One of the characteristics of young children is their almost unbelievably short time horizon. Given the choice between an ice cream cone now or a trip to Disney World in a month’s time, many children will choose the ice cream cone.
Manifested another way, children will often choose a minor immediate pleasure, even though they are aware it will bring punishment when discovered. With maturity comes a willingness to postpone or forego pleasures for a future reward — or a tolerance of present discomfort for the hope of future compensation. There are other aspects of maturity, of course. We hope our children will develop a greater consideration for how their actions affect other people and that they will learn more about how to allocate their time and the resources entrusted to them. But a future orientation is one of the most important evidences of transition into mature adulthood.
Not all adults have developed this future orientation to the same extent. One can see this easily by observing how readily people will borrow (versus save) for consumption items. Borrowing is the sacrifice of future goods in order to acquire something in the present. The lower the degree of future orientation, the higher the sacrifice of future goods one is willing to make — and the higher the interest rate that person is willing to pay.
Rousas J. Rushdoony, in one of the short essays in Roots of Reconstruction, states that social classes can be differentiated based on their level of future orientation. Drawing from the work of Harvard scholar Edward Banfield, Rushdoony points out that the early English settlers of the North American continent were future-oriented, which explains much of the success of Americans in the following centuries. This future orientation made them upper class, even if they were actually living in poverty.
Rushdoony can say this because he adopted Banfield’s definition of social classes, which separates class status from living standards. As Banfield put it, “[T]he individual’s orientation toward the future will be regarded as a function of two factors: (1) ability to imagine a future, and (2) ability to discipline oneself to sacrifice present for future satisfaction.” Rushdoony describes the four classes: “The upper class has a personal and broadly social future orientation. The middle class is similar, but of more restricted vision. The working class’s future orientation is limited to very personal factors; a comfortable home, a new car, or the like. The lower class has no future orientation; he does not plan.”1
When a present orientation is found among the wealthy, it is usually for one of three reasons:
- The wealth was gained through an antecedent’s future orientation, but is being lost due to the reckless behavior of the present-oriented person.
- The wealth was gained through political means, as a transfer from the more productive members of society (usually future-oriented) to present-oriented voters or special-interest groups who give election victories to politicians, who themselves have a time horizon extending only as far as the next election.
- Something has changed in the society around the wealthy, which reduces the ability to control their wealth for the long term. This might be the case in a nation going through political upheaval, where investments might be confiscated or destroyed at any time. Why build a business if it could be taken away when it becomes productive?
A future orientation can manifest itself in many ways. Entrepreneurs usually have a future orientation because they must sacrifice present consumption in order to build a productive business. Professions or trades requiring extensive schooling or apprenticeships, like the medical or legal professions, tend to attract the future-oriented because of the long period of low income and hard work that must be endured before the rewards begin to accrue. Families that educate their children in Christian schools are normally future-oriented because they are making a long-term investment that pays off in future generations. Saving for retirement obviously requires a future orientation, and many people manage to do something in this direction — but how many families discipline themselves to provide, over and above the retirement, a substantial inheritance? Missions work, in order to be successful in the long term, must have a future orientation. Missions with a short-run focus may generate impressive numbers for a while, but without teaching and training converts for a permanent impact, the mission work could be a flash in the pan. But a future orientation extends beyond the major decisions in life. A future orientation may be seen in something as mundane as buying 60,000- versus 40,000-mile tires or choosing to forego the dessert that might add to a waistline or contribute to health problems.
The book of Proverbs, so rich with wisdom and so readily applicable to life’s choices, shows in several places that a future orientation is a mark of a wise man. In Proverbs 6:6–11 (and in a parallel passage in chapter 24), we are told that we may learn from the ant, which provides in the summer for its winter needs. The “sluggard,” who prefers to sleep now rather than prepare for a distant need, will be confronted with poverty. In Proverbs 22:3, acting to avoid future problems is commended: “A prudent man foresees evil and hides himself, But the simple pass on and are punished.” One further example is in Proverbs 24:27: “Prepare your outside work, Make it fit for yourself in the field; And afterward build your house.” In other words, focus on launching productive activities before buying things meant for your consumption.
The trend in American society, as Rushdoony pointed out in that compelling essay, is toward a present orientation. We are becoming a society of the lower class, a society of short-sighted hedonists who are easily enticed away from productive work into temporary pleasures.
Producing a Christian civilization means, in large part, developing a future orientation. This is a natural outflow from a Biblical way of thinking, with thoughts of future generations and a heavenly reward. R.J. Rushdoony personally sacrificed a great deal for the benefit of generations that would follow him. He devoted his life to ministry and scholarship, producing a body of work that would remain relevant and fruitful for decades, perhaps centuries. In founding Chalcedon, Rushdoony believed that he could contribute to that vital future orientation and help reconstruct a Christian society. Now, Chalcedon is reaching more people than ever before through the Internet. Rushdoony’s sacrifices could be on the verge of producing their greatest returns yet, with more Christians becoming aware of the need for Biblical thinking about society and looking to Chalcedon for answers to some of the toughest questions.
1. R.J. Rushdoony, Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), 715.
- Timothy D. Terrell
Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.