The pitfall of many amateur historians is to try and identify a “golden age” in the past, one that has supposedly universal or simply superior values and qualities to the present. To recognize the folly of this inquiry is merely to recognize that all societies have flaws, and the only way to fix these flaws is to focus on the future. By seeking to emulate the presumed benefits and structure of a past cvilization, a society could easily fall prey to the same flaws that past civlization had. The past might shape perception of current events, but only in events continuing into the present and future can people and governments act meaningfully. The past only truly matters, from a political standpoint, in is capacity to affect the future. Society should therefore pay attention to it, but all policy it sets should be prospective.
A clear conception of time and its effects can help discuss the relative merits of past-oriented policy and future-oritented policy. The Oxford American Dictionary defines time itself as “the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.” This definition, while perhaps not robust enough for an in-depth discussion on the philosophy of space and time, will suffice for the purposes of political philosophy on the basis of its conventiality. The only events of the past capable of being acted on politically are, by definition, those that continue into the present and future. Since policy takes a certain amount of time to set, it follows that the only events in the present that can be affected politically are those that stand a strong likelihood of continuing into the future or affecting the future. They may be reacted to by society after the fact, but this of course has no bearing on the fact that they occurred. Government still has the opportunity, however, to impact the future.
The idea of basing policy on future possibilities has been historically common. Both John Rawls and Karl Marx have a decidedly forward-looking approach to their political philosophy. Though Marx’s most extensive work concerned itself with describing capitalist society as it existed, his most famous concerned itself with the alternative. In a communist society, Marx said, “…we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”1 Here he comes very close to sounding like Rawls, who wrote, “…the ideals connected with the political virtues are tied to the principles of political justice and to the forms of judgment and conduct essential to sustain fair social cooperation over time…”2 Despite Rawls’ liberalism, his writings on primary goods have a distinct similarity to Marx here. Both their philosophies look towards a society in which opportunity for the least fortunate is secured through social networks. The focus on human development here is very much a forward-looking idea. He wishes for society to secure primary goods not for the sake of righting past wrongs, but for establishing a just society in the future. The key to reclaiming Rawls’ maximin strategy from the pitfalls of modern liberal society is to identify the institutional arrangements that get in its way, many of which are based in private profit and the market. Rawls concerns his writings on liberty primarily with a scheme of rights that can be sustained for everyone rather than figuring out fundamental rights that everyone must have. This represents a focus on a changing society, both in terms of populations and technical considerations: a recognition of the fact that justice is meaningless if it cannot be sustained. Marx, of course, would say that the to only way to sustain a new society is to break free from the internal contradictions of capitalism. However, despite his polemicism, most of Marx’s ten points are forward looking: “Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state… gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country…”3 They lay the groundwork for the thought of evolutionary Marxists like Karl Kautsky. The establishment of a robust Rawlsian maximin system may be quite compatible with notions of evolutionary socialism, demonstrating its forward view (though Rawls would insist that the only socialism compatible with his theory of justice is “liberal socialism” as opposed to Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat”). Despite this, both authors clearly speak of a changing society and agree that a good government will be one that looks forward and sets policy to both guide and adapt to those changes.
Current legal precedent exists for keeping laws prospective, in the form of prohibitions on ex post facto laws and bills of attainder written into the US constitution. These proscriptions reflect more the perceived injustices of these acts in the eyes of the founding fathers than a desire to have forward-looking government, but the idea remains a durable one. It perpetuates a far less reactionary legislative philosophy, keeping policy focused not on perceived wrongs of the past but on securing a better society in the future. Unfortunately, non-democratic institutions set many policies in present-day society, in the form of resource management and production decisions made by corporations. Many of these organizations can act in concert with the state to set policy with an emphasis on the status quo rather than changing political realities. J.S. Mill warned against this, noting, “…the corrupt combinations of selfish private interests, armed with the powerful weapons afforded by free institutions…” can create “impediments opposed to the most salutary public improvements.”4 Democratizing these institutions can help guard against these impediments, as a larger group of people will always be more in touch with changes in life and society than a privileged minority. This reflects Mill’s utilitarian argument for a democratic society, when he spoke “of two common types of character, for the general good of humanity, it is most desirable should predominate–the active or the passive type; that which struggles against evils, or that which endures them; that which bends to circumstances, or that which endeavours to make circumstances bend to itself.”5 He discusses democracy’s encouragement of the “active type,” contrasting it with the “passive type” encouraged by less democratic societies. Keeping policy focused on the past would only reinforce this passivity on the part of the populace. It would make people less likely to become involved in government when changing circumstances warrant participation. With change (whether ecological, technical, or social) in mind, the government can make necessary preparations for it instead of working to preserve the past and finding itself woefully unprepared for the future.
Through prospective policy, the government makes itself amenable to a dynamic society, and in so doing recognizes the falliability of itself and its past decisions. Mill speaks critically of the assumption that any one age is preferable to another in On Liberty. His utilitarianism would be useless if not prepared for inevitable social change, and in recognizing this he observes “…it is as evident in itself as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present.”6 A government with policy directed at preserving the past would be giving an implicit endorsement of the status quo and any injustices therein. Mill himself has “…no difficulty in admitting that Communism would even now be practicable among the élite of mankind, and may become so among the rest.”7 The idea of fundamental social change seems quite in line with the rest of his political thought. The utilitarian view holds that a government more suited to reforming itself and overturning past laws would be far more effective at maximizing happiness in society than one concerned with maintaining tradition and reverence for its founders.
In a society with entirely prospective laws and policy, the question of justice comes to the front very quickly. What should be done with criminals if government only focuses on the future- should they not be punished for their crimes? Against the currently popular system of retributive justice, this is rightly viewed as a glaring flaw in a system focused only on the future. Punishment would amount to nothing more than deliberately causing harm to a person for an event beyond the government’s reach to change, and therefore be immoral. Retributive justice holds that punishment, when correctly administered, is a perfectly moral response to crime; there appears to be a contradiction. Escaping from this contradiction requires an alternative framework, and a well-developed one is already available: restorative justice. The immorality of retributive justice can be easily discussed outside the context of the argument against retrospective policy, and the alternative has the advantage of being far more compatible with a forward-looking society. Therefore a restorative justice system is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for such a society, but that society is not a necessary or sufficient condition for restorative justice. The system focuses on a dialogue between the offender and the victim, with serious efforts made to reconcile the two. In such a system the offender often personally corrects the wrong done instead of merely being punished by the state. This has the distinct advantage of creating a moral outcome for both parties. The victim’s life is made better, not through the indirect fulfillment of their desire for revenge through state punishment, but by having the wrong righted and coming to an understanding with the offender. The offender, instead of receiving a punishment which oftentimes engenders hostility towards society, is given the chance to express any remorse and correct their wrongdoing directly. This fosters a reconciliation which can avoid much of the bitterness about the past generated by crime and let both parties focus on the future. A forward-looking viewpoint at the personal level would be encouraged by restorative justice, a powerful force for a forward-looking society.
By choosing to focus on a better future rather than present injustices, society opens up new opportunities for people. The arguments against welfare state measures often take the form of outrage against perceived present injustice, with the most common objection being against the presently employed subsidizing the unemployed. However, Phillipe Van Parijs outlines a strong case for a basic standard of living for both those that work and those that do not. While doubts remain about its feasbility within the capitalist framework, Van Parijs nevertheless makes a compelling argument: “a basic income would help poor people out of the unemployment trap, that its introduction would redistribute income quite massively from men to women, that it would improve the quality of the worst jobs, that it would support farmers’ incomes without distorting agricultural prices…”8 Such an egalitarian measure would not be achieved in a society concerned with past and present property arrangements, and any beneficial social change engendered by that measure would therefore be stifled. Van Parijs’ scheme also allows for people to innovate and educated themselves much more than within the current wage system.
The fundamental question society must ask itself in creating a meta-policy, whether prospective or retrospective, is how it will respond to change. If a society desires to accept social change more easily and gracefully, it should keep its laws and ideas aimed towards shaping the future. If a society wishes to preserve the status quo, it should keep its laws aimed at the past. Given enough time, the first society will likely succeed, and the second will almost certainly fail. Beyond the larger social implications of attempting to resist change, prospective policy entails a much more dynamic, pragmatic, and flexible approach to government, one much more compatible with a changing world. Retrospective policy requires the government to identify a permanent framework against which past actions may be judged. Prospective policy has no such requirement- it merely asks that people think of ideas on how to improve society in the future. It allows more freedom for people to choose what kind of society they want to live in, and therefore is the right idea.
1Marx, The Communist Manifesto
2Rawls, The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good
3Marx, The Communist Manifesto
4Mill, Considerations on Representative Government
5Mill, Considerations on Representative Government
6Mill, On Liberty
7Mill, Considerations on Representative Government
8Van Parijs, Why the Surfers Should be Fed:A Liberal Case for an Unconditional Basic Income