Past, present and future: inter-generational justice and the Greek trauma

Posted: July 20, 2015 in politics and ideas
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How, then, to make sense of Greece’s absurdist trauma?

Our public space has been saturated with competing images of Greece over the past month. The Greek people are condemned in certain quarters as lazy, workshy and feckless, while being celebrated in others as tireless participants in a vivid public democracy; denigrated as tax-evading spongers, or lionised as resourceful, communitarian survivors. Meanwhile the Greek government, dominated since January by the left-wing SYRIZA party, is lampooned one minute as a rabble of Marxist provocateurs prepared to ruin their country’s economy to prove an ideological point, and then defended moments later as the only party capable of a serious-minded analysis of the economic mess bequeathed to them by their spendthrift predecessors. And as for the Greek state; well, it’s either a corrupt oligarchy leeching off the tax-payers of more fiscally-responsible Eurozone members, or the site of a cataclysmic takeover by antidemocratic elements in Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin.

On my Twitter timeline, opinion is polarised between “they shouldn’t have run up all of those debts if they couldn’t afford to pay them back”, and “the Greek economy will never recover without debt cancellation”; between “German taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidise a failed state” and “Greece forgave Germany’s debts in 1953 so Merkel should return the favour”; between #thisisacoup and #theyhaditcomingtothem.

While I acknowledge that my analysis will be of little interest today to a desperate Greek pensioner or an embattled Bundestag press officer, I humbly offer a perspective from political theory that (a) might help us find melody amidst the present cacophony, and (b) could offer a more ethically satisfactory foundation for future debates over debt. This is the idea of inter-generational justice, or our present obligations to future generations.

I will argue that the negotiations over Greece’s so-called ‘bailout’ and the wider public debates over the crisis have focused too much on the acts of past generations (mainly previous Greek governments) and present generations (Eurozone Finance Ministers and the SYRIZA government) and not enough on the impact of this issue on future generations (of Greeks and of Europeans in general). I’ll conclude with some suggestions about how we might protect the rights of future generations, and at the same time improve the quality of our own public lives.

(rejected titles for this post: Duty and the Greeks; Grights and Gresponsibilities; etc.)

Inter-generational justice

Discussion about inter-generational justice usually takes place in one of the following two contexts:

(a) in debates about how to manage relationships between existing generations (usually between the young and the elderly); and

(b) in speculative discussions about the impact of decisions made by present generations on future (as yet unborn) generations.

The former relates to overlapping generations (that is, both generations are here on earth today), while the latter relates to non-overlapping generations (since the future generations have not yet been born). Although one assumes that the next generation and at least the one after that will overlap with current generations once they are born, they don’t yet exist so there are questions about what duties those currently alive owe to them. And then our duties to, for example, the generations who will be born in the 22nd century and beyond are even more obscure again.

So what duties might we owe future generations? We might agree that we have a duty to prevent cataclysmic climate change, for example, since future generations are otherwise likely to inherit a perilous environmental crisis. And we might agree that we have a duty to prevent nuclear war, since future generations may perhaps not have the opportunity to be born at all if we don’t.

But objections can be raised to both examples. In the former case, the obvious point is – what are future generations going to do about it if we don’t protect the climate on their behalf? Sue us? And in the latter example, if we manage to destroy the planet in a nuclear war and future generations are never born in the first place, they certainly won’t be doing anything about our failure to deliver on their behalves.

This problem can be phrased less flippantly. When we attribute duties to people, it is usually because someone has a corresponding right. I have the right to a fair trial, so the judiciary has a duty to provide it. I have the right to free movement across borders within the EU, so member states have a duty not to prevent this. If the judiciary fails to provide me with a fair trial, or if border guards restrict my freedom of movement without good reason, I have access to legal redress. My capacity to actualise my rights is arguably central to my status as a rights-holder. However, if we have a duty to provide future generations with a clean environment, or an unexploded planet, who holds the corresponding right to these things? And if these duties are not carried out, what remedial action can be taken if the holders of the corresponding rights are not yet alive and perhaps never will be?

One possible answer to these questions lies in the distinction between the interest-theory of rights and the will-theory of rights. I suggested above that my status as a rights-holder is premised on my capacity to do things with my rights and seek redress when they are infringed. This is basically a will-theory approach. Will theorists argue that rights-holders should be in a position to exercise a choice – to carry out an act of will – when they realise a right. By contrast, interest-theorists see rights as protecting people’s interests, so they are something you just have because it’s good for you. For example, children have the right to an education because it is in their interest to be educated, not because they would actually choose to go to school if given the choice.

(The differences between will- and interest-theory approaches to rights are often a matter of perspective rather than substance. In the latter example, the will-theorist would argue that it is actually the state that chooses to exercise its right to educate children. Rather than children having a right to an education because it is in their interest, they have a duty to go to school – or their parents have a duty to compel them to turn up – because the state chooses to realise its right to require this. But I digress).

The interest-theory approach is often deployed to justify allocating rights to children – so that even when they’re too young to make choices, their interests can be protected by rights. But who seeks redress on their behalf? Often it will be their parents (and will-theorists retort that parents are therefore the actual rights-bearers, since they can choose whether or not to actualise those rights in the courts). But the rights of children can also be enforced by the state, and this is where I think we find a solution to the problem of how to allocate rights to unborn future generations.

To explain, I will shift focus to contemporary debates about sovereign debt.

(By the way, if you’re interested in the philosophical debates about inter-generational justice then this Gosseries piece explores some of the points above in greater depth, albeit leading to different conclusions).

Past, present and future

Let’s think about the Greek trauma from three perspectives – the past, the present and the future.

Greece has a lot of past. Going back to the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, it was the birthplace of the two great philosophical traditions, as bequeathed to us by Plato and (if we accept ‘Greece’ loosely as a geographical expression) Aristotle, as well as being the site of seminal experiments in civic republican participatory democracy. These world-historical achievements have exercised such a profound influence on human culture in the 2400 years since Plato’s Republic, it would be absurd to discuss the present crisis without some appreciation of our shared Hellenic inheritance. Indeed, the great filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard argues amusingly that Greece should be paid 10 Euros as royalties every time someone uses the word ‘therefore’, which is a concept derived from Aristotelian syllogism. This will save their economy in no time.

More recently we find Greece on the receiving end of Cold War shenanigans at the end of World War II, before the country settled down to build a developmental democracy. Then the Colonels seized power in the late-1960s just before the Greek economy collapsed alongside so many others amid the early 1970s OPEC disruption. The return to democracy was followed in 1981 by entry to the EEC, and things rumbled along without drama until Greece was smuggled into the single currency, despite its economy being some distance from meeting the entry requirements. Finally, Greece was granted a massive 110 billion Euro loan from the Eurozone countries and IMF to respond to a sovereign debt crisis in 2009. In return, Greece was required to implement the austerity measures we’ve read so much about in recent months – the angry response to which brought SYRIZA to power. SYRIZA’s predecessors were also supposed to implement structural reforms to the economy, which they mostly failed to deliver. Those reforms have now been accepted by Tsipras as part of the deal to remain within the Eurozone.

So what does that all add up to? Well, I’m 33 years old and Greece was already part of the European project when I was born. You’d have to be well into your forties to remember a pre-EEC Greece. So they’re an integral part of our community of nations.

We also note that Greece was subject to geopolitical interference from the western powers as a bulwark against the Soviets, before being “helped” into the single currency for reasons of political expediency. We might then suggest that the Greeks have been made use of as and when the European project has required it.

At the same time, the strength of the Euro presumably didn’t cause the Greek sovereign debt crisis on its own. Years of oligarchic pork barrel politics and staggeringly low tax takes clearly played their part, and it’s worth noting that SYRIZA themselves came to power promising to eradicate these regressive and inefficient structural problems.

So that’s the past, or at least the fable about the past I’m inviting you to accept. So what of the present?

Let’s consider the recent decision-making of three people: the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, and the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.

Schäuble’s position has been clear throughout – the Greek economy is not strong enough to remain within the Eurozone so the logical outcome of the present crisis should be Greece’s exit (or Grexit if you prefer). Schäuble is far from alone in his view.

Meanwhile Tsipras wrongfooted everyone a few weeks ago when he called his referendum on the bailout conditions on the table at that point.

And Varoufakis spent six months challenging the standard operating procedures and taken-for-granted assumptions of the Eurogroup.

What can we say about these three approaches to diplomacy? I would argue that all three positions lack historical sensitivity. Taking Schäuble first, he has throughout the crisis sought to follow his fiscal analysis to its logical conclusion – namely Grexit – regardless of other considerations. As noted above, the European project is beholden to Greece for its progressive, dialogical ethos, and has counted Greece as an EEC/ EU member state for as long as middle-aged people can remember. The consequences for the wider European project of sacrificing a nation with such symbolic significance are enormous and – to my mind at least – disastrous.

Then we must ask ourselves the wisdom of Tsipras’s referendum and Varoufakis’s negotiating tactics. Central to the success of the European Union and its predecessors has been its foundation on what we might call liberal inter-governmentalism. The liberal tradition in international theory is built on the principles of reasonableness and predictability. If a nation’s representatives keep their promises and don’t make any sudden provocative moves, representatives of other nations begin to trust them. The more you keep your promises, the more people trust you. It’s all about repetition: the predictability of your conduct builds goodwill and with it the motivation of others to deal with you. This was the basis on which Germany was readmitted to the international community after World War II.

As this excellent piece points out, the approach to diplomacy adopted by Varoufakis throughout his spell as Greek Finance Minister was the very opposite of this liberal approach. As he himself has explained, Varoufakis’s professional identity as an anti-austerity economist motivated him to shake things up in Eurozone meetings – but he was met with stony silence. We might agree with Varoufakis’s diagnosis of his country’s economic ills and his prognosis of what will happen in the event of further austerity, but he lost the trust of his fellow Finance Ministers through his conduct and thus no one wanted to hear what he had to say.

A similar observation can be made about Tsipras’s snap referendum. Paul Mason has argued with characteristic insight and sympathy that the referendum gave succour to Tsipras and SYRIZA at a moment of crisis, but his antics must have diminished him in the eyes of his fellow Prime Ministers, Presidents and Chancellors. If you look to other heads of government for reliability and good faith, you don’t expect your offer of a further bailout deal to be torched so publicly. So we might feel warmth towards Tsipras, as with Varoufakis, but the referendum was a diplomatic disaster.

I argued that Schäuble has lacked an appreciation of the past in his present treatment of Greece. By contrast I would argue that the provocative diplomatic tactics of Varoufakis and Tsipras neglected the importance of the future by turning other countries against them in the present.

So we’ve looked at the past and the present – let’s think about the future in more detail.

Here we can defend the approaches of Tsipras and Varoufakis much more enthusiastically. SYRIZA came to power in January as critics of the ways in which their predecessors in government had tolerated unjust oligarchic practices and built up an unsustainable debt burden. Their purpose was to rebuild the Greek economy on more sustainable foundations, so they had a story to tell about the past – and a vision for the future.

Varoufakis allowed himself to be eased out of his Finance Minister role because he could not in good conscience sign Greece up to a deal he saw as recessionary. Tsipras has made clear his own dissatisfaction with the deal on offer, even as he has been forced to accept it in order to mitigate a humanitarian crisis. Both men, and their SYRIZA colleagues among others, recognise that the victims of Greece’s economic woes are not just the young, more than half of whom are unemployed, or the elderly forced to support extended families on reduced pensions, or the ordinary workers who always paid their taxes. It is also the next generation, and the one after that, who weren’t even born when the Greek state ran up its massive debts. What did they do to deserve this punishment?

Crime and punishment

One of the great debates in the history of ideas centres on how we justify punishment. Are we concerned with inflicting pain on the guilty, or discouraging others from committing crimes, or something else? On what basis does someone deserve to be punished?

You’d be surprised how difficult this question proved to be – at least until the British legal philosopher H L A Hart wrote a famous (and magnificently titled) essay called “Prolegomenon to the Principles of Punishment”. For Hart, the purpose of punishment (or its ‘general justifying aim’) was utilitarian; that is, punishment is pursued in the first place as a means of increasing overall happiness by reducing crime. Now, utilitarian justifications for punishment have traditionally run into trouble because they seem to permit dreadful acts in the name of the happiness of the majority. For example, if you want to increase overall happiness, couldn’t you punish scapegoats to convince the public that criminals have been caught? And wouldn’t excessive punishments work as a deterrent?  These concerns troubled political thinkers for centuries. However Hart resolved the problem by distinguishing the general justification for punishment in the first place from the imposition of individual instances of punishment. Individual punishments were to be pursued on retributive grounds; that is, by inflicting proportionate amounts of pain on the people who actually committed the crimes. It seems obvious now, but this philosophical breakthrough took ages.

I don’t think many people would dispute that the conditions attached to Greece’s loans have a punitive element. Conditions are attached to loans from the IMF/ EC/ ECB on utilitarian grounds (as the lenders see it), since they are aimed at dissuading other nations from pursuing policies of reckless fiscal expansion. This is in order to reduce the risk of re-offending – since the states in question lose a significant degree of control over fiscal policy – and to train other states to learn the implied lesson.

But is the punishment retributive? I doubt that. Retribution is premised on the guilty being punished, and the punishment being proportionate. Who is guilty of causing the Greek financial crisis? Not SYRIZA, who didn’t exist at the time. Not public sector workers, who were on pay as you earn contracts. Not the young, who were too young. The only continuity is with the Greek state, but that’s not much consolation to the actual human beings caught in the crossfire.

And what would a proportionate punishment look like for excessive sovereign debt and an economy in need of reform? Well, they’ve had five years of austerity already, which has shrunk the economy by 25%. Is that not enough? It looks like a pretty harsh lesson to me.

Inter- and intra-generational justice

I’ve been shocked by the volume of knee-jerk anti-German sentiment expressed across what passes for the left in Britain throughout the Greek crisis. You’ll have seen the photo of the Greek signatory to the London Debt Agreement ‘forgiving German debt’, and probably heard people who should know better complaining that Germany is refusing to cancel Greek debt 60 years on. Meanwhile, the treatment of Greece is condemned as somehow undemocratic, on the basis that SYRIZA won a referendum telling the other European democracies what to do. Don’t the other heads of government have their own democratic mandates and electoral concerns? Merkel in particular is singled out as somehow epitomising authoritarianism, when her government is seeking to hold Greece to its democratically-agreed treaty responsibilities. It might seem cruel but it’s hardly undemocratic.

And that’s just the polite stuff.

I began this piece with a summary of inter-generational justice – justice between generations separated in time. The recent Greek/ German experience reminds us how forcefully the concept is challenged by the demands of intra-generational justice – justice between people of the same generation in different places. German taxpayers are fed up bailing out feckless Mediterranean spongers, while angry keyboard warriors fulminate against Berlin for trying to take over Europe again. It’s difficult to build a shared appreciation of our duties to future generations when we’re so divided over our present needs.

But I think something can be done to help.

In the long run we’re all dead

The European project was always likely  to be imperilled one day by its democratic deficit. The undemocratic character of European institutions is hardly news to anyone who has taken an interest in the topic over half a century or more. Arguably though, the lack of electoral accountability within the EU has had its uses. The EU and its predecessor organisations have achieved remarkable things – free movement of people, labour and capital; the European Court of Justice; the Common Agricultural Policy; no more wars between France and Germany – that would very likely have been impossible if the architects of those policies were subject to the pressures of short-term electoral cycles. By removing certain issues from the vagaries of electoral fashion, European populations have benefited from genuinely long-term thinking.

Which contemporary issues would benefit from policy-makers taking a similarly long view?

Climate change, for one, will affect future generations far more than it affects those currently alive. If you ask voters what they think about climate change they’re generally worried about it – but not worried enough to vote for parties who would take the action needed to respond seriously to the crisis.

And the disputes over Greece’s sovereign debt remind us of the tendency of electorates to prioritise their present interests over the interests of future generations.

How, then, can we protect the rights of future generations when as we saw earlier (a) they aren’t around to enforce their rights just now, (b) we won’t be around to be punished by them if we infringe those rights, and (c) they might never be born if we wreck the planet sufficiently in the meantime?

Maybe there are two complementary approaches to policy that could help resolve these challenges.

Firstly, the rights of future generations can be protected here and now – by sovereign states. Governments can commit long-term to (for example) zero-carbon economies by taking the issues out of the electoral battlefield – after all, that’s what constitutional law is for. If your country’s Bill of Rights allocates rights to future generations, then people who infringe those rights can be pursued through the courts today. And perhaps supra-national organisations like Europe’s embattled institutions have a role to play in designing and enforcing these long-term commitments on an inter-governmental basis.

Secondly, I want to argue that the historical approach to policy outlined above – that is, thinking about policy in terms of the past, the present and the future – has an educative influence on voters.

To illustrate the issue, let me invite you to think about the present travails of the British Labour Party. I have argued elsewhere that the deeper purpose of George Osborne’s fiscal policy – which on the face of it aims to reduce the percentage of GDP spent on public activities from 43% to 36%, as Colin Talbot argues – is to narrow the terrain of political debate in Britain. The Budget Responsibility Lock was clearly designed as a trap for the other parties, since anyone refusing to straitjacket themselves could be accused of being reckless with the public finances. That doesn’t leave much room for Keynsian thinking.

Labour’s responses over the past five years or so to accusations of fiscal irresponsibility have been pored over endlessly, but I wonder if a ‘past, present, future’ approach would help them emerge from the morass.

In terms of the past, they seemingly can’t make up their minds whether they should deny wrecking the global economy or just accept the point and move on. In terms of the present, Miliband had some perceptive points to make about the losers from our current economic settlement, but failed to inspire the ‘middling sort’. And in terms of a vision for the future; well, they haven’t got to that yet..

And what have the Tories offered? A fable about the past (Gordon Brown somehow ruined Lehmann Brothers), a terrifying account of the present (without austerity the economy will collapse) and no vision of the future whatsoever beyond more of the same. The electorate was given next to nothing to work with in 2015. Surely we deserve better than that? After all, the governments that everyone remembers – Atlee’s in 1945, Thatcher’s in 1979, Blair’s in 1997 – presented voters with a historical vision of where we were as a nation, how we’d got there, and where we needed to go next. Some of those visions were nicer than others, but at least they tried to make sense.

A historical approach to public policy such as I have advocated helps us to visualise future generations and our duties to them. And a society that thinks about its duties to future generations will neither saddle them with unsustainable debt burdens, nor permit international financial institutions to punish them for the sins of their predecessors.

And we will exist in the future too. So by protecting future generations of Greeks, Germans and Britons from environmental, economic and nuclear disaster, we create a world in which we ourselves can feel at home.


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