How are the interests of future generations to be protected? How are we to keep our grandchildren from inheriting a polluted environment and exhausted natural resources? The prevailing answer among futurists might be summarized as follows:
"It's not the case that if people are free to make their own decisions things will work out okay. People are short-sighted. They discount the future very heavily. No matter how concerned in the abstract with the world their grandchildren will inherit, people are willing to take a profit now without regard to the costs if those costs can be postponed long enough.
"Nor is it just a matter of a few selfish individuals. If it benefited all of us now living, we might be willing to use up some irreplaceable resource, thus denying it to our grandchildren. Or we might dump some toxic waste that they will have to clean up.
"Someone has to speak up for the future! We cannot depend upon shortsighted people, each looking out for his own interests, to take care of the future. We must limit freedom to the extent necessary to assure that we don't benefit ourselves at the expense of the future."
This is the solution proposed by most futurists. Since the future can't vote now, our descendants must be given a vote through the political process. In particular, some of our welfare must be sacrificed to increase the welfare of future generations. And this sacrifice must be imposed by the far-sighted on the short-sighted if future generations are to come into a decent world.
Futurists thus tend to arrive at the conclusion that only governmental intervention can protect the interests of the longterm future. Writes futurist Daniel Bell, in his book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism: "The decisive social change taking place in our time—because of the interdependence of men and the aggregative character of economic actions, the rise of externalities and social costs, and the need to control the effects of technical change—is the subordination of the economic function to the political order." In the same book he also says, "Ours is a world that will require more authority and more regulation."
Likewise Abraham Sirkin, writing in the Futurist, says: "Because of potential shortages, higher costs, environmental dangers, growing congestion, and increased safeguards against crime and terrorism, we will have to accept some unaccustomed restraints on our freedom of movement, action and ownership."
We thus end up with the unappealing idea of reducing the liberty of the present inhabitants of the earth in order to enhance the material well-being of future inhabitants. But is this really required? Consider two concrete examples involving the interests of people who will live in the future: helium conservation, and the disposal of toxic wastes.
The Helium Dilemma
Helium is an inert gas that has a variety of commercial uses. Perhaps its best-known use is for inflating lighter-than-air craft such as dirigibles and blimps. It is actually more widely used, however, for inert-gas welding, as a constituent of anaesthetic and breathing mixtures for medical purposes, as an inert carrier gas in chemical processes, and as a coolant or heat-transfer agent in energy production.
Helium occurs as a trace constituent of the atmosphere and, more important, mixed with natural gas in some gas fields. Formed as a harmless decay product of uranium and thorium, it tends to collect in the same types of rock formations as natural gas does. Thus, helium is currently produced commercially by extracting it from natural gas before the gas is burned. If the gas were simply burned, the helium would be dissipated into the atmosphere.
Now we confront a dilemma. The amount of helium that could be extracted from the natural gas being consumed today is far greater than the current market can consume. It is expected that after the year 2000, though, helium consumption will grow to several times today's level as a result of increasing use in energy production. Unfortunately, it is expected that the helium-bearing natural gas fields will be exhausted about the year 2000. So, just at the time when demand is expected to increase, the existing supplies could disappear.
People in the future could obtain helium directly from the atmosphere, at an estimated cost of about 50 times what it costs to extract it from natural gas. Helium could also be obtained in the production of liquid oxygen, at a cost of about 5 times what it costs to extract it from natural gas. (In effect, removing oxygen, nitrogen, and other gases from a tank of air increases the concentration of helium in the remainder, thus making it cheaper to extract than if it were extracted from ordinary air.) But the projected demand for oxygen and other atmospheric gases would provide only enough helium to meet one-fifth of the expected demand.
So it appears to be simply common sense to conserve helium now, when it is readily available at low cost, so it will be available in the future when it will be both costly to produce and in great demand. And for many years the federal government has in fact maintained a helium conservation program. The helium is extracted from natural gas and pumped back underground into exhausted natural gas fields, to be extracted again in the future when needed. The taxpayers are paying the costs of extraction and storage.
There has been considerable discussion of this helium conservation program, all in terms of how much people today should be willing to sacrifice for the benefit of people in the future. Clearly, it is a sacrifice: tax monies are being expended now so that in the future helium will be available at much lower cost than it would have been otherwise. Clearly, also, it is an exercise in coercion: it represents a lessening of people's freedom to use the wealth they have produced as they choose; instead, their wealth is used to benefit their descendants.
Let's digress for a moment from the helium conservation issue to the more general issue of exhaustible resources. How does the owner of an exhaustible resource behave if he is looking out for his own interests? In the view of some futurists, that owner will want to get his profit as rapidly as possible. He will therefore exhaust that resource as quickly as he can, with no thought for the future. So at some later date, even though people will need that resource, it will have been used up.
But consider: If a particular resource will be more valuable in the future than it is today, it is in the interest of the owner to conserve that resource so that he can sell it at the higher price that will prevail in the future. The only real question facing the owner of the resource is how rapidly the price will increase. Will he garner more income by extracting the resource now and investing the returns in some other activity or by preserving the resource for later sale? If the rate of increase of the price of that resource is greater than the productivity of money invested in some other activity (say the interest rate paid on a money market fund), then it makes sense for the owner to conserve the resource.
Does that conservation involve any sacrifice on the part of the owner? No. He does not need to raise the question of whether he prefers the good of other people in the future to his present good and, if so, how much. If the price of an exhaustible resource is increasing rapidly enough, it is to the owner's best interest to conserve that resource for future sale.
Suppose, though, that the price of the resource is not increasing rapidly enough in the present, but it will become much more valuable 20 to 30 years hence (as is the expected case for helium). The owner might well be dead by then, so how would it benefit him at all to conserve the resource? If the waiting time is quite long, doesn't the owner really have no choice but to exhaust the resource now? Doesn't the finite lifetime of the owner force him to take a short-sighted view?
This argument overlooks the fact that an exhaustible resource has a sale value. For instance, the owner of a mine can remove the ore and sell it, or he can sell the mine itself to someone else who will remove the ore. The sale price of any resource is based on expected future income from that resource. The sale price of a mine, for instance, is based on the amount of ore believed to be in it and the expected future sale price of that ore. Partial exploitation of an exhaustible resource lowers the selling price, since it reduces the potential future income. So the owner of an exhaustible resource always faces a trade-off between current income from the resource and the sale value of that resource, and it is in his self-interest to consume (exploit) the resource at a rate that maximizes his total wealth: current income from exploiting part of the resource plus the sale value of the remainder.
Consider a specific example. Savings and loan institutions have no hesitation in making 30-year mortgages even though many of their depositors will have died or will have withdrawn their money before then. That is, they lend money for a 30-year period even though the owners of that money may not be around in 30 years. They do this because the resulting mortgages have a market value. They can be sold to other banks at a price based on their expected future income (this amounts to the unpaid balance discounted at the interest rate available for current investments). Because of this possibility of resale, it makes sense for the depositors to invest their money in resources that have a 30-year pay-off period.
The same holds true for railroad and utility bonds. These are often issued with maturity dates 30 or 40 years in the future. Why do people buy them when they probably cannot expect to live to cash them in? Simply because there is a ready market for them. A given bond may change hands several times between issuance and maturity. It gives each successive owner the opportunity to increase his wealth by receiving interest, as well as holding a claim on the return of principal.
Thus, it is quite possible to take the needs of the future into account by permitting the establishment of markets in which assets with future values can be bought and sold. It may be objected that the people of the future cannot bid in such a market. While true, that is irrelevant. If some resource is likely to be valuable in the future, it pays someone who is alive now to invest in that resource and hold it for later sale. The fact that the waiting period may be longer than any single individual can wait is also irrelevant. As long as a resource is expected to have a higher value at some future date, people will buy it as an investment, and the price at which it can be sold will rise as the future date approaches.
Of course, there can be no certainty that a given resource will increase in value. For instance, people now expect that there will be a big demand for helium after the year 2000. But in the 1920s it was also expected there would be a big future demand for helium for lighter-than-air craft. That demand did not materialize. Anyone who stored helium in anticipation of a large market for helium for inflating dirigibles would have lost money.
Someone who holds a resource in anticipation that it will increase in value is known as a speculator. While the term is often used pejoratively, in actuality the speculator performs an important function. The purpose of any market in assets with a future pay-off is to transfer risk from people who do not want to bear it to people who are willing to bear it for a price. The speculator, then, is someone who believes an asset will increase in value but who is willing to assume the risk that it will not. He will demand a premium for assuming that risk, and the greater the risk, the greater the premium he will demand. The function of the speculator can be more easily performed if there is a market in which people can readily buy and sell assets with future pay-offs.
Such a market would actively foster conservation of resources. While speculators are interested in profit rather than in conservation per se, speculation in resources with an expected large future demand automatically results in conservation. The people of the present cannot exploit a resource unless they first outbid the people of the future, as represented by the speculator. Thus the interests of the people who will live in the future are actively protected even though they cannot bid in the market.
With this understanding, let us now return to the problem of helium conservation. We can see that if helium is going to be in great demand in the future as compared with the present, there is money to be made in storing it for future sale. So conserving helium does not require sacrifices in the present for the good of people living in the future. Instead, it requires postponement of current consumption by those who invest in storing helium. But this is no different from any other investment. In each case, the postponement of current consumption is rewarded if the investment pays off. At most, it represents only a temporary sacrifice, a sacrifice that is compensated for if the investor has made a sound investment.
In fact, it appears that storing helium is a profitable enterprise. Several analyses indicate that if the expected future demand actually develops, the government will get back not only its investment in helium but interest on the money tied up in the enterprise. There is no guarantee, however, that the expected demand will actually develop.
The result, then, is that the government helium storage program has turned us all into involuntary speculators. Our tax money is being used to speculate in helium ownership. We are all being asked to bear the risk that helium will actually be in great demand in the future.
But there is more to it than that. If the expected demand actually develops, the government will sell helium at a profit, and presumably the taxes of people in the future will be slightly lower than they otherwise would have been. That is, people in the future will have helium available at a lower price than without the storage program, and they will also pay lower taxes. Meanwhile, we in the present are paying higher taxes than we would without the storage program. This amounts to a direct transfer of wealth to the people of the future—who, if the economy continues to grow, will be wealthier than we are. Hence we are not only being forced to speculate; we stand no chance of gaining even if the speculation pays off. We are being asked to make a sacrifice for the benefit of people who are likely to be wealthier than we are.
This whole arrangement is hardly fair from any standpoint. The people now living lose, no matter what happens to the demand for helium. The people of the future cannot lose, no matter what happens.
All in all, it would be better if the risks of helium storage were borne voluntarily by speculators who believe the demand for helium is going to grow. They would risk their own money, not anyone else's. By being able to sell out whenever they choose, they could obtain some portion of the gain during their lifetimes. And if the demand failed to develop, the speculators, not taxpayers, would stand the whole loss.
So we have to ask, why hasn't a private market in helium storage developed, since it has a high likelihood of being profitable? Why do people buy 40-year railroad bonds but not shares in ownership of stored helium?
The problem goes back to 1917, when it appeared that helium would be needed for military dirigibles. To assure adequate supplies, the government established a monopoly over extraction and sale of helium. Even though the large-scale military uses never developed, this government monopoly continued until 1961.
During the late 1950s, a shortage of helium actually developed, since the Bureau of Mines did not have the manufacturing capacity to meet total demand. Rather than simply expand capacity, a new program was established. The Bureau of Mines would buy helium for both sale and storage. Private companies were permitted to extract helium from natural gas and to sell it to the bureau or to nongovernment users. The bureau retained a monopoly on sales to government users and to government contractors. The price set for helium by the Bureau of Mines was intended to recover all costs of the operation, including interest.
The scheme went awry right from the start. The private companies were able to undercut the Bureau of Mines' selling price for helium, taking away the nongovernment market. Thus the long-term purchase contracts the bureau had entered into resulted in more helium going into storage than originally planned. More helium was being conserved than had originally been intended. From the standpoint of the original purpose of the program, this would not matter. The government would still get its money back, but at a later date than originally anticipated. But if private companies could profitably engage in helium sale, why did they not also go into the business of helium storage?
Perhaps the most immediate reason there is no private investment in helium storage is everyone's assumption that this is the government's job. But over the longer term, the existing government-owned stockpile of helium presents a serious threat. It represents an enormous market overhang that the government could dump at any time for purely political reasons. For instance, if the price went up, the government might sell helium to "stabilize prices" or to "avoid market dislocations that would accompany a precipitous rise in prices." Since the officials making the decisions do not have their own money invested in storing helium, they might well sell it in order to depress prices, for the benefit of small but politically influential groups of helium users. It would not be the first time government officials betrayed the taxpayer for the benefit of influential constituents.
This constant threat of government dumping of helium, any time it appears that the owners of privately stored helium might make a profit, is sufficient to discourage private storage. By its own actions, then, the government has driven private speculators out of the helium storage market, has converted all American taxpayers into speculators in helium, and has guaranteed that the present generation loses while a future generation that is likely to be richer stands to win a great deal.
Valuing the Future
This concrete example of helium conservation illustrates several general points about the conservation of exhaustible resources. These apply to all situations of exhaustible resources that are of value both in the present and in the future.
First, the argument that the future cannot vote today, nor can it bid in today's markets, is true but irrelevant. If a resource is going to be needed in the future, then its owners will have an interest in conserving some of it for future use. The more valuable the resource will be in the future, the more of it they will conserve as opposed to exploiting now. This remains true even if the time when the resource is greatly valued will be after the death of the present owners—so long as a market exists in which the resources can be bought and sold.
Second, the frame of reference in which futurists typically discuss the problem of exhaustible resources—of sacrificing welfare in the present to increase welfare in the future—misapprehends the true issue. If people are willing to speculate on a higher value for the resource by holding it as an investment (and thereby conserving it), they are not making any sacrifice. They expect to be rewarded by the investment paying off. And if it doesn't—if the resource is not more valuable in the future—the speculators' loss still does not represent a sacrifice of their welfare for the benefit of someone else; it represents the penalty for making a bad investment.
Third, the conservation of exhaustible resources that will be needed in the future can be greatly aided by better forecasts of future demand. George Stigler, the University of Chicago economist, has listed as one of the classic instances of market failure the failure to anticipate the future properly. An individual may not perceive his own best interests if he fails to anticipate the future. In particular, the owner of an exhaustible resource may decide to exploit it now because it will have no value later. If he is wrong about that, he will suffer a loss or will gain less than he could have by conserving the resource. That is, a mistaken belief about the future value of a resource harms the present owner as well as would-be future users. Better forecasts, which made clear the likely level of future demand for a resource, would benefit both the present owner and would-be future users.
Fourth, futurists can greatly assist the functioning of markets in resources with future value by providing good forecasts of future demand for those resources. In this role, they can do much more good than they can by urging governments to require sacrifices in the present generation for the welfare of future generations. Such coercion may benefit no one at all, or it might benefit a wealthier future at the expense of the present. It may even harm the future by causing malinvestment in the present.
With regard to exhaustible resources, then, we can conclude that freedom in the present does more good for both the present and the future than does coercion, no matter how well-intentioned that coercion may be.
The Waste Dilemma
Toxic wastes are the direct opposite of exhaustible resources: they are actually worth less than nothing, because it costs resources to dispose of them. Hence they can be a problem for both the present and the future.
Our concern here will be the long-term storage of toxic wastes. This differs from the problem of pollution that is emitted as soon as it is produced. Pollution exists as an environmental externality only because people have been denied property rights in the environment. Recognizing these rights would allow us to treat pollution as trespass. The victim could take the polluter to court or sell the right to pollute, at a price acceptable to both him and the would-be polluter. With toxic wastes, however, we are concerned with the problem of "pollutants" that are intended to be kept out of the environment by storing them.
Consider some toxic chemical that has no economic value and must be kept segregated from the environment "forever." (Note that radioactive wastes eventually decay, even if it takes millions of years for some of them to do so. Some toxic chemicals, especially heavy metals, never decay. Their "half life" is infinite. Hence they may pose a more severe problem than do radioactive wastes.) Suppose someone stores a large quantity of such a chemical in containers that might reasonably be expected to corrode or leak in, say, 50 years, and the stored wastes will then become a significant environmental hazard. But what can the people who will be faced with that hazard do? The company that stored the chemicals might have gone out of business. The company officers who made the storage decision have probably all died. Who can be sued? Who can be held responsible for solving the problem?
This example illustrates the nature of the dilemma. It appears possible for people in the present to leave behind a mess for the future to clean up. It appears that people in the present can escape responsibility completely if they can postpone the day of reckoning long enough. Moreover, it appears that there is no possible "marketplace" solution, as there is with exhaustible resources. There is no one who will speculate by buying toxic wastes, since clearly they are not expected to increase in value. They represent a dead loss, since it will cost resources to store them safely.
Under such circumstances, it appears necessary to have someone in the present "vote" on behalf of the future. It appears necessary to exercise coercion to prevent people from irresponsibly dumping their wastes in such a manner as to create problems for future generations.
But appearances are often deceiving. They are in this case. Not only can the interests of the future be protected by a free society with a free economy, but this protection can be accomplished without coercing anyone.
Let's start with a simple case. Assume an individual has some toxic wastes that he wishes to dispose of. Assume he has a plot of ground on which to do so. Assume further he intends to use a disposal method that will ensure that the waste will never leak across the property boundaries. However, the plot of ground on which he disposes of the waste will be contaminated and useless for any purposes ever after.
To many futurists, this is precisely the kind of situation that should be avoided. Contaminating the land in that fashion means it can never be used for anything else. People in the future would be denied the use of that land unless they went to the expense, often inordinate, of decontaminating it.
Consider, however, why an individual would contaminate a piece of land in that fashion: only if that method of waste disposal were less costly than any alternative method. The land has alternative uses, and it therefore has a price that represents the stream of income from the most valuable of those alternative uses. So disposal of waste by contaminating a plot of ground is not "free." The person disposing of the waste is out the selling price of the land. But since he is willing to accept that cost, it must be presumed that any alternative disposal method costs even more.
But here, the futurist might respond, is precisely the problem. By his shortsighted focus on costs, the "disposer" has denied the use of a piece of land to all future generations. But let's look at this "short-sighted focus on costs."
There are methods for disposing of toxic wastes other than land disposal. For instance, they can be neutralized chemically or subjected to high-temperature combustion in special burners. These other methods of waste disposal also consume resources, however. In particular, other methods may require human labor, energy, and chemicals obtained from exhaustible resources.
In a free economy, the cost of any resource is an accurate reflection of the value society places on that resource—and that includes an estimate of the future value of the resource, just as the selling price of land includes an estimate of future income from the land. Thus the fact that other waste-disposal alternatives cost more than does contaminating a piece of land means that society places a greater present-and-future value on the resources consumed by those alternatives than it places on the piece of land.
If the owner of the toxic wastes and the land were prevented from contaminating the land, the people alive in the future would have it for use. But they would not have for use any of the exhaustible resources consumed by an alternative disposal method. Moreover, they would not have the results of using renewable resources in their most-valued use instead of in disposal of the waste. Put another way, if the waste is disposed of by some alternative means, the people alive in the future would inherit an additional usable piece of land but would also inherit a smaller capital stock, a poorer economy, and a more depleted supply of exhaustible resources.
Which of the two outcomes would the people of the future prefer: the additional land and a poorer economy, or a richer economy but not the particular piece of land? In actuality, it is impossible to know; any claim one way or the other must be recognized as being possibly in error. The important point is that basing the decision on relative costs is not being short-sighted. Instead, it represents a decision based on society's current best estimate of the present and future value of the sets of resources required for each of the alternative disposal methods.
The futurist may respond that this view leads to absurd results. Suppose each generation contaminates a certain amount of land, arguing that the people in successive generations would prefer a richer economy to the land. Eventually every bit of land on the earth's surface would be contaminated. An attitude that leads to such an absurd outcome cannot be correct.
But this argument is wrong, because it attempts to hold values constant, while in fact people are constantly responding to the changing scarcity of resources. The first plots of ground selected for waste storage will be those that have the lowest value. That is, the plots selected will be those whose alternative uses are valued least by society. But once the least-valued plots are used, additional waste disposal will have to be done on land with more and more valuable alternative uses. Eventually the value of the land for alternative uses, as reflected by its price, will exceed the cost of alternative methods of disposal. (This is already happening to landfill sites for trash disposal near large cities.) At that point, people will switch from disposing of waste by contaminating land to disposing of waste by some alternative means. Again, the cost of various means of toxic waste disposal will reflect present and future values of the alternative uses for the resources consumed by waste disposal.
The point is simply that in a free economy, the means selected for toxic waste disposal will utilize those resources (land, labor, energy, capital equipment, materials) whose alternative uses, both present and future, have the least value. Just as with the case of exhaustible resources, futurists can play an important role in helping society make decisions about toxic waste disposal. This role does not consist in attempting to "speak for the future" by insisting on one or another specific approach to waste disposal. Instead, it involves providing better estimates of what the future value of various resources will be. These estimates will affect current prices for the resources, as speculators attempt to profit from projected shortages. Accurate estimates of future demand for particular resources will help the market satisfy the demands of the future, despite the truism that the future cannot bid in the market.
Dumping on the Present
But we're not finished with the problems of waste disposal. Suppose someone contaminates a plot of ground by disposing of toxic waste on it and then tries to sell that plot. The selling price should be based on expected future income from the plot, less the cost of decontaminating it. But this will be true only if the buyer knows the land has been used for disposal of toxic waste. What if the "disposer" passes off the land to an unsuspecting buyer? This is a clear-cut case of fraud and deception.
One of the classic roles of government in a free society is protecting people against fraud and deception. The precise nature of the laws required may be subject to debate, but at a minimum they should require disclosure to the buyer that land has been used for toxic waste disposal. Perhaps even public registration of the fact of disposal should be required. Failure to disclose or register should be punishable as an attempt at fraud or deception. Moreover, the buyer should be able to obtain redress. Freedom to contaminate one's own land by using it for toxic waste disposal does not include "freedom" to defraud or deceive others about the uses to which the land has been put.
There is yet more to the problem. We have so far assumed that the disposal method restricts the wastes to a particular plot of ground, which is owned by the disposer. What about disposal methods that threaten leakage across boundary lines?
Immediate leakage is no different from any other type of pollution; it should be treated as trespass. Private property rights in the environment provide adequate protection against this problem. It is delayed leakage that concerns the futurist.
Suppose someone stores steel drums of toxic waste on his own property. It is reasonable to predict that eventually the drums will corrode, and the toxic waste will leak out. Its spread then may be unlimited. Diffusion through the soil, leaching by rainwater, etc., may carry the waste to a neighbor's property. And so, asks the futurist, what then? The wastes have been stored for perhaps 50 years. The owner of the land is dead. He made no attempt to sell the land, and it has probably passed into the possession of the state for failure to pay back taxes. Now who is responsible for the cleanup? The taxpayers? Hasn't the market allowed the disposer to escape the consequences of his actions? Doesn't that mean that some kind of coercion is justified to prevent people from acting in such an irresponsible fashion?
We must again note that the value of any resource is based on expected future income. In particular, this includes the value of the land adjacent to that on which the waste was stored. Wastes whose leakage can reasonably be predicted reduce the expected future value of the adjacent land. Even a slight risk of leakage will reduce to some degree the future value of the land. This reduction is reflected in a reduction in current value. Thus, storage of wastes in a manner that has some possibility of leakage represents an immediate and direct reduction in the value of adjacent land. The owners of that land have a legitimate grievance in the present. It is not necessary to await the future, and the possible catastrophe, to object to "impermanent" storage methods. The fact of a future problem is reflected in the present, in a diminution of the value of potentially affected property.
Once it is recognized that a possible future threat produces a legitimate grievance in the present, the inability of the future to vote today, or to bid in today's markets, becomes irrelevant. The people living in the present already have adequate reason for protecting the interests of the future. The interests of the future are reflected in present-day interests. In particular, disposal of toxic waste in a manner that poses a future threat is in fact a violation of rights of people alive now.
One need not get tangled up in issues of how much welfare the people of today ought to be willing to sacrifice to assure greater welfare for people in the future. A threat that may exist in the future results in a reduction in the welfare of specific, identifiable people living now. The proper role of the state should be to provide protection and redress for those people whose present welfare is being reduced. Coercion of the present, on behalf of the future, is unnecessary.
The Future of Freedom
Thus the frequent call by futurists for coercion of the present to assure the welfare of the future arises from three misunderstandings about the nature of freedom.
The first is that freedom means "doing just as you please." Freedom is in fact limited by the rights of others and is conditioned by the expected consequences of actions. The rights of others are defendable under the law. The coercive power of the state is properly deployed to protect those rights and presents a definite limit on doing as one pleases. Expected consequences of actions also place limits on doing as one pleases. People who take actions that result in unpleasant consequences for themselves either learn better or lose the power to act. In a free society, these limits and constraints mean that the interests of others, both present and future, are taken into account in people's actions.
The second misunderstanding is that since the people of the future cannot vote in present elections, and cannot bid in present markets, they are ignored in present-day decisions that will affect them. As we have seen for the cases of both exhaustible resources and toxic wastes, the interests of people of the future are reflected in the interests of specific, identifiable people of today. When those now living protect their present interests, they are also protecting the interests of the future.
The third misunderstanding is that if the future is taken care of by people in the present acting in their own interests, then there is no need for "futuring" by futurists. Yet a free society, in which people seek their best interests within the limits set by the rights of others, very definitely needs good "futuring." How else can people know what their best interests are if they do not know what future conditions will be like? How can they know which resources to use now if they do not know which will be in greatest demand in the future and which will therefore "bring more" if held off the market? How can they know that certain actions should be prevented if they do not know those actions will injure them, now or later? Obviously they cannot.
Futurists should cease calling for sacrifice in the present on behalf of the future, for more coercion in the present, and for government intervention in the interests of the future. Rather than seeking a world in which coercion is used to achieve the particular future they desire, futurists should seek a world of freedom, because in such a world it will be in people's self-interest to take their advice.
Joseph Martino, a member of the Technology Forecasting Group at the University of Dayton Research Institute, has degrees in physics, electrical engineering, and mathematics. He is an associate editor of Technological Forecasting and Social Change.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Inheriting the Earth".
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