Should Future Generations Have A Vote Now?

by Tracy R. Walsh

Arguing that our current political system doesn’t do enough to take the interests of future citizens into account, philosopher Thomas Wells calls for 10 percent of all votes to be set aside for “trustees” acting in their interests:

Trusteeship has played a political role before – indeed it is the very model for the role of elected legislators that Burke himself advocated, as did the British political economist John Stuart Mill a century later. All the same, we would certainly need to introduce some new rules and legal instruments to ensure the success of this novel kind of political trusteeship by organizations, and especially to protect them from improper ‘presentist’ influence by partisan or commercial interests. To ensure their independence, these organizations might have to demonstrate popular support (say 50,000 unique citizen members), be non-profit-making, comply with electoral campaign financing legislation and so forth. …

[T]he presence of trustee voters has the potential to benefit democratic deliberation in general. They would make sustainability an unavoidable political topic, one that politicians have to treat in a way that is credible to these cognitively sophisticated agents. The improved quality of politicians’ attention to the future would also help the merely human voters who struggle to turn their moral concern for the future into effective political choices. At least to some degree, the myopia built into the institutions of democracy would be overcome.

Alex Tabarrok favors a different mechanism:

Robin Hanson’s government of prediction markets (“futarchy”) is a better approach. It is now well understood that relative to other institutions, prediction markets draw on expertise to produce predictions that are far-seeing and impartial. What is less well understood is that through a suitable choice of what is to be traded, prediction markets can be designed to be credibly motivated by a variety of goals including the interests of future generations. …

We can also incorporate into our measure of welfare predictions of how future generations will define welfare. We could, for example, choose a rule such that we will pass policies that increase future environmental quality unless a prediction market in future definitions of welfare suggests that future generations will change their welfare standards. It sounds complicated, but then so is the problem.

Meanwhile, Corey Robin Robin Hanson is dismissive of the whole idea:

We could also give votes to people in the past. While one can’t change the experiences of past folks, one can still satisfy their preferences. If past folks expressed particular preferences regarding future outcomes, those preferences could also be given weight in an overall welfare definition.

We could even give votes to animals. One way is to make some assumptions about what outcomes animals seem to care about, pick ways to measure such outcomes, and then include weights on those measures in the welfare definition. Another way is to assume that eventually we’ll “uplift” such animals so that they can talk to us, and put weights on what those uplifted animals will eventually say about the outcomes their ancestors cared about.

We might even put weights on aliens, or on angels. We might just put a weight on what they say about what they want, if they ever show up to tell us. If they never show up, those weights stay set at zero. Of course just because we could give votes to future folks, past folks, animals, aliens, and angels doesn’t mean we will ever want to do so.