Lawrence Lessig: There’s a pesky flaw at the core of our democracy: How do we count those who can’t vote? Not those who don’t vote (they can take care of themselves by voting). But those people who can’t vote, because they’re either too young or not yet born. How, in other words, do we reckon the future?
For most of history, this question didn’t matter much. Before the atomic bomb, we couldn’t really break the future. And before deficit financing, we couldn’t easily bankrupt it either.
Technology will soon give us more power to erase the future, or so technologists such as Bill Joy worry. And one body in particular – government – has become efficient at using technology to burden the future.
Think about our behavior over the past four years. We have cut taxes but increased spending, benefiting us but burdening our kids. We have relaxed the control of greenhouse emissions, creating cheaper energy for us but astronomically higher costs for our kids, if they are to avoid catastrophic climatic change. We have waged an effectively unilateral war against Iraq, giving some a feeling of resolve but engendering three generations of angry souls focused upon a single act of revenge: killing Americans. And we have suffocated stem cell research through absurdly restrictive policies, giving the sanctimonious ground upon which to rally, while guaranteeing that kids with curable diseases will suffer unnecessary deaths. In each case, we have burdened children – that one group that can’t complain – so as to supposedly benefit those of us who do.
This is the shameful application of a simple political truth: The future doesn’t vote. And when tomorrow’s generations get their turn at the polls, they won’t be able to punish those who failed to consider their interests. The cost of shifting burdens to the future is thus quite small to us, even if it is quite large to them. And we, or the politicians representing us, happily follow this calculus.
This isn’t the first time a government has imposed costs on others. But when it comes to other issues, there is often resistance. When a government burdens its own people, they respond either by defending their interests or, if disenfranchised, by demanding the vote. When a government imposes costs internationally, that drives diplomatic negotiations or, failing that, war.