Changing and Unchanging Values in the World of the Future (Conference): Director’s Summary

Series: Pardee Center Conference Series
Dates: November 8, 9, and 10, 2001
Location: Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, Boston University, Boston, MA

Director’s summary

David Fromkin

The group agreed that today’s Western values are:

  • Democracy
  • Constitutionalism
  • Liberalism
  • Rule of law
  • Open society
  • Market economy.

We agreed that these were desirable, and that we would hope they would characterize the world of the longer-range future. Roger Kimball made the point that these are values under assault and that we can keep them only by defending them.

But are these values desirable in themselves? In which case, the question will be “how is the world of the future going to achieve or maintain them?” Or are these values desirable because they are the most effective approaches to dealing with the sorts of conditions, issues, and problems with which the world of the longer-range future may have to deal?

Fareed Zakaria seemed to lean rather more towards the former than the latter. For a variety of reasons that include the existence of pressure groups that distort parliamentary voting, and the human failings that characterize the electorate, the model for the future may be the European Community, in which faceless expert technocrats make the hard decisions that electorates are not emotionally and intellectually capable of making for themselves.

For the same reason—because legislatures and electorates cannot make the hard decisions—democracy (which is a desirable goal) comes last in the progression of values we desire. First a society (through taking what often are hard decisions) must find wealth and stability; only then can it achieve and maintain a democracy.

This suggests that our current values, though they fit with one another and are coherent, can be separated from one another. Freedom of inquiry is essential to the science that underlies a growth economy; and rule of law is essential to attracting capital investment. Both bring wealth that (according to Dr. Zakaria) must be achieved before democracy can be achieved or maintained. I would add that a relatively widespread distribution of the wealth throughout society is, in my view, another pre-condition.

Dr. Zakaria’s pre-democratic government, even if authoritarian, must, we argue, pursue liberal economics. But can it do that if it does not pursue liberal politics as well? And since liberal politics involve the rule of law, how can they be pursued by a regime that is authoritarian, which, by definition, is not restrained by constitutions and law? These are issues that we were still discussing when, so to speak, the bell rang.

Sequence also was central to the paper submitted by Professor Etzioni, who moved away from the government-and-people model to focus on a third category: society. Instead of shaping the values of the longer-range future by moving from one kind of government and politics to another, the sequence he proposes would move through the processes of society before finding expression at the stage of government and politics. There was much valuable discussion.

Ambassador Stith moved the sequence along by adding to it one dimension more: that of morality. In his model, a moral code must move society, which then moves politics and government. Again, the focus was on both separability and sequence of values.

All participants seemed to be concerned with how to make liberal democratic politics work, not because they always work best (which, it was agreed, they do not) but because they best represent our values.

But what if the circumstances of the longer-range future render liberal democracies and open societies ineffective? Must we not curtail our liberties in order to deal with terrorism? “Yes, temporarily, but only until the threat is overcome,” was one reply; but what if the threat is not overcome? What if it becomes a permanent threat? In my book, The Way of the World, I point out that the long-range trend is for individuals and small groups to be able to do more and more harm. If continued, and if not countered by new technologies, it will mean that society will disintegrate as any fanatic with a mini-atom bomb will be able to destroy whole cities to prove a point. In other words, it may well be that our values, though valid in the sense that they remain desirable, will prove to be invalid in the longer-range future, in the sense that they may no longer be affordable or may not work at all. On the other hand what assurance do we have that any other type of government would work any better?

The second Pardee workshop-conference, which will focus on the changing political structure of the world (April 2002), is foreshadowed by my own paper on how the need for global governance in environmental and other matters can be met—if it can be met—in a world without global governance. I argue that the traditional American Wilsonian approach, with its emphasis on public opinion, persuasion, shared ideas, independence of nations, rights of small countries, and non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries except for humanitarian reasons, never worked and never will in dealing with matters that require government. My argument is that the closest we can get to governance in environmental and other global matters is by alliance with other countries based on interests: interests held in common.

Four key points to consider are:

  1. Our kinds of government and politics will be as desirable in a century or two as they are today, but they may not work as well then as they do now, and indeed may not work at all.
  2. A strategy to establish and maintain our political values in a century or two might have to proceed in sequence rather than all at once.
  3. Democracy may come last in that strategic sequence, and we should focus on how to achieve it or maintain it precisely because we believe in it so strongly and yet its future is so problematical.
  4. In considering what values to apply to the world as a whole, it is easier to answer the question “what should be done?” than the question “who can make and enforce the right decision as to what should be done?”

This is a chapter from Changing and Unchanging Values in the World of the Future (Conference).
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Longer-Range, F. (2008). Changing and Unchanging Values in the World of the Future (Conference): Director’s Summary. Retrieved from


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