Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Vol. 9, No. 3; Fall 2003

Do Future Generations Have Rights?

A Poverty of Reason: Sustainable Development and Economic Growth.1, by Wilfred Beckerman. The Independent Institute, 2002. xiii + 94 pgs.

Wilfred Beckerman is an outstanding economist of a type probably more common in Britain than America. Like Anthony de Jasay, Amartya Sen, and I.M.D. Little, Beckerman is thoroughly at home in philosophy; and in A Poverty of Reason, he makes insightful remarks about the rights of future generations, equality, and the so-called "precautionary principle."

Some environmentalists are outright enemies of humanity, who favor a drastic reduction in human population, if not the elimination altogether of our species. Once at a conference, I was seated at dinner next to that eminent Luddite, Kirkpatrick Sale. I mentioned that a critic had accused him of wishing to return to the Stone Age. To my surprise, he said that this was just what he wanted.

More moderate environmentalists do not propose to crawl on all fours, and Beckerman here analyzes the views of those who seek the seemingly reasonable goal of "sustainable development." They do not propose to do away with economic growth altogether; but must not the rights of future generations be guaranteed? We must leave to them an environment at least as good as that which we have enjoyed. In particular, we must make sure that vital resources remain available, act to contain global warming, and endeavor to prevent "biodiversity" from unacceptable reduction.

But will not the free market take care of all such issues? Owners of private property have every incentive to conserve their resources rather than squander them for immediate gain. Further, most people wish to provide for their children; insuring the welfare of future generations requires no collective action beyond this.

For proponents of sustainable development, the free market is not enough. People will indeed endeavor to conserve what they own; but they will do so guided by an economic principle. For actors on the market, maximizing expected utility is the be-all and end-all.

Is this not unfair to future generations? People will make provision for their children and grandchildren but will rarely seek to conserve their resources beyond what is needed to do this. So long as people can leave something to their heirs, the pursuit of profit will impel them to wasteful use of scarce resources. Must not the government protect the rights of future generations, in order to prevent this catastrophe?

Beckerman identifies a fundamental failing in this line of thought. Let us grant that the present generation ought not to squander all its resources and leave nothing for distant future generations. It does not follow that these future generations have an enforceable right that resources be conserved at a certain rate. To introduce here the language of rights, our author maintains, is to assume without basis that whatever moral claims future generations have on the present bind us absolutely, or close to it. Why not instead view obligations to the future as one item to be weighed against other things?

Our author goes further. He maintains that ascribing rights to those who do not yet exist makes no sense. "More generally it is difficult to see how future generations can be said to have any rights because properties, such as being green or wealthy or having rights, can be predicated only of some subject that exists. . . . If I were to say ‘X has a fantastic collection of CDs,’ and you were to ask me who is X, and I were to reply, ‘Well actually, there isn’t any X,’ you would think I had taken leave of my senses. And you would be right . . . unborn people cannot have anything. They cannot have two legs or long hair or a taste for Mozart" (pp. 67–68).2 

One might object, "Is not Beckerman simply playing with words? Let us grant him his point: might we still not have a binding moral obligation to preserve a sustainable environment for future generations? Where has his semantic wordplay gotten him?"

We can, as the objection supposes, speak of binding moral obligations without reference to rights, but Beckerman’s point nevertheless helps us grasp an essential issue. The language of rights at once takes us into the realm of absolute claims; and if we grasp that we need not—or cannot, if Beckerman is right—ascribe rights to future generations, we can begin to think clearly about our obligations to them. Beckerman has freed us from the prison of a false assumption.

Beckerman’s point about rights can be used, in a way that he does not consider, to strengthen his case against sustainability advocates. Future persons may not have rights, but presently existing people do have them. If so, then efforts by even moderate environmentalists to restrict property rights may be illegitimate on their face. Beckerman very effectively demonstrates that environmentalist arguments fail on their own terms. But even if these arguments were cogent, this would not suffice to justify compelling property owners to restrict their consumption. The issue of rights would first have to be addressed.

Beckerman has exposed a hidden assumption that lies behind the environmentalist case, but this is not his greatest contribution. He challenges head-on a key premise of much contemporary moral philosophy. The sustainability advocates maintain that each future generation should be provided with an equally good environment to the one we now have. With great daring, 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. Is it not unfair, they inquire, to subject people to such conditions?

If it is unfair, what is wrong is that people should not be subjected to bad conditions: equality has nothing to do with the case. Harry Frankfurt has brilliantly elucidated the essential point: "The egalitarian condemnation of inequality as inherently bad loses much of its force . . . when we recognize that those who are doing worse than others may nevertheless be doing rather well . . . what is of genuine moral concern is whether people have good lives, and not how their lives compare with the lives of others" (pp. 72–73).

Beckerman applies this fundamental insight to sustainability, with devastating results. So long as those in future generations are expected to prosper, why does it matter morally if their environment is not in all respects equally good with our own?

If we nevertheless insist on equality, matters take a surprising turn. 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, do they not, by the criterion of equality, owe us recompense for their superior good fortune? Of course, they cannot pay us, since they do not 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 the reductio in this way: "But suppose future generations were expected to be richer than we are for reasons that are outside our control. . . . But 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)" (p. 71).

Beckerman’s argument reduces to ruins the case for sustainable development, since this is based precisely on the claim that future generations are entitled to an equally good environment to our own. But what if environmentalists, chastened by Beckerman’s attack, withdraw to less demanding claims? Even if future generations are not entitled to an equal environment, is it not common sense to conserve scarce fuels and counteract global warming?

Our author addresses these issues in detail, but I should like instead to look at another fundamental point he raises that applies more generally. Many environmentalists show themselves well aware of the fact that their predictions of disaster are controversial. But they claim to have an argument that their pessimistic views should prevail. If the optimists are in the right, 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. Should we not 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" (p. 41, quoting a Ministerial Declaration of the UN Economic Conference for Europe).

To pose the issue this way, Beckerman shows, rests on a false assumption. Why must the 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 immediate response is falsely to assume 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" (p. 47).

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, lest catastrophe follow?

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" (pp. 44–45).

I have stressed in this review general principles rather than the particular details of Beckerman’s analysis of fuels, climate change, and biodiversity. I am happy to assure readers that he finds little cause for alarm in any of these areas.

1 I cite the title as it is given on the cover. The title page omits "and Economic Growth."

2But past people do not now exist, but you can violate the rights of someone now dead. Suppose, e.g., that you dispose of someone’s estate contrary to the directions of his will: have you not violated his rights? Beckerman seems to me on the correct lines, but his argument needs more careful statement than he gives it here.


Close Window