If I may, I would propose a hypothetical situation.
First, you are 60 years-old and have a family – your son is 40 and married with a 20 year-old child, a daughter, of his own. His child, your grandchild, is married and pregnant with your great grandchild.
Now assume for the moment that you have just committed a crime and have been duly detained. Preserving your right to a fair and speedy trial, you go before a magistrate in the next hour or so and the evidence against you is so overwhelming that you confess. Your neighbors saw you, your family saw you and many members of the public at large saw you commit the act – as a matter of fact, they all testify that you have been doing it for years. The judge finds you guilty and sentences you to 20 years with no parole but to your surprise, the judge tells you that you don’t have to serve a day in jail; however, in a just society, someone must pay for the offense, so he gives you three choices. You can avoid jail if 1) your son immediately goes to jail for 5 years, or 2) your granddaughter immediately must go to jail for 10 years, or 3) your unborn great-grandchild must go to jail for 20 years when they reach 18, or 4) your great-great-grandchild must be aborted, essentially getting the death penalty.
You have one hour to choose.
What do you do?
I would surmise that faced with this situation, very few could send a member of their own family to jail for a crime they had nothing to do with – but in a way, Americans are living this scenario and are making that decision every day.
Many may not know it but one of the most consequential Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, believed that any constitution should be repealed and rewritten every 19 years because he believed that no current generation had the moral right to bind future generations. In his letter to James Madison of 6 Sept. 1789, he wrote:
“On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please…The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government. The course of reflection in which we are immersed here on the elementary principles of society has presented this question to my mind; and that no such obligation can be so transmitted I think very capable of proof. I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self-evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’: that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”
Note: Usufruct is the legal right of using and enjoying the fruits or profits of something belonging to another.
Jefferson warned against the dead binding the living but such an endpoint seems unavoidable in an on-going society. What we do today, binds future generations to debt, higher taxes and unfunded liabilities that they have no means of countering. A child born in 2016 is liable for $42,000 in debt and over $1.1 million dollars in unfunded liabilities the minute they draw their first breath.
It is not uncommon for those of us of a conservative bent to question by what right the non-productive lay claim to the productivity of others for no other reason than they want it – but there is a much bigger question that is being ignored. We should give great weight to the burden the current generation places on future generations and by what right we place that burden on them.
In fact, the analogy I proposed at the beginning of this post is extreme but at the same time it has validity. America and the rest of the world are mortgaging the productivity of future generations for our current existence. As I would assume that most would say that no person has the right to sentence a child, grandchild or great-grandchild to prison or death for a crime they didn’t commit, it seems that those same people have no problem shackling them in a political and economic prison through public debt.
Jefferson said of the accumulation of public debt:
“This example reads to us the salutary lesson, that private fortunes are destroyed by public as well as by private extravagance. And this is the tendency of all human governments. A departure from principle in one instance becomes a precedent for a second; that second for a third; and so on, till the bulk of the society is reduced to be mere automatons of misery, and to have no sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering.”
We would do well to heed Jefferson’s warning.