TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Friday, September 21, 2007

Buchanan on What Do We Owe Future Generations?

Neil H. Buchanan (George Washington) has posted What Do We Owe Future Generations? Framing the Issues, with an Application to Budget Policy on SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

In the United States, it is common for legal scholars, economists, politicians and others to claim that we are selfishly harming “our children and grandchildren” by running large government deficits. This article first asks two broad questions: (1) Do we owe future generations anything at all as a philosophical matter? and (2) If we do owe something to future generations, how should we balance their interests against our own? The short answers are “Probably” and “We really are not sure.”

Finding only general answers to these general questions, I then look specifically at U.S. fiscal policy and its effects on conventionally-measured living standards, exploring a set of issues that can be captured in the following question: If we knew that our grandchildren were going to have incomes 100% higher than current incomes, how would we feel about changing our policies today such that our grandchildren's incomes would be only 93% higher (or, for that matter, 107% higher)? This is, surprisingly, the essence of the fiscal policy question that we face in the U.S. today, as even pessimistic forecasts indicate that living standards over the next 75 years will more than double (if not triple or quadruple).

Using standard utilitarian and Rawlsian analyses, it turns out that people facing this situation would either stop worrying about future generations' economic well-being or might even enact policies to shift economic well-being from the future to today. I then argue that a better approach to analyzing intergenerational issues is to view them as simple matters of distributive justice, focusing on how policies change the distribution of incomes across time as well as currently. Such an approach simplifies the analysis and allows us to protect the interests of our children and grandchildren in a more meaningful and long-lasting sense.

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