What Do We Owe Future Generations?

61 Pages Posted: 27 Aug 2008 Last revised: 10 Nov 2010

See all articles by Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan

University of Florida Levin College of Law


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 (among many other things) running large government budget 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 (using standard utilitarian and Rawlsian analyses) whether we are currently doing enough to secure the prosperity of future generations. It turns out that even pessimistic forecasts of economic growth are so promising that we could arguably either stop worrying about future generations' economic well-being or even enact policies to shift economic well-being from the future to today. The flaw in that reasoning, however, lies in the unequal distribution of our economic prosperity, with a gap between rich and poor that is profoundly troubling. Even if future growth turns out to be as high as current forecasts predict, there is a very real chance that the least among us will not see their living standards rise at all, even as the more fortunate ascend to untold levels of affluence.

I thus argue that a better approach to analyzing intergenerational issues is to view them as straightforward 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.

Keywords: Future Generations, Intergenerational Justice, Distributive Justice, Social Security, Fiscal Policy, Budget Deficits, Utilitarianism, Rawls

JEL Classification: D63, D64, E60, E62, H50, H55, H62, J11, K34, O40

Suggested Citation

Buchanan, Neil H., What Do We Owe Future Generations?. George Washington Law Review, Vol. 77, p. 1237, 2009, GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 351, GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 351, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1121217

Neil H. Buchanan (Contact Author)

University of Florida Levin College of Law ( email )

PO Box 357069
Gainesville, FL 32635
United States

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