13 October 2017

Altruism towards future generations

Some critics have suggested that the libertarian position regarding future generations is: “I don’t care”. But libertarianism does not reject moral responsibility towards others. It rejects the notion that the government should enforce such responsibility.

Feeling responsible towards one’s own descendants, and others who share a proportion of one’s genes, appears to be a hard-wired human attribute. Aggregating responsibility-towards-descendants feelings may be what has traditionally generated interest in the position of future members of a society.

Prior to the welfare state, and to the development of social justice ideologies, public actions motivated by responsibility towards descendants did apparently take place. The Victorians built bridges that were designed to last for hundreds of years, though there was often no obvious incentive for doing so.

After decades of welfare state – and rhetoric about preserving resources for the future – we seem to be behind the Victorians in terms of investment in the long-term future.

It is not in any case clear how a society could have a motive to behave more responsibly towards its future members than is generated by innate responsibility feelings towards descendants. Because the elite produces arguments for why one should feel responsible? People’s choices will still reflect what they perceive to be their own interests.

One can, however, see how hard-wired concern for future generations might be negatively impacted by policies. The existence of state medical and education systems, purporting to cater for everyone, means that each individual has fewer resources available to devote to interest in his descendants. The reallocation of resources means he is liable to assume that responsibility towards descendants has also been reallocated – without this assumption necessarily being justified.

Compared to aggregated individual actions, it seems collectivised action is likely to be less motivated by interest in the future, not more. Collectivised action is subject to ‘democratic’ control, and voting is notoriously conducive to short-termism.