62. The errors connected with
overestimating, underestimating, or
failing to appreciate the moral condition of a society and its elite
One popular account of the decline of the Roman empire is moral decadence and cultural decay45. This may have been a degradation of its elite, insofar as governors and leaders of all levels operated exclusively in pursuit of their personal short-term interests, that is, foolishly and selfishly. Generally speaking, people who pursue the long-term interests of a society unselfishly do more to help it flourish. A term from economics to describe this is time preference: a high time preference means a desire for immediate consumption a low time preference refers to saving and planning for the future46. Civilization is fundamentally based on low time preference47. Other metaphor is the comparison of “moral spirit,” for example, in armies—with the ability to molecules in some substance to turn into a uniform crystal (this theme is explored in detail by Lev Tolstoy in War and Peace). If the crystal is broken, the society collapses into feudalism and localism.
Today, both bad and good can be done by coordinated groups operating over long time scales, or subtle processes of decay or growth over the same. Two large societies may conflict and mutually influence one another, such as the Occident and the Orient, or NATO vs. Russia. Ideals such as the tension between authoritarianism and disorganization, rules and liberty, democracy and tradition, may expose large rifts that cause mass terrorism or even civil war. Even a moral paragon might unleash a powerful weapon or process by mistake, while an immoral man may be impotent by virtue of the fact that he is always drunk, or occupied with petty theft, and never becomes a genuine risk to the survival of humanity, never getting hold of powerful technologies.