Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Can Public Officials Correctly Be Said to Have Obligations to Future Generations?

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Can Public Officials Correctly Be Said to Have Obligations to Future Generations?

Article excerpt

Consider the oath taken by citizens of the Athenian city-state:

We will ever strive for the ideals and sacred things of

the city, both alone and with many; we will unceasingly

seek to quicken the sense of public duty; we will

revere and obey the city's laws; we will transmit this

city not only not less, but greater, better and more

beautiful than it was transmitted to us.

With this oath, citizens accepted the responsibility to conduct effectively the temporal affairs of the city. They also pledged to pass the city on to the next generation in better condition than they received it. The Athenian public service ethic called for more than equality between the generations.(1) My purpose in this article is to consider issues of intergenerational equality and to ask the question: can public officials correctly be said to have obligations to future generations?

It seems that issues of intergenerational fairness are all around us. The current debate over the national deficit rings with charges that the debt was incurred by a profligate generation to be paid for by their children and their childrens children (Aaron, Bosworth, and Burtless, 1989). This debate is aside from the issue of which groups--lower, middle, or upper classes--benefitted most from the run-away federal borrowing of the 1980s. Proposed solutions turn entirely on the question of who will pay if much of the deficit is not passed on to coming generations (Kotikoff, 1991). The health care finance issue is also mostly about fairness and equity between the insured and uninsured in present generations; the old and those not yet old; the medical and pharmaceutical professions; and the insurance companies. It is claimed with considerable evidence, that unless health care costs are contained the deficit cannot be reduced. Much of the essential thrust of the environmental movement is to preserve the earth's resources for coming generations. The Social Security system is by definition intergenerational. These are but a few of the more visible policy issues that have mostly to do with questions of fairness and equity both between groups in present generations and between present and future generations.(2)

The economic growth of the last half of the 20th century, particularly in the United States, seemed to indicate that successive generations do better. Based on this experience it appeared that successive generations have always done better. In fact, in the longer sweep of history intergenerational well-being has never been linear. Changes in human conditions such as nutrition, education, employment, and housing have been cyclical (Neustadt and May, 1986; Smith, 1988; Schlesinger, 1986; Kennedy, 1993; Strauss and Howe, 1991).

It is now clear that the generation born from the mid-1960s through the 1970s will likely do less well than their parents at least in terms of comparative income. Indeed, in a recent review of social science research on generational differences it was concluded that the next generation will do worse psychologically, socially and economically than its parents (Whitehead, 1993). Projections are that the differences between generations will widen as the baby-boom generation retires and the children born in the late 1970s and the 1980s start to enter the work force.

There is no doubt that elected officials are now especially sensitive to intergenerational issues. This sensitivity is particularly evident in political rhetoric and symbols. Do public officials, including public administrators, in fact, have definable responsibilities to future generations?(3) If so, what are these responsibilities? Are there theories or ethics in public administration that inform our thinking about future generations? Can there be social equity between generations?

I deal with these questions, first, with a consideration of the philosophical and ideological perspectives on intergenerational equity; then with a presentation of the compound theory of social equity as a tool for working with intergenerational issues; and finally, with an application of the compound theory of social equity to intergenerational questions of fairness and equity. …

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