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Thursday, 19 January 2012

Those pesky kids

There has been an undertow of Edmund Burke running through a lot of commentary later. Roger Scruton mentioned this explicitly in an interview about his new book on Green Philosophy.
My main argument is that environmental destruction comes when people externalise their costs and pass them on to future generations. ... Edmund Burke deserves credit for having first put this on the political agenda. He made the interesting observation that human beings protect the unborn, while they revere the dead. Someone's made a sacrifice on your behalf, so you must pass that on by making a sacrifice of your own. That's a crucial observation he makes against the French Revolution
What Burke said, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, was:
The state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern ... it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place
This notion, that generations have an inviolable obligation to each other, is deeply conservative, indeed reactionary, as is made clear by such language as "fixed compact" and "appointed place." The present must act subject to both the wishes of the past (i.e. tradition) and the future (an organic extension of that tradition.) While the past is famously mutable, it isn't the ideal tabula rasa that the future presents. Our children are thus taken hostage and the message they deliver comes from the hostage-takers.

The idea has reappeared in two distinct guises amongst conservative thinkers in recent years. First, we have the meme of intergenerational theft, given currency by David Willetts' The Pinch. Second, we have the ruling belief that we have to pay down public debt through austerity because otherwise we create an immoral burden for our children. In yesterday's Guardian, Simon Jenkins expands this trope to become a pessimistic view of the ill discipline of democratic politics (another Burkean theme): "Democracy ... simply votes to saddle its children with debt."

There have been pale echoes of this in Ed Milliband's comments on the "British promise", though this is more a nostalgic lament for progress thwarted than an attempt to dictate to the present in the name of the future (Hobsbawms' The Forward March of Labour Halted also comes to mind, strangely).

The original counterblast to Burke came from Tom Paine:
Neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow. The parliament or the people of 1688, or of any other period, has no more right to dispose of the people of the present day, or to bind or to control them in any shape whatever, than the parliament or the people of the present day have to dispose of, bind or control those who are to live a hundred or a thousand years hence. Every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require. It is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated.
The modern spin, on the iniquity of debt and consequent burdening of our children (and the related nonsensical analogy of a national economy with a household), is dealt with by many, such as Dean Baker and Paul Krugman.
People think of debt’s role in the economy as if it were the same as what debt means for an individual: there’s a lot of money you have to pay to someone else. But that’s all wrong; the debt we create is basically money we owe to ourselves, and the burden it imposes does not involve a real transfer of resources.

That’s not to say that high debt can’t cause problems — it certainly can. But these are problems of distribution and incentives, not the burden of debt as is commonly understood. And as Dean says, talking about leaving a burden to our children is especially nonsensical; what we are leaving behind is promises that some of our children will pay money to other children, which is a very different kettle of fish.
So the next time someone tells you the pain of austerity must be borne for the sake of the kiddies, you know you're dealing with a hostage-taker.

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