Should the Future Get a Vote?

Philosopher Thomas Wells argues that future citizens need the vote today:

…future generations must accept whatever we choose to bequeath them, and they have no way of informing us of their values. In this, they are even more helpless than foreigners, on whom our political decisions about pollution, trade, war and so on are similarly imposed without consent. Disenfranchised as they are, such foreigners can at least petition their own governments to tell ours off, or engage with us directly by writing articles in our newspapers about the justice of their cause. The citizens of the future lack even this recourse.

The asymmetry between past and future is more than unfair. Our ancestors are beyond harm; they cannot know if we disappoint them. Yet the political decisions we make today will do more than just determine the burdens of citizenship for our grandchildren. They also concern existential dangers such as the likelihood of pandemics and environmental collapse. Without a presence in our political system, the plight of future citizens who might suffer or gain from our present political decisions cannot be properly weighed. We need to give them a voice.

But how can we solve this problem? Wells has some very good insights:

If current citizens can’t help but be short-sighted, perhaps we should consider introducing agents who can vote in a far-seeing and impartial way. They would need to be credibly motivated to defend the basic interests of future generations as a whole, rather than certain favoured subsets, and they would require the expertise to calculate the long-term actuarial implications of government policies.

But then his solution turns laughable:

Such voters would have to be more than human. I am thinking of civic organisations, such as charitable foundations, environmentalist advocacy groups or non-partisan think tanks.

Well’s solution (give these groups votes) is so tied to his conception of what the “enlightened” future will bring that it clearly fails the far-seeing, impartiality, credibly motivated and expertise requirements that he outlines as desirable. We need not conclude, however, that Well’s plea is disingenuous or impossible but we do need a better implementation.

Robin Hanson’s government of prediction markets (“futarchy“) is a better approach. It is know 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.

To understand futarchy note that a prediction market in future GDP would be a good predictor of future GDP. Thus, if all we cared about was future GDP, a good rule would be to pass a policy if prediction markets estimate that future GDP will be higher with the policy than without the policy. Of course, we care about more than future GDP; perhaps we also care about environmental quality, risk, inequality, liberty and so forth. What Hanson’s futarchy proposes is to incorporate all these ideas into a weighted measure of welfare. Prediction markets would then be used to predict and make policy choices based on future welfare. Incorporated within the measure of welfare could be factors like environmental quality many years into the future. 

Note, however, that even this assumes that we know what people in the future will care about. Here then is the final meta-twist. 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.

In short, more than any other form of government, futarchy is based on far seeing, impartial, expertise driven and credibly motivated predictions of future welfare and it is flexible enough to allow for a wide definition of welfare including taking into account the interests of future generations.

Hat tip: Carl Close.


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