The economist John Maynard Keynes is once supposed to have quipped that, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” The joke is that economists often look at the short term and long-term consequences of various actions and policies, but if you extend the timeline far enough then you eventually reach a point where nothing matters anymore. What you eat for lunch today matters in the moment but makes little difference a year from now. Where you choose to live and work matters a lot in your lifetime but will not have any effect when we reach the point where the sun grows cold and all life in our solar system has disappeared. Yet it is in between these two extremes that the important choices of life are made. How far in advance you look when making choices about your money, your health, and your family will determine not only your short-term success but will also have a ripple effect that echoes through the lives of your children, your grandchildren, and onward.
We recently began a new month, a new year, and a new decade. Any time is good for reflection and planning; you don’t need to wait for times like this, but the arbitrary ways in which we choose to mark time are good reminders to do just that. One of the greatest factors between success and failure comes down to time preference; that is, how far in advance are you planning your life? Too many people in America today live only for the moment. They spend their paychecks as soon as they arrive, they eat whatever makes them feel good at the time, and they waste their lives watching mindless entertainment. Tax refunds come as a welcome surprise rather than budget items that are expected and understood. Credit card debt and car payments are simply facts of life, not choices they make. Health problems and financial difficulties are seen as random occurrences over which they have no control. They live their lives as if they are strapped to a raft at sea, tossed to and fro with no control over where they are going. The idea that they could exercise control over their circumstances is foreign, even offensive to them. They vote for whichever politician promises them the most free stuff.
Yet this is not the only way to live. There is an old proverb that societies prosper when old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit. Rather than living for the moment and trusting government to take care of you later, true visionaries will live their lives intentionally. They will plant trees – both literal and metaphorical – that will only bloom long after they are gone. They forgo the mindless entertainment and instead use their time to learn useful knowledge and build their skill set. They abstain from junk food that might taste good now but leads them to health problems later, and when they are in their 50s and 60s they are still in good health while their short-time-preference peers are obese, diabetic, and finding daily life painful. By avoiding the health problems faced by their peers they save tens of thousands of dollars on medical costs as well. And this is just one lifetime. Imagine the ripple effect that this kind of intentional living will have on your descendants. The greatness of America itself was borne out of the Christian morality, work ethic, and moderation of our ancestors.
To be sure, human nature never changes. We have always had our vices and time-wasters – in the early days of America, alcohol consumption was at a much higher level than it has been in our lifetimes. Today, however, we face a unique combination of temptations toward sloth. Entertainment is cheap and plentiful – we can find games, shows, or movies that cater to every preference, and there is enough to keep us watching indefinitely. When you finish one show on Netflix, the service helpfully pops up something else it thinks you will enjoy. Technology has made our lives easier than ever. We even have robots to vacuum the floor. The welfare state promises to take care of you even if you cannot or will not work. Twenty years ago, there was a Simpsons episode where Homer deliberately made himself massively obese so that he could qualify for disability and work from home. Today, life imitates art. In the postwar decades, a man could support his family by working 40 or 50 hours at a factory doing manual labor and have enough left over for some basic entertainment and luxuries. Today, the entertainment and luxuries are incredibly cheap – a few hundred bucks will buy you a television screen more massive than our grandparents could imagine and a phone more powerful than the greatest supercomputers of old – but all our manufacturing jobs have been outsources to developing nations, leaving entire classes of Americans struggling to find their place in the market. Never before in human history has it been so easy to waste so much time.
Politicians themselves have trouble thinking for the long run as well. Due to the nature of representative democracy, there is little incentive for Congressmen and Senators to make the unpopular decisions that are necessary to save our Republic. Cutting the budget, for example, is necessary, but anyone who tries that is attacked for taking away Medicare or Social Security and is promptly defeated by a challenger who promises to restore the federal trough. Meanwhile, the federal deficit continues increasing toward infinity. Politicians who allocate taxpayer money to their own districts enjoy high popularity and easy reelection. Look at the difference between NASA in the 1960s and NASA now. Back then they had a goal – land on the moon. The government gave them the money they needed to do that, not only for the scientific rewards but also to avoid losing face in the Cold War. Today, the space program is just a pork barrel project for politicians to hand out to defense contractors. Consider that it took less than ten years for NASA to design, test, and perfect the Saturn V and Apollo moon lander, while today they have been working on the Orion Space Launch System for fifteen years with no end in sight. It makes no sense until you realize that the goal is not spaceflight but simply for politicians to give federal contracts to industries in their own states and districts. There are surely engineers and scientists who have the long run in mind – the people working on the James Webb Telescope, for example – but the politicians who hold the purse strings only care about their next election.
The current generation is one of the most sick and unhealthy generations in American history. We stuff our faces with industrial products that barely resemble food, and instead of changing our diet and behavior to fix the problem we take whatever pills the pharmaceutical industry prescribes. Eating pasta, potato chips, and donuts gives immediate pleasure, while the pain is years away. Keeping the long run in mind means abstaining from temporary pleasure in order to have a better life fifty years from now. This sort of self-control is not what out society preaches and incentivizes, however. It is not that human nature that has changed – recall that the Bible characterizes short-sighted men twenty-five hundred years ago as saying “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” On the contrary, it is culture that has changed. The role of society was once to constrain the worst aspects of human nature while promoting the best, but now that is entirely inverted. Any constraints upon our hedonistic desires are seen as artificial social constructs that must be wiped away in order to maximize temporal happiness.
This desire is not new either. Nearly three hundred years ago, enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau wrote of the “noble savage,” a man unencumbered by social constraints who existed in a state of moral perfection. A century later, Romantic poet William Blake wrote about the chains placed upon man by social institutions such as the Church. You can see this same idea in the enduring popularity of socialism, a popularity that no amount of state-sanctioned murder, gulags, or starvation can erode. Karl Marx also used the imagery of throwing off the chains imposed by society, this time from an economic perspective. The socialist believes that by removing the structure of capitalism, we can remake human nature to be free of greed and finally establish a utopia where our happiness is guaranteed. Socialism appeals to the hedonistic human animal by saying that hard work, thrift, and sacrifice are immoral and unnecessary, and that all we need to thrive is to vote ourselves a share of the public treasury.
What made America great in the first place was a work ethic that was borne out of Christian Scripture and many generations of hardship faced by our European ancestors. Dr. Jordan Peterson once suggested that the sacrifices demanded by God of the Israelites were a way of teaching them delayed gratification. By giving up the firstfruits of their flocks, they learned to forgo immediate gratification in favor of a belief in something greater in the future – in this case, the blessings promised by God. This ethic of hard work and thrift motivated our ancestors to settle in an untamed land and build a new society there. There is a saying that “Hard times create strong men; strong men create good times; good times create weak men; weak men create hard times.” Is it any wonder that the greatest period of prosperity in world history followed immediately after some of the hardest times the world had ever known? In a span of thirty years humanity experienced the industrial horror of World War I, the destitution of the Great Depression, and the massive carnage and destruction of World War II. Yet the men and women who survived that trial by fire came out of it and created the postwar prosperity that raised the standard of living to its highest level ever, but also sowed the seeds of our current decline. Hard times created hard men who did what needed to be done, who sacrificed so as to provide their children a better life. Those children grew up in affluence, not hardship, and grew into the proverbial weak men. Now we are seeing the results of three generations of good times.
If we are to make America great again, it will start with ourselves. We must rediscover the temperance and moderation of our exceptional ancestors. We must begin to think not just of the needs of the moment but of the effect that our choices will have on the next hundred years. Imagine the society we could create if we raised our children with the values of the Depression generation, and they carried those values to their own children, and onward. Imagine if we built incentives into society that reward thrift, hard work, and sacrifice, rather than our current model of privatizing success but subsidizing failure. In just a few short generations, a small number of European settlers built the greatest nation in the history of the world. Imagine what we could build in the next three hundred years.