Monthly Archives: February 2010

Intergenerational equity

Flickr Photo by Baloozer

David Willets, British MP and advisor on community issues to the British heir apparent David Cameron, has a nice piece in the February Prospect magazine called “The Spirit of Cooperation.”

He outlines some of the arguments in his forthcoming The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took their Children’s Future—and Why They Should Give it Back, a book rich with anecdotes and interesting examples of co-operation and social evolution.

Willets’ article highlights how humans are born to cooperate (“the selfish gene”), how these instincts are usually stronger for closer relatives, how cooperation does or doesn’t occur in Prisoner’s Dilemma Games, and even how we can evolve to reciprocal altruism as seen in World War I trenches with the Christmas Truce or snipers on both side  intentionally shooting to miss.

Willetts strives to figure out how to make such reciprocity flourish: the answer to Willetts is small-scale interactions among non-state institutions, and punishing defectors and bad actors.  The role for the state, per Willetts, is “drystone walling — where individual elements are held together by an overall structure” rather than the state  trying expressly to change social behavior.  He also knocks the Left for failing to realize the importance of early childhood experiences in families in developing reciprocity.

Willetts’ major fear is that Britain will become divided by age. “In the worry about the shift of resources from the increasingly workless working class to the increasingly unleisured leisure class” (as the Economist puts it), too many resources have been devoted to what in the US we refer to as Boomers and not enough to their children.

He advocates that we should ‘nudge’ behavior, and urge this Boomer generation to treat future generations generously, the way that past generations treated them.  He uses this notion of intergenerational equity to drive policy goals of cutting the deficit, spurring more inter-generational contact, raising the age for retirement and pensions, getting Boomers to bear their share of climate change.  He even alludes, by quoting a bumper sticker, to the fact that this might ultimately help Boomers themselves: “Be nice to your kids; they choose your nursing home.”

He advocates that David Cameron’s government, through its focus on social responsibility, enforce this inter-generational contract, even if some Conservatives don’t like the concept of a social contract.

For far too many in society, their inter-generational concerns are restricted to their children and grandchildren; Willetts, falling back on Rawlsian “veil of ignorance”, argues that we owe it to future generations (regardless of whether they are related to us or not) to start from a relatively equal position.  It’s an intriguing argument, although if we owe this intergenerational equity to strangers in our own country, why don’t we owe this equity to strangers in Zimbabwe or Sudan.  Why should a starting point be more equalized for British citizens, but still have them start out hundreds of times more advantaged than children in the most destitute places on earth.

Read the Prospect’s interesting “The Spirit of Cooperation” or read the Economist’s review of Willet’s’ new book.