Democracy and Intergenerational Justice

part of: MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory
September 9, 2020, 3:00am - 11:00am
Department of Politics , University of Manchester

Arthur Lewis Building
Oxford Road,
Manchester M13 9PL
United Kingdom

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University of Manchester
University of York
University of Manchester
University of Manchester


About the Workshop:

Democracies are commonly diagnosed with a harmful short-sightedness which makes it difficult to recognise and deal with long-term risks and challenges. This bias towards the present arises out of many institutional, cultural, and anthropological factors, among them the election cycle, the influence of special interest groups and the ineptitude of humans to deal with ‘creeping problems.’ In light of this, democracies seem ill-equipped to deal with challenges such as the climate crisis, artificial intelligence or microbial resistance. Thus, the ability of the living generation to take the interests of future people into account and to fulfil its obligations to future people is hampered.

Consequently, several countries have taken measures to facilitate long-term oriented decision-making, e.g. by establishing commissioners for future generations (Hungary, since 2008; Israel, 2001-06; Wales, since 2016) or a parliamentary committee for the future (Finland, since 1993), some of them having considerable capabilities for influence. Furthermore, scholars discuss a wide range of proposals for new future-oriented institutions (F-Institutions). These include the representation of future generations in parliament, ombudspersons for the future, regulatory impact assessments, advisory councils, deliberative mini-publics as well as the enfranchisement of the young, the disenfranchisement of the elderly and many more.

Despite the growing range of proposals for F-Institutions, questions regarding their justification and legitimacy, design, and implementation deserve further discussion. Intergenerational equity, democratic legitimacy, and generational sovereignty all exert their normative pull on the democratic system and consequently on the design of F-Institutions. For example, the ability of each generation to govern itself collectively seems incompatible with the idea of institutionally binding the currently living to ensure that they meet their obligations of intergenerational justice. Further, honouring obligations of intergenerational justice may suggest installing F-Institutions with extensive influence on the political decision-making process, while a concern for democratic legitimacy might foreclose many proposals for F-Institutions.

Further questions to be addressed:

-          How can F-Institutions be justified? For example, should F-Institutions be justified based on the all-affected principle or on concerns of intergenerational justice and current generations’ noncompliance? Or are they not justifiable at all? Which concepts of democratic legitimacy can be applied to which kinds of F-Institutions, and with what outcomes?

-          Given the presentist bias in democracy, what kind of implementation strategies for F-Institutions should be chosen?

-          How can we evaluate the effectiveness of F-Institutions? Can we avoid unintended overshooting and underperformance by institutional design?

-          What can we learn from F-Institutions that have already been established and, if so, abolished?

-          Should considerations of risk and uncertainty have an influence on the design of F-Institutions? How legitimate is it to discount the future, and how can this be reflected in the institutional design?

-          Are there alternatives to F-Institutions to relieve tensions between intergenerational justice and democracy and to reduce democratic short-termism?

-          Should F-Institutions be established at the national level, the global level, both or neither?

-          How large should the policy remit be for F-Institutions? Should F-Institutions be concerned only with the most urgent global problems (e.g. pandemics, climate crisis) or also those issues which are arguably smaller and less wide in scope (e.g. flooding, debt, national pensions, domestic terrorism)?

-          How can we ensure F-Institutions are sufficiently flexible to deal with unanticipated future problems? To what extent should we leave the future open with respect to what future generations will value, in case we come to learn new things about morality and politics? How well can we anticipate what future generations will actually value?

Of course, alternative suggestions for sub-topics and/or questions to be addressed by interested participants will be both highly appreciated and likely accommodated.

In sum, this workshop aims to bring together moral, political, and legal theorists and practitioners interested in democracy, intergenerational justice, long-term decision-making and short-termism to discuss the various tensions associated with these concepts on both the theoretical and empirical levels.

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