What Rights Do Future Generations Have?
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 squ
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