Inconvenient truths

Alan Ryan asks: how many Sandys will it take for us to change our ways?

November 15, 2012

Modern technology is so powerful that it is tempting to think that “nature” no longer exists. Commentators talk of the “death of nature”: the world is so affected by human action that nature in the sense of the untouched natural world has disappeared. Yet, recent events have reminded us of Horace’s oft-quoted dictum: Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret - “You may drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will return.” You may cover the Jersey shore in houses, casinos and amusement parks, but see what wind and water together can do to them. Whether Hurricane (or “Superstorm”) Sandy was a by-product of our greenhouse gas emissions, I don’t know - but she was an impressive reminder that human beings are here only with nature’s kind permission.

One of the oddities of the recent American elections (there were a great many elections, not just presidential, senatorial and congressional, but local, judicial and so on) was the absence of any discussion of issues beyond the most immediate. One would have to be morally obtuse to think that unemployment did not matter, and it was no surprise that most arguments focused on getting people back to work. Still, most people care about their children as well as themselves; most care about their grandchildren, and since we don’t have much say in whom our own children have children with, it is a good idea to think about other people’s children, too. Yet the long-term problems facing the US and other developed industrial countries hardly got a look-in. You might have thought that the human race was going to die out in 18 months.

Democracy is a peculiar business. Americans profess a general and abstract dislike of government, as do many Europeans: it’s remote, expensive and inefficient, sentiments easy to trade on in the US, where Washington is indeed pretty remote from, say, Seattle and San Diego (although I imagine Vladivostok is fertile ground for similar feelings about Moscow). The US is odder than many countries because the people most hostile to the federal government are those who benefit most from it, including on the one hand the rich and on the other the elderly, hard-up and infirm voters in the great swathe of the country who resolutely vote Republican while accepting the benefits made possible by Democrat-voting taxpayers elsewhere.

The explanation is obvious. Voters who say they are opposed to welfare or “handouts” mean money given to someone else: they have earned their benefits, or they represent the minimum any government ought to do for its citizens, such as providing them with police, paved roads, protection against floods, bush fires and anything else that believers in “small government” have realised they need to be protected against. Since we can all vote, we naturally vote to protect our own benefits.

And, as the cliché has it, the future has no votes. It is the most obvious defect of any democratic system that the electoral system overweights the interests of those who do vote against those who don’t. In the US and most well-off countries, this has meant that over the past 40 years the elderly have done well while children have done badly. The “grey vote” has been effective and energetic. Not only is everyone under 18 legally debarred from voting; the children most in need of the resources of the welfare state are those of single mothers who are least likely to vote and least able to take the time to lobby for their needs. The elderly have plenty of spare time and (until they become mentally incapable) lots of accumulated wisdom about how the political system works. They may be affectionate towards their own grandchildren, but in broad terms they will vote for the interests of the over-60s and against the interests of the under-15s.

This suggests a paradox obvious since the dawn of political speculation, and clear to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and everyone who has thought about democratic government since his day. Governments derive their legitimacy from their commitment to promote the well-being of “the people”. They are not kleptocracies, oligarchies deliberately setting out to exploit their subjects for their own benefit. But who are “the people”? In principle, they are ourselves projected forward into the indefinite future: anonymous Brits, Danes, Americans, whomever a government is supposed to be thinking about. Crucially, they are not just anonymous but timeless: “we the people” means “we, and our children, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, etc”.

How far the present generation is morally obliged to sacrifice its own comforts and pleasures for the welfare of future generations is a hot topic for political philosophers, but it is fair to say that nobody thinks we are under no obligation at all to worry about what sort of a world we are leaving to those who come after us. And yet we have heard nothing in the recent presidential elections about it, and we hear all too little in the day-to-day political to-and-fro between David Cameron and his opposition inside and outside the coalition. Politicians don’t talk about what our planet’s “carrying capacity” might be, yet we cannot carry on as though it is indefinite, and everyone knows it.

What makes our silence absurd is that there has been a long and interesting debate, starting with John Stuart Mill’s discussion of the “stationary state” and continuing into the work of John Rawls, about what it might be like to reduce our apparently insatiable appetite for “stuff” and think of more intelligent ways of converting improved productivity into greater leisure, more interesting work and things we can consume without further stressing Mother Nature. J.M. Keynes thought about it, and Robert and Edward Skidelsky have recently had a go at the topic. How many return visits from Sandy and her ilk it will take to make us think seriously about all this is another question entirely.

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