper-sticker slogan "Think Globally, Act Locally" notwithstanding, most people are unaware of the 'global' extent of their actions, and only think in 'local' terms. What is valuable for me, in this particular moment, is straightforward: a clear and present value. The more removed we get from this 'me-now' solipsism, the less clear and present values become, until (at some fuzzy border on the periphery of our awareness) we shrug off value judgements entirely. That's the perennial problem of social activism: how to get someone to stop shrugging off value judgements that concern us.

So to take the archetypal case, someone builds a factory, the factory produces waste, and the waste has to be dealt with because (from the factory-owner's perspective) the waste makes an unpleasant mess in his backyard. The neatest solution (again, from his perspective) is to pour it into a nearby river. His problem is resolved, and if he's at all aware that his waste-dumping causes problems downstream — he may not be — that awareness is dim and fuzzy and not of much concern to him. People downstream can go and find another river if they have a problem: plenty of rivers in the world that don't run past his factory... Of course, if you made that factory-owner go live in a city downstream, then that city's problems would become his problems, and he'd put more effort into solving them, but short of that draconic delocalization, getting that factory-owner to expand his moral horizons so that the city is included in his moral evaluations is difficult, and the pressing concerns of his own little life and business are always going to weigh heavily in his decisions.


"A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in" - Greek proverb

The human neocortex is primarily to inhibit our impulses, and only fully matures around age 25. Around 25-50% of people on death row in the US have had a serious head injury before their crime/s. Being able to delay gratification, is a key marker of human maturity. And an ancient metaphor goes, 'As the child is to the adult, so is the adult to the sage'.

A key component of the traditional concept of wisdom is to unite short term actions & behaviours, with long term aims. Also to become well integrated, so that what is done in one mood or circumstance doesn't work against or undermine what is done in another.

James C Scott in Seeing Like A State develops a modern conception of the term 'metis' as the practical craft of living well together, encompassing both religious and political and philosophical tools - but focused on how we use them in practice, to mediate, resolve disputes, and frame reforms to prevent further strife. See discussion of here. In particular he highlights that rapid social change & fragmentation undermines this craft, and ability to resolve disputes, for instance about trade-offs.

This discussion of the 'philosophy' of Curb Your Enthusiasm looks at how the show draws attention to both positives & negatives of created shared social interaction templates by challenging them, highlighting inconsistencies, nit-picking, or just refusing conventions. I suggest this is part of making unconscious metis conscious.

The UK separation of powers is a profoundly useful piece of metis, with the executive civil service providing continuity between changes of elected legislatures who make the laws, and judiciary who interpret them. Attacks on this as 'the deep state' or as satirised in the series Yes Prime Minister are aimed at challenging the power of this continuity. The Chinese civil service & it's mandarins were an explicit model, & provided great continuity between dynasties, but also a too slow response to industrialisation.

A tactic being trialled by a number of countries is that of citizen's assemblies, inspired by the Ancient Athenian tradition of sortition. A randomly chosen representative jury, usually quite large (over 100), charged with listening to representations from experts on a topic, to make a decision about it. Ireland used one to reform abortion law. The UK set up an advisary one on climate-change policy. For these kind of partisan issues where people tend to pick a team rather than do research or listen to arguments, they are especially effective.

Cory Doctorow a futurologist, makes powerful points about how effective anti-trust & anti-monopoly laws are crucial to maintaining trust in institutions, including governments & the scientific establishment. He makes a compelling link between erosion of these laws in 80s deregulation, and the rise of anti-science & conspiracy theories in public life.


My five cents.

There is no fixed golden rule, philosophical or otherwise, that promotes long term benefits over short term benefits or vice-versa. The reason is twofold.

Given that the future is increasingly difficult to predict the more distant it is from the present, one understands the practical difficulties involved in predicting adequately long term benefits or costs.

On top of that, there is no reason in optimizing for the long term, even when it can be known, if this action does not help us live successfully through the present, since in that case we will never reach the future outcome anyway. For example, when our present situation necessitates a specific immediate action to be taken that is contrary to the long term policy but which is necessary for our current survival.

So we come to the conclusion that to optimize for the long term, two conditions must be necessarily satisfied:

  1. Adequately estimate the long term effects
  2. These actions needed to optimize for these long term effects must be compatible with, and not jeopardize our present existence.

So, failure to optimize for the long term implies the above conditions are not both satisfied. Either long term effects are not adequately estimated and/or the actions needed for the long term are taken to be incompatible with the current situation.

I am of the opinion that the above necessary conditions are not impossible to satisfy given certain contexts and that indeed in various cases (eg environmental pollution, climate change) we can do better both for the short and the long term.


It's Conflict of Interest.

The decision though bad for those whose money is spent (tax payers, share holders) is very good for those who are making the decision.

An owner who is also running the company himself would never knowingly go for short-term gains. Its Board of Directors that are there for short-term who obviously focus on short-term (who cares what happen after we are gone?) but not if they have enough proportion of their own wealth tied in shares of the company AND cannot sale their shares whenever they like.

Industrialists who can simply shift their residence to another city or to another country altogether, or can afford air filtering where they live would not care about the environment. They can make profit and buy a nice, beautiful island somewhere in tropics.

Soldiers are happy when their leader fights with them, or at least have the children of the decision makers fight along with them with no preferential treatment.

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