Justice Between Generations in an Unjust World

by Neil H. Buchanan
I am back to thinking about intergenerational justice.  This is a topic about which I have written extensively over the last decade-plus, and because I am once again delivering some public and academic lectures around the UK and EU this Fall, I have had reason to return to writing about it -- with the further goal of at long last finishing my book project: What Do We Owe Future Generations?
Yesterday, I published a new Verdict column: "Three Threats to Future Generations: Should COVID-19 Change Our Thinking About Climate Disaster or the End of Democracy?"  As I will shortly explain, I attempt in that column to sort out whether the COVID-19 crisis should change the way we think about the two biggest pre-existing threats to future generations: environmental catastrophe and the death of constitutional democracy.  Short answer: No, it does not.

Why think about any of this?  After all, it is now completely clear that our environmental and constitutional crises are nonstop disasters, with no end or even mild mitigation in sight.  Even so, for some purposes, it does not matter whether there is any hope for a better outcome on either score.  That is, even if we end up living in a malign dictatorship that does all it can to deny and speed up environmental disaster, there will nonetheless continue to be issues that might or might not have intergenerational justice implications.

If nothing else, then, I might have something useful to do with my time in a few years, after King Donald II has assumed the throne.  Even if there is no way for anyone -- certainly not scholars -- to change policies in such a dystopia, it will be interesting as a descriptive matter to be able to say: "Initiative X, proposed by Jared the Jester, will not have uniquely bad effects on future generations, even though the current effects are disastrous."  Or the opposite, or something else entirely.  The point is that even policies adopted in an anti-democratic, dystopian hellscape might or might not have intergenerational effects.

How should we think about this?  The threshold issue is to determine how we can distinguish between policy analyses that do and do not meaningfully change when we think about future generations.  I raised that issue in my Verdict piece, and I reached what might seem to be a counterintuitive conclusion.  (At least, one of my research assistants told me that she was taken by surprise.)  I argued that the COVID-19 pandemic is not a crisis that should change the way we think about the two big intergenerational crises.
Perhaps somewhat misleadingly, I concluded: “We do not need to view the current pandemic as a third crisis, calling for tradeoffs in dealing with the two crises that already existed.”  Am I thus saying that the worst pandemic in more than a century is somehow small, perhaps not even truly any kind of crisis at all?  No, but I can see why it might have come across that way.  [Update on 10/27/2021: For clarity, the Verdict piece has now been edited to include the modifier "intergenerational" between "third" and "crisis" in that sentence.]

With more than four and a half million total deaths from COVID-19 worldwide, including well upwards of 700,000 deaths in the United States, it would be insane not to call this pandemic a crisis, a catastrophe, a disaster, or any other synonym that we can grab as we empty the thesaurus.  The distinction that I wish to make, however, is that this is not an intergenerational crisis.

That formulation, however, might itself be hugely misleading, because it could be interpreted to mean that I am somehow throwing in my lot with the likes of Texas's lieutenant governor, who infamously said that older people should be willing to die so that their grandchildren's economy would not be affected by lock-downs.  That insane idea, in turn, was based on a twisted view of the the fact that COVID-19 is much more likely to be fatal for senior citizens -- although the Delta variant, which emerged after the Texas LG's bizarre assertions, has been notably less age-discriminatory.

So to be clear, no, I am not at all saying that because mostly older people are dying, the pandemic is not an intergenerational crisis.  Looking only at the deaths for non-senior citizens, this is still a terrible disease, so even if somehow seniors were all suddenly to become immune to the coronavirus, it would still be a public health crisis.  (About a fourth of all COVID deaths so far have been for people under age 65.)  If someone had told us two years ago that a disease would emerge and kill almost 30,000 people in their forties over the course of about 18 months, we would have called it a crisis.  And again, Delta seems to be more egalitarian, in its way.

That, then, is what I am not saying.  I am, instead, trying to distinguish between a crisis that we should think about differently because it has unique intergenerational implications, as opposed to a crisis that simply affects people across time, with those affects accumulating as generations pass.

One example that I invoke in today's Verdict column of the latter type of problem -- cumulatively significant but not analytically intergenerational in any interesting way -- is murder.  The longer it takes to stop murders from happening, of course, the more deaths will occur, so if we could stop them from happening once and for all, the count of lives saved would obviously increase as the positive changes continue for future decades and centuries.  In that sense, one could certainly say that "our children and grandchildren" would be better off if we could permanently put a stop to murder.

If it would be good for future generations if we could stop murders from happening, though, how can I say that this is not an intergenerational issue?  The distinction that I am making is between two types of issues.  Again, the first is those issues that simply add up over time, because time moves in only one direction, and positive rates of anything lead to larger totals over time.  The second is issues that we would immediately think about differently if someone were to say: "You know, we've only been thinking about this in the context of current generations.  But what if we think about its affect on future generations?"

In the extreme, there are some policy issues that truly have no impact across time.  Consider a trivial example, where a town council has to decide between two permit applications for use of a public park at the same time, one a birthday party and the other an anniversary party.  I suppose that one could add some elaborate facts to the hypo to turn even this into a decision with impacts across generations, but generally speaking, this is a one-time decision with no lasting effects -- not even cumulative effects of the type that I described above regarding murder.

But beyond that limited category of cases (which might be quite numerous, but that is not the point), there are many policy decisions that do have impacts over time.  I am intimately aware of this because, in the years that I have been speaking and writing about intergenerational justice, many intelligent and good-hearted people have brought to my attention one issue after another that I had not thought about but that would most certainly have an impact on future generations.  At least in the "adds up over time, so it affects future generations" sense, there are many, many such issues.

In part, then, because I do ultimately want to finish writing this book, I need to limit the subject matter.  If the answer to the question, "What do we owe future generations?" is that we have to solve every policy problem that would otherwise continue into the future, then the inquiry becomes a completely out-of-control Theory of Everything.  Maybe the distinction that I am drawing does not have clean boundaries in all cases, but it at least narrows the inquiry in a meaningful and useful way.

This is why I have long since settled on the conclusion that the two big uniquely intergenerational crises of our time are the environmental and democratic crises.  For both, we should be motivated to try much, much harder to solve their respective challenges once we remember that "this is not just about us."  On the prosaic level, we clean up after ourselves when there are other people who will use the kitchen.  If, on the other hand, we expect never to use the kitchen again (because we are going to die soon, and the building has been slated for demolition), we would not bother.  Why waste time and resources doing something that does not help us now -- and will never help anyone?  We change our thinking specifically when we can see how we might harm or help future generations.

Where does COVID-19 fit in?  As my Verdict column explains, it is not an intergenerational crisis in the sense that I am using that term, because there is no particular reason to think that we would respond differently to a pandemic that is currently killing thousands of people a day because we heard Mrs. Lovejoy's words ringing in our ears: "Won't somebody please think of the children!"

I thus conclude in the column that, although it makes sense for people to fight the pandemic, it is not a crisis -- horrible though it is -- that fits into the same intergenerational category as the climate and democracy crises.

I should add, however, that non-intergenerational crises necessarily do force us to think about, and possibly change, how we marshal our resources.  In some earlier writing, I confronted the possibility that we might have to choose one or the other -- the environment or democracy -- and although I conceded that this is a somewhat false choice, it was nonetheless useful to think through the implications of saying, "If we had to choose ..."

But difficult tradeoffs present themselves not only when thinking about these two overwhelmingly important intergenerational crises.  Even a non-intergenerational crisis (there has to be a less awkward way to say what I mean there) can drain resources that otherwise would be used to mitigate one or more intergenerational crises.  Shortly after the pandemic began, I pointed out that there was in some sense no tradeoff facing the country in 2020, because booting Donald Trump out of the White House would simultaneously improve matters on all fronts: the environment, the rule of law, and the pandemic.

Now, however, we are facing a situation in which we are being needlessly held back in dealing with the other crises because Trump's dead-enders (word choice intended) insist on extending the pandemic.  We thus find ourselves expending both economic and political resources on that issue, when we should be using those resources in a last-ditch effort to save democracy -- which I admittedly think is no longer possible, but it would be good to be absolutely certain -- and to mitigate and slow down climate change.

As I noted above, however, even if all is lost, our future dictators will be making choices about policies that will effect people over time, some subset of which will truly be intergenerational, in the way that I have defined the concept here.  At the very least, then, I will have an analytical framework with which to assess the new dynasty's unending parade of disastrous decisions.