The Democratic Dilemma: The Incentives for Long-Term Policies



Political science studies politics as a place of encounter, rivalry and struggle. Whenever humans interact, they create a space of opportunity for politics to arise and be used in countless different ways. Whether the example is an autocrat pursuing his latest whim or a democratically elected leader answering his constituents’ demands, politics always deals with the exercise of power, creating the mechanisms that will determine the processes of decision making. Through these mechanisms, those in power can start policies with very specific objectives in mind, and it is their relation to the people they govern that will mostly determine the type of policies they actually produce.

If we look at democracies, elected leaders are not meant to remain in power for an extended period of time, at least not compared with the terms some non-democratic leaders can serve. For instance, the longest term of a democratically elected Prime Minister in Britain has never even come close to the time the current queen has governed. And while this example does not describe two positions with the same scope of action, it does give us a glimpse of how the perception of time between these two types of leaders can be very different. This opens up a very pertinent question: If democratic leaders are concerned with shorter terms, why would they bother about policies that could transcend their time in power?

In order for a democratically elected leader to invest time and money into a policy that will only show its benefits in the long run, it is necessary for voters to have certainty that these benefits will eventually arrive. Parents would support today’s politicians who are pursuing policies that will unquestionably benefit their children in a few decades’ time. The problem with this chain of thought is that policies with short-term impact are much easier for politicians to capitalize on, since there is no need to wait to see immediate results nor to guarantee that these results will remain in the long run. Unfortunately, this can lead to what has been called “good politics, bad policy”—good politics are those maneuvers that will benefit the incumbent in polls, whereas bad policies are those that will have larger costs in the long run than their promised benefits (or even produce the opposite effect from what they intended to achieve).

This kind of politics often benefits from the fact that what is desired by individuals is not necessarily desired by society as a whole. Governments frequently find themselves juggling individual and collective interests, which many times can oppose each other. The aggregation of those individual preferences can also create collective preferences that are completely irrational. For example, let us imagine a city that has to choose how to distribute a street into car lanes, bike lanes and sidewalks. Among city inhabitants, teenagers and young adults might be expected to prefer bike lanes above all, car lanes in second place, and sidewalks last, while senior citizens might ask for sidewalks over bike lanes and those over car lanes. Finally, adults in middle age might want car lanes over sidewalks, and not care at all about bike lanes. If we assume each of these groups is more or less the same size, how should a democratic government proceed? If these are the only elements taken into account in decision making, there is no clear answer. we evaluate sidewalks preferred over bike lanes, bike lanes preferred over car lanes, and car lanes preferred over sidewalks in an endless loop of opinions. One approach to this dilemma would be to bring other elements, aside from voters’ immediate preferences, into the equation, communicating to the public how the different outcomes of reorganizing this street might affect their lives in the future. Giving priority to a sustainable arrangement will improve the city’s quality of life, even though at the moment of the policy implementation it might not be what car drivers prefer, and even if they might use their votes to punish the incumbent for pursuing it.

Society as a whole can not only maintain contradictory preferences but also demand policies that could backfire in the long run. Even when all individual preferences are aligned, the aggregation of interests will not always lead to a straightforward policy. For instance, if government ensures that every citizen gets access to financing tools in order to purchase a car, politicians who advocate this will receive a boost of popularity and people will applaud incumbents, even though the overall effect will generate traffic congestion and pollution, an outcome clearly not desired by society in the long run. Since politicians care most about the former rather than the latter, the challenge is to align the benefits of policies with both time frames.

At an urban level, mayors often face this quandary. Whether they seek reelection or positioning themselves as reliable politicians for a different popularly elected position, they need to turn to their advantage during their mandate the policies they are promoting, regardless of the time when the expected results will be visible.

In this sense, mobility is an excellent example of the conflict presented by the short run and long run. Automobiles have been a ubiquitous element within cities for the past century—one that has proved very problematic. They need space to move around the city and also to remain still; they play an important economic role and offer a comfortable and flexible way to move around, but they generate pollution and traffic and are a symbol of economic wealth. A political approach to cars is anything but simple. Policies that benefit the driving of cars, like faster urban freeways or free parking, might offer immediate benefits for car drivers and they might not clearly and directly affect people that do not own cars. These policies can be very attractive, since the negative consequences of introducing too many cars to the roads might not be visible right away, but the political benefits to elected officials will most likely be immediate.

We saw this in Mexico City in the 1970s, when the city was reaching full capacity on its roads. In order to increase the available space for cars, the construction of a system of major thoroughfares was announced. Many boulevards lost their medians and trees to become one-way seven-lane streets crossing the city from one end to another. Their construction was very painful for city inhabitants, and during this time the traffic increased while buildings were torn down to make way for construction, sending dust everywhere. Nevertheless, in a few months’ time, the thoroughfares (known as the Ejes) gave car drivers an immediate increase of space and made it possible for drivers to cross the city in very short time while avoiding small winding streets. This was a very successful policy in terms of approval, however, the noxious consequences of these axes became evident only a few years later. Links between neighborhoods were lost; the increase of speed limits also brought new threats for pedestrians; people found incentives to buy more cars and therefore pollution levels also rose. Evidently, the city had once again reached capacity on its streets, and regrettably during the following decades the answer pursued by the city government was to keep finding ways to create more road space.

Increasing road space is not a long-term solution. Around the world, urbanists and city planners have come to the conclusion that there is no way around traffic. The only way to address or resolve the issue of traffic it is to make driving less attractive and make alternative ways of transport more efficient. But the problem with implementing a mobility solution that will offer sustainable transport in the future is that car-oriented policies are not only desirable to the car-owning population, but also by the population who wishes to own a car, making pro-car policies very attractive for politicians. Historically, the creation of more and wider streets has solved traffic problems in the short run, but the solution backfires after time by only intensifying the issue.

In order to have society demand long-term policies implemented by incumbents who we know care most about the short term, the goal must be for governments to efficiently communicate in the present time a policy’s future benefits. To achieve this, long-term policies must become legible, meaning that their goals must be easily understood by citizens. If this task seems rather easy, let us remember that it is seldom applied. When voters are aware of the future benefits of a policy, even if the present costs are high, they are more likely to reward incumbents for their decisions; for example, let us consider how investing in elementary education has become a policy cherished by voters today, even when the future benefits will take some time to be felt. Legibility in policy not only boosts the implementation of better policies, it also becomes a tool for informed citizens to go against popular but noxious policies and demand solutions for the future.

In sum, within a democratic context there are specific incentives that determine the creation of policy, and multiple preferences of society are an important factor for their implementation, despite the potential for a popular policy to produce harmful effects in the future. Since politicians often pursue policies that grant them immediate political capital, regardless of their future consequences, the legibility of policies becomes a key factor for any democratic regime. In order for governments to be able to answer to society’s demands without pursuing policies that could hinder future generations, their policies must become easily legible. Legibility is a political tool that should be more often applied due to its potential to align good politics and good policy.