What Do We Owe Future Generations?

This afternoon and all day tomorrow, GW Law will be hosting a symposium: “What Does Our Legal System Owe Future Generations? New Analyses of Intergenerational Justice for a New Century.” There will be an opening panel on the philosophy of justice between generations, followed by four panels discussing the implications for intergenerational justice of the following areas of policy: government spending and taxation, environmental law, reproductive rights, and consitutional law. The principal presenters for the five panels are, respectively, Bob Hockett (Cornell) and Ori Herstein (private practice), Neil Buchanan (GW) and Dan Shaviro (NYU), Jamison Colburn (Penn State) and Matt Adler (Penn), Sherry Colb (Cornell), and Mike Dorf (Cornell).

I have been working with the GW Law Review students to organize this symposium, which is based on my forthcoming article: “What Do We Owe Future Generations?” Over the last several years, I have been trying to work through the implications of the oft-heard claims that current generations are short-changing future generations. (Listen to almost any politician speak for more than five minutes and you’ll hear something about our irresponsibility toward the future). Usually, this is couched in terms of anti-deficit rhetoric, and it is often misleadingly tied to efforts to change the Social Security program. As my scholarly interests are solidly in the area of fiscal policy, I decided to see whether there is actually a strong argument that — as a matter of government spending and taxing policy in the long run — current generations are cheating future generations. What I found was surprising. Even given the long-term trends in spending and taxing, future generations’ per capita GDP will be higher than ours even under the most pessimistic scenarios. The issue is distributional (both within and across generations), therefore, because the averages look unexpectedly promising.

When I taught a seminar on the subject of intergenerational justice a few years ago at NYU Law, I found that my students were only mildly interested in the fiscal policy aspects of intergenerational obligations. No surprise there, I guess, as macroeconomics is not everyone’s idea of a fascinating topic. We thus expanded our inquiry and confirmed that, even if we are not cheating future generations in terms of pure economic income, there are enormous issues in the areas of education, the environment, reproductive rights, the rule of law, and many other areas of policy in which current generations are obviously harming the interests of future generations. This symposium is designed to stimulate discussion about those matters. I also am in the planning stages of turning this into a book.

I am very excited to hear what the other scholars at the symposium will say over the next two days. I will report back next week on some of what I hear.

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2 Responses

  1. Alfred says:

    This is a great topic and the symposium looks fabulous. One other way of looking at this is historically–did previous generations owe us anything? There’s a lot of writing by people who look back on previous generations and complain about the problems “entailed” upon them by previous generations. And one can certainly ask about how we dealing with negligence or malfeasance of past generations. I look forward to reading the papers from the symposium.

  2. Frank says:

    I agree that it’s a great topic. I’m skeptical of many of these very long term projections, because they should influence policy routinely in *all* areas before they revolutionize one particular area.

    For example, property-rights advocates will warn darkly of a loss of innovation if we make even the slightest downward adjustment in patent or copyright rights/terms. Yet the same folks often discount future environmental harm quite aggressively. It’s conservation for thee, but not for me.