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What Rights Do Future Generations Have?

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Sometimes people claim the free market is unfair to future generations. Mises says again and again that capitalism is a system of “mass production for the masses” directed by the “dollar-votes” of consumers, and the consumers he is talking about are people who now exist. These people will act to secure their interests, but what ...

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Sometimes people claim the free market is unfair to future generations. Mises says again and again that capitalism is a system of “mass production for the masses” directed by the “dollar-votes” of consumers, and the consumers he is talking about are people who now exist. These people will act to secure their interests, but what about those who come after them? Don’t we have to consider the time “when like our sires, our sons are gone,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s phrase?

In A Poverty of Reason: Sustainable Development and Economic Growth (2002), the economist Wilfred Beckerman had some insightful comments on this issue. According to those who criticize the market, people care about their children and grandchildren but will rarely seek to conserve their resources beyond what is needed to provide for them. After they provide for their immediate descendants, the pursuit of profit will lead them to a wasteful use of scarce resources that may destroy the environment for those who live after them. Doesn’t the government need to protect the rights of future generations in order to prevent this catastrophe from happening?

There’s an obvious objection to this line of thought, besides those that Beckerman offers. The children and grandchildren in question in turn will have children and grandchildren of their own. So long as this continues from generation to generation, we won’t reach the situation that the environmentalists talk about. They might respond that we need even more conservation of resources than this, but that doesn’t seem plausible.

Beckerman’s main objection to the “future generations” argument is this: Suppose we grant that the present generation shouldn’t squander all its resources and leave nothing for distant future generations. It doesn’t follow that these future generations have an enforceable right that resources be conserved at a certain rate. To introduce the language of rights, Beckerman says, is to assume without basis that whatever moral claims future generations have on the present bind us absolutely, or close to it. Why don’t we instead view obligations to the future as one item to be weighed against other things?

He also challenges head-on a key premise of much contemporary moral philosophy. Those who favor “sustainable” growth to protect future generations maintain that each future generation should be provided with an equally good environment to the one we now have. Beckerman asks, What is so good about equality?

Arguments for equality often hide behind feelings of sympathy many people have for the impoverished. Environmentalists paint a bleak picture of a future in which essential fuels are exhausted and people confront catastrophically high temperatures. Isn’t it unfair, they say, to subject people to such conditions? If it is unfair, what is wrong is that people shouldn’t be subjected to bad conditions: equality is irrelevant.

But what happens if we do favor an “equal” environment for each future generation? Beckerman answers with a clever argument. Those who will live in the future are likely to benefit from continued economic growth. If they turn out to be more prosperous than we are, don’t they, by the criterion of equality, owe us compensation for their superior good fortune? Of course, they cannot pay us, since they don’t now exist. But we can do our best to achieve equality by refusing to conserve our resources. The poorer environment that results for our successors balances their superior prosperity and thus helps to achieve equality.

Beckerman states his reductio in this way:

But suppose future generations were expected to be richer than we are for reasons that are outside our control….if we regard natural inequalities as unjust, we would be morally obliged to take some action…to reduce our poverty compared with future generations by, say, slowing down future growth (e.g., by investing less or using up more of the earth’s supposedly scarce resources.)

Finally, I’d like to mention one more of Beckerman’s arguments. Many environmentalists are well aware of the fact that their predictions of disaster are controversial. But they claim to have an argument that their pessimistic views should still guide policy. If the optimists are correct, and we follow their advice, we shall have somewhat higher growth rates than otherwise. But if the environmentalists are right, and we ignore them, disaster threatens. Shouldn’t we then err on their side?

This is the so-called precautionary principle: "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation."

Posed this way, the issue, Beckerman shows, rests on a false assumption. Why must a decision be made immediately? If "scientific certainty" is not available, why not wait until we have a clearer idea of what will happen? Why now install costly measures designed to curb global warming if in a few years we may find out that our efforts are futile or that global warming is not so bad?

To think that possible environmental disaster requires an immediate response is to assume falsely that we risk disaster by waiting for a short time before acting. But this does not follow, even if the environmentalists turn out to be right in their predictions. So far as climate change is concerned, "delaying action by several years makes a negligible difference." But what happens if we allow for this point? Suppose, e.g., that after several further years of research, we still face conflicting views about global warming. Should we then follow the pessimists in order to prevent catastrophe? (For an example of such controversy, see my review of S. Fred Singer’s Hot Talk, Cold Science.)

Not necessarily. Beckerman points out that the principle of avoiding disaster can be carried too far. We should indeed be cautious, but the benefits of economic development should never be ignored. The precautionary principle "is just a pompous way of saying that one should consider the case for making some investments now in order to minimize the danger of some unpleasant event taking place later. But nobody in their senses would make investments to avoid every remote possibility since that would leave precious little time for the enjoyment of life."

In the time since Beckerman wrote, the catastrophists have become more and more strident, and his book deserves our renewed attention.

David Gordon
David Gordon (born 1948) is an American libertarian philosopher and intellectual historian influenced by Rothbardian views of economics. Peter J. Boettke, in his Reason Foundation "Reason Papers," Issue No. 19, Fall 1994, describes Gordon as "a philosopher and intellectual historian who is deeply influenced by the Rothbardian strand of economics." He is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of The Mises Review.

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