How future generations are represented in policy-making is one of the biggest questions of our time. We might expect that protecting future generations would be a central concern, but the standard approach to policy-making is to prioritise the interests of current generations.
Policies benefiting people now are accorded a much higher value than those which would benefit future generations. For example, policies that fail to account for the social cost of carbon in the pricing of fossil fuels and products derived from them. These continue to promote gas, oil and coal use to the detriment of future generations who will bear consequences such as a changing climate and rising sea levels.
This bias against future generations is considered to be in line with public preferences, however. As the UK government puts it, people “prefer to receive goods and services now and to defer costs to future generations”.
Indeed, economic research suggests that people prefer policies that deliver immediate rather than deferred benefits. In these studies, people are asked to choose between programmes bringing benefits now or in the future – in 25, 50 or 100 years’ time.
But these time horizons make it difficult to interpret the answers. It is hard to disentangle preferences expressed about the timing of benefits across someone’s own lifetime – where they may prefer benefits now rather than later – from benefits across generations, where they may be willing to forgo benefits to their generation in order to give priority to future generations. On the other hand, when a US study framed the question in terms of generations rather than time, most people opted for sharing benefits equally across generations.