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Government is using technology to burden their future -
and it's all our fault.
By 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.
But future generations can't picket. They can't demand a vote. And the only war on us that they will wage is one of hatred when they recognize what we have done. If the game of politics is to decide which ox to gore, then our politicians, both Republican and Democrat, have finally found the perfectly gorable ox.
It may always have been like this. I don't believe in "golden age" histories; the past was not always better than the present. But somehow it seems that we have lost an ethic. When your grandfather spoke of building a better world for you than he knew himself, you believed him. And when you look into the eyes of any 1-year-old child, you may understand what he meant.
Which makes it even harder to understand how we've become who we are. The Me Generation - which elected the first two presidents to have actively avoided military service (Clinton and Bush) and which will decide this election, too - is in charge, but it has taken its name much too seriously. Gone is the sense of duty that made so compelling Kennedy's demand "ask what you can do for your country." We don't even ask what we, as a nation, can do for our kids. The rhetoric of self-interest so deeply pervades politics that an ideal as fundamental as building a better future has been lost.
As I've framed this issue, my point may seem critical of the Republicans (the only next-generation-aware policy for them, arguably, is abortion). The president's policies burden the next generation because it's convenient to do so. But I don't mean to praise the Democrats. They don't defend the next generation against these policies because it would be inconvenient.
In his primary bid for his party's presidential nomination, John Edwards urged audiences, "Think about how much we have lost in just four years." It was a powerful sentiment, properly stated. But against the rhetoric of both parties today, a better thought might be this: Think about how much we have taken, and continue to take. And how has it become so easy?