The myth of owing future generations


If you’re like me you’ve no doubt heard with great frequency the assertion that we owe it to future generations to make huge sacrifices in the present for the sake of the unborn, and that anyone who fails to accede to this maxim is bordering on moral turpitude. I find the argument that we are somehow indebted to our future generations quite absurd. Yes, of course we ought to be responsible citizens, and always be the least wasteful we can be, but the position that we have a moral duty to live as carefully as we can for their sake strikes me as a strange one to take. I think this view fails to consider one key thing – the enormous riches that the unborn will inherit from us. Look at the blood, sweat, toil, imagination and innovation that came from our ancestors to give us the kind of life we have today. As we keep increasing our skills and our ingenuity we bestow ever-greater riches for future generations.

Suppose I have a baby girl in a year's time, and I still live in the UK. Think what that child will inherit on the day of her birth: she enters a world in which she already has rich pickings of food, drinking water, roads, planes, and the luxury of plenty of leisure time. She also has a stable government, property rights, career opportunities, hospitals, entertainment, and thanks to the Internet, she has access to just about every fact that human beings have ever discovered, and to a vast proportion of other minds who she would otherwise have little chance of meeting.

Most importantly, though, she enters a world in which she'll be wealthier than any generation that has ever lived, a world in which she has the lowest chance of being involved in war, and a world in which the free market, science and technology will give her a quality of life unimaginable 250, 100, or even 50 years ago. All this she has inherited from this current generation and everybody's contributions that preceded them. So before people hastily wed themselves to the viewpoint that we are going to burden future generations with a partially ruined planet and legacies from our own carelessness, let's have a reality check and remember how the rich scientific and economic pageant of our past and present is a pageant from which future generations will benefit. When we express it in those terms, all this talk of our owing future generations is shown to be, at best, an exaggeration, and at worst, a laughable misjudgement.

Notice this irony too. Many on the left are always going on about redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor when considering people who are alive. Why, then, do they adopt the opposite approach to people who are going to be much richer than us? When it comes to wealth, prosperity and well-being, just as being born in 2014 is much more of a blessing than being born in 1914 – being born in 2064 or 2114 will (in all likelihood) be much more of a blessing than being born in 2014. Making sacrifices now for the unborn future generations is to transfer wealth from the presently alive poorer group to the unborn richer group – the very opposite of what those on the left support when the groups in question are alive in the present day.

I talked about what a great life my new daughter would be born into if she lived in my home city. I'm aware, of course, that these luxuries are not enjoyed throughout many parts of the world. If she was born in Ethiopia or Somalia the same couldn’t be said of her blessings. But ironically, the answer to this issue is the answer that shows why we should focus primarily on people suffering in the here and now. Efforts and costs expended for future people not yet born are efforts and costs that are potentially taken away from Ethiopians or Somalis now. Unless you think that Ethiopians and Somalis of a few decades time are going to be worse off then present day Ethiopians and Somalis (and if you do you're probably wrong) then deferring future considerations in favour of present day crises is both the right and most logical thing to do.

Because future generations are going to be more prosperous than us, and because it is both unethical and unwise to prioritise unborn prosperous people over present day plighted people. The trade-off between focusing on the present life lived by people of today against the future lives lived by people who are going to be our descendants comes down heavily in favour of focusing on the present life lived by people of today, as the prosperity and advancements enjoyed through the free market and through science continues to lay down the foundation of better well-being for those yet to be born.