July 15, 2007 to July 21, 2007
That's a line from the greatest PSA ever. I've found a partial audio and I'm still searching for the full version.
Obligations to the Future
Each generation has the next in its power. We can lay waste to the planet or scrimp and save in order to transform our grandchildren's world into a technological cornucopia. The decision is up to us. But it doesn't necessarily follow that we should consider ourselves morally free to make any decision we like. Are there principles of public morality to which America should be committed in making this fundamental decision?
Perhaps not. We can well imagine some hardheaded libertarian consigning the entire question to the "invisible hand." It is up to each American to decide on her own what she should do with "her property," both during life and after death. If most property owners choose to mark their passage into the beyond by committing all their earthly possessions to the flames, the next generation would have no just cause for complaint. It would simply be tough luck.
To be sure, this is not an aspect of libertarianism that even fierce partisans take pains to emphasize. They are prone to praise the market system as a machine for growth without reflecting on the deeper implications of their philosophy. But the truth is that the market does not guarantee growth by itself. The market depends on the prevailing preferences of property owners. And if the rich ones don't give a damn about the future, libertarians have few conceptual resources enabling them to argue that the rich have done a grievous wrong.
So much the worse for these callous folk, or so goes the dominant utilitarian response. Rather than taking the narrow view of an individual property owner, the utilitarians say, we should adopt the position of a concerned citizen attempting a truly impartial view of the situation. From this vantage, the interests of young Americans of the year 2050 should count equally with those of us who happen to be around right now. In Jeremy Bentham's famous formulation: each should count for one, and none should count for more than one. As a consequence, utilitarians would have no trouble with the "bonfire" method of estate planning that exposed the callous indifference of the hardheaded libertarian. They would strongly support legislation banning such utility-minimizing activities: while the older generation might well experience some frustration in foregoing their bonfires, this pain is readily outweighed by the satisfactions gained by keeping the property around for use by the successors.
When we turn to harder cases, the utilitarian calculus depends on a complex balancing operation. Speaking broadly, it begins by comparing the relative wealth of earlier and later generations. Because the marginal utility of money generally declines as people grow richer, a relatively poor generation shouldn't scrimp to enable ts relatively rich successors to get even richer.
But other things aren't necessarily equal. If, for example, great technological miracles are just around the corner, extra savings might generate massive returns. Under this scenario, the enormous extra gains in welfare accruing to the rich generation in 2050 might morally offset the extra welfare losses suffered by poorer folds in the year 2000. The bature of our collective obligations depends quite heavily on predictions about the future that are difficult to subject to serious empirical critique. This is a significant disadvantage, the utilitarians must ruefully concede, but consider the alternative: isn't it better to make guesses about the future than to blind oneself to the problem, as the libertarians do?
Guess the book? I'm guessing this will be a little obscure. For an early hint, the authors are two Yale professors of law.
Clue #1: $80,000
Clue #2: no more clues, the book is The Stakeholder Society