Long Views Are Competitive

(I thought I’d said this somewhere before, but this is closest I’ve found.)

In all human decisions, we face two main issues: A) What do we want? B) What must we accommodate? When we are rich and our universe is mild, we can focus on that first consideration. But when we are poor, or in a harsh universe, we must attend more to the constraints that our universe imposes on our choices. (E.g., ems being poor let me say much about them in Age of Em, without knowing what they want.)

Compared to most animals, humans live a lot in artificial worlds, pursuing artificial ends. That is, rather than focusing on making sure that we have enough food and protection from elements and predators, we pursue art, stories, love, connection, honor, glory, etc. And we build artificial environments to help us better purse such artificial ends. In our minds, we do these things because they are more what we want, while we pursue food, protection, etc. more because we must accommodate starvation, predation, etc.

But of course at larger social and evolutionary levels, we humans want what we want because such wants helped our ancestors to survive and reproduce. Because cultures and genes must accommodate a competitive environment of other cultures and genes. In fact, evolving cultures and genes focus overwhelming on such accommodation; they have nothing else they want.

Our evolved habits don’t now have individual humans attending much to the long term future. We sit in equilibria where collective action problems discourage such attention. For example, as each kid shares only half our genes, they get only half as much of our attention. But someday, I predict, our descendants will take much longer views, and more directly take long run constraints into account in their decisions. Such as from competition.

Today, some people claim to take long views. But such people seem to focus overwhelmingly on debating what they collectively want, and attend little to the constraints that the universe imposes on such long term plans. Especially competition; most self-described “long-viewers” today assume that competition can be controlled and overruled, so that they need not consider it as a constraint on their plans.

This seems completely wrong to me. It seems obvious that it is easier to focus on what you want when your focus is short term.

For example, if your personal focus is only on the next 24 hours, you need to make sure you don’t put a plastic bag on your head, or fall off a cliff. But you don’t need to work, eat, or even drink. You can mostly make art, fall in love, etc. with abandon. You can even freely betray your associates to achieve such ends. If your focus is on the next decade, in contrast, you need to attend more to working, eating, drinking, and preserving your relationships. You will be competing with other workers for jobs, and with other people for relations.

For another example, if we look at the level of a nation focusing on a two year pandemic, one needn’t worry much about excessive borrowing, failing to teach students, or eroding public confidence in its institutions. In contrast, those seeking to help their nation prosper over a century should worry about its fertility, debt, savings rates, and institution quality, and especially about how these compare to foreign rivals.

A firm with a mildly higher cost of production can be pretty sure to stay in business for the next year, but is less likely to stay in the black for decades. Similarly, the longer a species has a persistent disadvantage relative to a rival, the less likely it is to survive that rival.

People who really cared a lot more than most do about the long term future should therefore focus more than do most on competition. On how competitive constraints will limit what they can achieve. On what competitive units will exist and to which they should ally themselves in order to achieve their ends. And what their strategy will be to win these competitions. (Yes, such strategies will likely include some kinds of cooperation.)

So why don’t self-described “long-viewers” attend much to competition? Probably because they mainly use long-term talk as a way to signal values to associates. Just as in most politics, science fiction, and futurism.