One Worry about Representatives for Future Generations

Future generations are affected by present-day decisions but the choices they would make if they could participate in these decisions obviously cannot enter the present-day democratic process. However, their interests can enter the present democratic process and they can do so in at least two ways:

  1. There can be special representatives for future generations in parliament. For example, 10% of the seats in parliament could be reserved for such representatives of future generations with the right to vote.
  2. The normal MPs can incorporate the interests of future generations in their normal decision-making. That’s what we currently do (though we could improve the current model by supporting the incorporation of the interests of future  generations by an ombudsman laying out the interest of future generations for MPs  and exhorting them to take account of them).

There are further options – such as constitutional provisions that put limits on what can be done to future generations – but I want to focus on one specific problem that the first option (representatives for future generations) has in contrast to the second option (expecting normal MPs to incorporate the interests of future generations in their choices).

If a country were to introduce special representatives for future generations in parliament by reserving 10% of the seats for them, then there are three effects:

  1. The interests of future generations enter the present democratic process better because 10% of MPs are supposed to incorporate and represent exclusively those future interests.
  2. The interests of future generations enter the present democratic process better because 10% of the MPs constantly remind the other 90% of the concerns of future generations.
  3. The interests of future generations enter the present democratic process worse because the 90% “normal” MPs might give less weight to the interests of future generations than they would do if there were no 10% special representatives. In other words: The fact that there are special representatives for future generations “crowds out” the motivation in normal MPs to take account of future generations. They can tell themselves that the concerns of future generations are already taken care of (by the 10% special representatives) and thus they can stop worrying about the future themselves.

I am worried that the third effect might outweigh the first two (and countervailing) effects. Even though it seems that reserving a certain number of seats in parliament for future generations would serve future generations well, the opposite might possibly happen. If special representatives mean that everyone else stops considering the future their own responsibility, then it’s better not to have special representatives.


4 responses to “One Worry about Representatives for Future Generations

  1. In principle, this question seems susceptible to empirical testing. Hungary, for example, has had a parliamentary ombudsman for future generations since 2007. By examining voting patterns before and after the ombudsman’s appointment, one could try to determine what difference, if any, the latter’s appointment had made. Of course, in some cases it could be controversial which side in a parliamentary vote favoured future generations’ interests, and voting could also be affected by various other factors, such as broader shifts in national politics (see here: In practice it might be quite hard to determine whether and how representatives mattered. But it would make an interesting piece of research!

  2. Yes — you’re absolutely right that it actally just boils down to an empirical matter.
    Also, after writing it occurred to me that I tried to capture something similar as what is known in social psychology as “diffusion of responsibility”: If more agents stand collectively under a responsibility, it’s easier for each agent to assume that others will take up the responsibility (here: if normal MPs know that there are special MPs who take up responsibility for future generations, it is then easier for normal MPs to stop taking up responsibility themselves).
    …I am not sure exactly that this would happen with an *Ombudsman*, because he doesn’t seem to have any legislative power. And thus no MP can “hide” behind him and claim that it’s *his* task to care for future generations. Rather the Ombudsman can primarily act *by* influencing normal MPs.

  3. Matthew, the cases aren’t comparable. An ombudsman is completely different to a set of MPs.
    I think Dominic is absolutely right that option (1) is hopeless. (Btw, a stronger version of option (1) has been called for by Andy Dobson in an influential article.).
    Option (2), as Dominic points out, is supposed to be the status quo: and it is failing us, utterly.
    So here is my proposed solution. I’d love to know what y’all think:

    Click to access Guardians_inside_final.pdf

  4. Rupert, this sounds really interesting (especially the Sortition part).

    I haven’t studied it in detail. But here are two thoughts.

    First, if guardians of the future had suffiicent power to actually *veto* legislation, then this would actually really make the responsibility diffusion problem much less relevant (responsibility diffusion might still be present as much as with other proposals to have special MPs for future generations: Normal MPs might scale down their care for the future in response to the introduction of guardians; *but*: this wouldn’t *matter* as much any more because the guardians you propose have much more power than simply making up, say, 10% of the parliamentary vote).

    I personally think that Oaths can be something quite powerful and motivating — and they are extremely low cost. (The question of oaths has also come up in policies aiming at integrating immigrants into a new society: Why not let immigrants take an oath that they would adhere to the basic norms of their new home? At least for some of the immigrants that can be a powerfully motivating factor; and it’s cheaper than other measures; and it operates with intrinsic motivation rather than carrot-and-stick measures).
    So, given that your overall proposal isn’t likely to be put into practice in the near term, I was wondering whether it would be an option to single out the “Oath” part and develop ways in which MPs would be required — or at least: invited — to give an oath to care for future generations? This could even be done in a separate ceremony from the normal ceremony in which new MPs get introduced into their office.

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