Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Jefferson on Generations

Thomas Jefferson is famous for having written memorable words for commonplace ideas.  One of these ideas is:  “the earth belongs to the living, the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”  This quotation comes from a letter he wrote to his friend James Madison on 6 September 1789.  The context for his remarks is the new U.S. Constitution.  Jefferson was registering his concern that a piece of paper composed by one generation might bind the next generation.

Put our quasi-sacred Constitution out of your mind for a moment and consider how you feel about this idea: that the laws of one generation should not bind the next generation, that each generation should make up its own rules for living.  I’ll wait while you consider your own position on this question.

Some historians believe that Jefferson had personal motivations for this idea: his father in law’s death left him with a legacy of land and slaves – and debt.  And he resented the debt being left for him to pay off.  Consider now how you would feel if your father left behind debts for you – his only son – to pay off.  Should a single son be responsible for his own father’s debts on his father’s death?  This time I will quit the essay and wait while you consider this question.  Please do not read the next part of this essay until you have thought this out.

Putting aside God’s words as eternal words to live by (and I am entitled to do this because God seems to argue both sides of this question), there are several points I would like to make about your beliefs (you have considered them, haven’t you?).

First, those who believe with Jefferson that one generation’s laws should not bind the next should also believe that one generation’s debts should not be transferable to the next generation.  Similarly, those who believe that one generation’s laws should bind the next should also believe that one generation’s debts should be transferable to the next generation, that an innocent son inherits his father’s debts on his demise.  If you do not agree, you just don’t care about logical consistency.  Maybe you don’t care about logical consistency, but there it is: your world-view is as solid as Swiss cheese, it is filled with holes.  This doesn’t make you a bad person, just not a logical one (who should not run for high elective office, who should perhaps not vote!).

Second, those who believe with Jefferson that one generation’s debts should not be transferable to the next generation must also believe that one generation’s assets should not be transferable to the next generation.  In other words, dear reader: no inherited debts, no inheritable wealth.  I will bet that not many of you like this logic!  All (maybe only most) of you would like not to be responsible for Dad’s debts, but you do want to inherit his wealth.  This is a form of Moral Hazard: heads I win, tails you lose.  On the other hand, those of you who believe that debts and assets are both inheritable are willing to straitjacket the future, so don’t be smug.

Third, if private debt and wealth should not be transferable, should public debt not be transferable?  Should the next generation have to worry about the National Debt we leave them?  What did they do to deserve this burden?  On the other hand, if they do not pay our debts, who will?  Who will be asked to pay, who will be asked to lose?  The debtors while they live? The children of the debtors? Or the creditors of all this debt?  Don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating that we erase that portion of the National Debt that was placed there by a prior generation (we await the genius who can say what portion of the Debt is still owed by whom), but I am saying that the question is worthy of your time.  And that you need to be consistent in order to be taken seriously.

So, don't just sit there, and don't just go looking for some tastier eye candy, THINK!