How should society share scarce resources with the unborn? What is fair? Who decides?
Updated: May 16
The term 'Intergenerational Justice' in the current social dialogues recently caught my eye. As Ben's Way considers how to improve opportunities for the generations that follow, what are the implications?
Intergenerational Justice is defined as ‘the ethical problem of distributing scarce resources between different age groups.’[i] This definition includes only living generations, not past or future generations. However, upon review, I believe the assessment concepts presented within the topic of intergenerational justice can be co-opted to assist our ethical understanding of how Ben’s Way might impact humanity.
"Ben's Way" is named after Benjamin Franklin and refers to an investment program whereby funds are invested in socially responsible ways for decades and centuries to be released to charities in sustainable amounts at regular intervals.
Growth is encouraged in the initial payout periods by removing minor amounts. By seventy-five years most payout programs are generous to those future generations. Should we strive to get to this state, by sacrificing some benefits for our living generations?
According to Encylopedia.com, the problem of intergenerational justice distribution of resources can be resolved in four ways: natural life expectancy, social contract, utilitarian, and libertarian.
Natural life expectancy promotes allocating across generations to reach life expectancy, and no public resources are allocated to those living past that date.
Social contract allocation argues we are all free to make the choice of spending across generations. We will reap the rewards of our decision as we each (hopefully) live through these ages, young to old. To not favour their current age group, decision-makers must blindly choose the allocation, as if not aware of their own age (which seems difficult to achieve).
Utilitarian allocation of resources maximizes the collective outcome. This view requires imposing sacrifice on individuals for the greater good.
Libertarian allocation insists private property should never be taken away to allocate to others. The purview of charities is supported by freely given gifts to support the less fortunate.
Ben’s Way seeks to increase the abundance of resources, increase future distributions, and reduce distribution issues. In that sense, Ben’s Way is outside of the intergenerational justice concerns of today as so defined above.
On the other hand, Ben’s Way requires the generations alive today to participate in two ways:
willingly share some seed funds from today’s consumption for those generations yet to come and
once planted, sustain the growing Ben’s Way coffers.
Willing to share seed funds
Current society may be willing to share seed funds if believable delivery guarantees can be devised. The source of these funds would be as moral gifts to future generations, i.e., using a libertarian approach.
Alternate allocation of resources approaches (natural life expectancy, social contract and utilitarian) do not stretch into supporting the infinite generations to come.
Sustain the growing coffers
Future societies could consume the funds for their own intergenerational needs. The larger the funds grow, the more attractive an idea this becomes. The right of each generation to freely decide is assumed.
The arguments against consuming all the funds immediately are like those supporting moratoriums on fishing or deforestation. The decision requires balancing today’s needs with those of the near future. What is needed is support for the rationale for a balanced decision.
As a way of thinking of this, let’s pretend the decisions are limited to once every twenty-five years, or essentially once with every new generation. Also, think at any point in time, four generations are alive:
youths from newborns to age 25,
younger adults 25 to 50,
older adults 50 to 75 and
seniors over 75
Individuals in these groups have a say, but the concentration of power is with the two generations of younger and older adults.
If, at that time, the power brokers of the day can see significant returns, they will keep the funding payout plans intact. Younger and older adults stand to benefit if they see lots of funding now and later in their lives.
Imagine that seventy-five percent of the total fund is withdrawn every twenty-five years. This would put a majority of the funds to immediate use and significantly lessen the desire to eliminate the program's future.
In addition, imagine the remaining twenty-five percent grows back to today’s size by the subsequent decision time in twenty-five years. The power brokers can foresee a benefit to themselves then, and just like they support retirement savings, they can support a sustainable program that supports ongoing large payouts.
The sustainable portion of Ben’s Way is thus supported by the self-interest of the power brokers of the day. How power brokers view a small growing fund in the first fifty or seventy-five years remains of concern. Would they let it grow?
The first one hundred years are the riskier stages for developing sustainable funds. However, we can leverage two inherent advantages to protect the fund.
First, when the fund is small, it is less attractive to drain thoroughly. If the fund payout is twenty-five percent of the total, the current power brokers are somewhat appeased and perhaps will be able to let the remaining not very large sum continue to grow.
Second, the initial seed fund donors are not long forgotten, and some may still be alive. The donors are the parents and grandparents of the power brokers of the day. The wishes of the original donors are recent and vividly remembered in the first fifty years.
Hence the fund stands a much greater chance of squeaking through the gauntlet during the first fifty years. After fifty years, enacting a broader sharing level of fifty percent (half now and a half for the next generation) could permit further growth, albeit slower.
When by year one hundred and higher account sums become too compelling, then the seventy-five percent becomes the regular payout supported by the power brokers.
This thought exercise shows the importance of the wishes and dreams of the original seed fund donors. These motivations must be widely publicized to create a protective shell around the funds against contrary, early decisions.
Coupled with the issue of how to create a balanced decision with humanity’s best interests at heart is the issue of who gets to decide which generations should get what resources.
We rely on elected politicians to create our laws and direct government spending programs in Canada. Other major decision-makers include the heads of corporations, whether for-profit, non-profit, or charitable organizations. Additionally, everyone is free to make decisions regarding personal resources. We all have a role in decisions, and some are larger than others in magnitude and influence.
Thus, the concentration of decision-making power rests with big governments and big corporations. The decisions made by the powerful reflect their desire, at least in part, to stay in power, propped up by the living.
The unborn generations that follow only exert influence via present living individuals if the living holds the unborn’s needs in mind. In that sense, consideration of future generations’ welfare is a moral obligation thrust upon the influential decision-makers by the combined influence of living individuals.
Reality hits if older generations consider the fate of younger generations’ eventual grandchildren. Saving for a grandchild’s grandchild can span seventy-five years easily. These future children are worth our consideration!
Getting the attention these unborn need is the job at hand, but nothing in the above makes me think this is not possible.