Many times, over the past several years, conservative candidates for political office, especially those tied to the Tea Party, have criticized as unethical governmental budget deficits, considering them unfair burdens on succeeding generations. From the Tea Party USA website: “This has created huge debts and deficits that threaten the very stability of the United States as far as its ability to compete on a world level and provide a sound economy for the next generation to thrive and prosper.” [italics added]
We’ve seen this idea expressed most often, most recently among the candidates in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. “We don’t have to mortgage our children’s future to pay for our present.” [Newt Gingrich, February 3, 2010, Deficit Hawks vs. Deficit Peacocks, HumanEvents.com]
Fair enough. Saving for future generations is, indeed, an authentically conservative principle. But surely, thinking about present-day consumption relative to the burden we may place on future generations shouldn’t apply solely to government finance. In order to be philosophically consistent, real conservative principles should extend to our practices around energy and the environment as well. We routinely use, develop and put to our wealth and benefit these resources, then leave the cost of cleanup to future generations. Where, for example, is Tea Party outrage over America’s addiction to fossil fuels?
The answer is, nowhere, because the extraction and use of the earth’s non-renewable resources is properly a matter for the free market to adjudicate, say Tea Partiers; future generations be damned. In his book, Thought and Wisdom, a brilliant economist, father of operations research and systems thinking, and a great teacher and mentor of mine, C. West Churchman, wrote a decidedly conservative critique of this sort of thinking. We can’t, Churchman wrote, ethically say to our grandchildren, “Look, we got a lot of wealth and benefit from consuming those resources, sorry but you’ll have to deal with the consequences.”
True conservative principles demand attention to all the ways in which decisions about today’s behavior should be made with thought for future generations. All the ways.
Let’s hold those who claim to be conservative to that standard.