Monday, August 03, 2009

In Usufruct to the Living

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...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. - Thomas Jefferson, 1789 [From here]

This is an interesting quote which means that one generation cannot obligate a later generation in any way. This is relevant in terms of great public debts where, by right, the time to pay it off ought to be within the same generation's lifetime which benefited from the loan. The Earth belongs to each generation fully in each's turn and a past generation cannot rightly rule over those presently living.

As Jefferson goes on (my bolding):

To keep our ideas clear when applying them to a multitude, let us suppose a whole generation of men to be born on the same day, to attain mature age on the same day, and to die on the same day, leaving a succeeding generation in the moment of attaining their mature age all together. Let the ripe age be supposed of 21. years, and their period of life 34. years more, that being the average term given by the bills of mortality to persons who have already attained 21. years of age. Each successive generation would, in this way, come on, and go off the stage at a fixed moment, as individuals do now. Then I say the earth belongs to each of these generations, during it's course, fully, and in their own right. The 2d. generation receives it clear of the debts and incumberances of the 1st. the 3d of the 2d. and so on. For if the 1st. could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not the living generation. Then no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of it's own existence.

Jefferson went even further and calculated with the given life expectancy of his time and actuarial numbers that at 21 years of age, half of the people of that generation would be dead in 18 or 19 years and therefore, "19 years is the term beyond which neither the representatives of a nation, nor even the whole nation itself assembled, can validly extend a debt." As a half-life, extending a repayment of a debt any longer than that would impinge on a following generation which never agreed to accept the debt in the first place.

In an egregious example: "Suppose Louis XV. and his contemporary generation had said to the money-lenders of Genoa, give us money that we may eat, drink, and be merry in our day; and on condition you will demand no interest till the end of 19. years you shall then for ever after receive an annual interest of 125/8 per cent. The money is lent on these conditions, is divided among the living, eaten, drank, and squandered. Would the present generation be obliged to apply the produce of the earth and of their labour to replace their dissipations? Not at all."

I suppose that the recieved opinion, that the public debts of one generation devolve on the next, has been suggested by our seeing habitually in private life that he who succeeds to lands is required to pay the debts of his ancestor or testator: without considering that this requisition is municipal only, not moral; flowing from the will of the society...but that between society and society, or generation and generation, there is no municipal obligation, no umpire but the law of nature. We seem not to have percieved that, by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independant nation to another.

Consider this idea as our nation's federal government's uncontrolled spending of recent years has left us with a huge $11 trillion deficit with annual interest payments that amount to nearly 10% of our whole federal budget. Is it our generation alone who will be paying this debt?

Are we doing right by our children?

5 comments:

Child אִישׁ Behavior said...

The argument on the other side is the fact that some of the fruits of that spending will be enjoyed by subsequent generations. Not all is spent on consumption, much is spent on investment that the next generation will get to enjoy as well. What about the planting of a tree, should that never be done because the time horizon of investment is too short for the current generation to enjoy?

I understand the point, however the argument would only be true if the people of this generation had some real say. As it is, the people today don't have a say in the huge spending, let alone future generations. It's stealing from this generation, forget about the next.

shoshi said...

It might also be relevant in the realm of life organ donation:
Is it morally/practically justifiable that a younger person (who might need it later in life) donates an organ to an older one?
Would it not be preferable to exclude young-to-old life organ donations???

alex said...

Of interest:
http://www.decheung.com/2005/12/100-year-home-loans-30-is-old-and-busted.html
http://www.decheung.com/2005/12/100-year-
home-loans-30-is-old-and-busted.html

On a second note, you wrote: "This is an interesting quote which means that one generation cannot obligate a later generation in any way. " I wonder if in the back of your mind, you had in mind the Torah obligations. You know the midrash...

Orthoprax said...

Child,

I don't believe anyone would say that one generation cannot gift a later generation.


Shoshi,

I don't see the relevance. Invariably it is going to the be the people closer to death who need organs and the healthy people who are the best donors. In any event, gifts of any sort aren't really relevant to Jefferson's point.


Alex,

There's nothing wrong with individuals taking out loans that will last longer than their lifetimes if their children can opt whether to accept the debt or not. As far as public debts go, the later generations have little choice.

"I wonder if in the back of your mind, you had in mind the Torah obligations."

Indeed, I did. But I din't want to take this post in that way. I was also thinking about Lincoln's justification for the Civil War where he claimed that the Constitution implied a unanimous agreement for the Union to exist in perpetuity. Are later generations bound to an agreement for perpetuity?

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