3.5 years ago I wrote a post called "Institutions for Future Generations" indicating that I had started a project to figure out what institutions and policies could help better represent future generations' interests in government and soliciting help coming up with ideas.

I finished the research for this project in 2020, and had expected to spend more time wrapping it up and making it pretty for public consumption, but I've never come back to the project and don't expect to. It's possible that some of the research will be useful to people thinking about policy and institutional reform, so I wanted to at least share the (messy!) Google doc with my work in it for consumption on the EA Forum.


Here's the Google doc.*


I pulled out many of the most useful things I learned and published them in a few stand-alone papers, which are probably more helpful than the Google doc overall:

  • Longtermist Institutional Reform, with William MacAskill
    • A general paper on what gives governments short time horizons and some of the more promising things we can do about this
  • Securing Political Accountability to Future Generations with Retrospective Accountability (with help from Charlotte Siegmann)
    • A mechanism design paper proposing one way we might incentivise current generations to promote the interests of future generations, by making policymakers financially dependent on the decisions future generations make about how successful they were at promoting long-term interests
  • Empowering Future People by Empowering the Young?
    • A short paper, the most important part of which is that empowering the young doesn't seem to do all that much for future generations, though there's some positive evidence from the finding that age is a significant determinant of pro-environmentalist attitudes, to the point that a 20-year-old voter is 10 per cent more likely to vote favourably to the environment than an 80-year-old voter
  • Want politics to be better? Focus on future generations, with William MacAskill (and lots of help from Fin Moorhouse)
    • Popular-audience piece on the Japanese Future Design movement, extinction risk, integrating forecasting and technology expertise into government, and representing future generations in government


My takeaways from this research:

Overall, I've come to think that this research is less valuable than I thought it was when I started the project. There's very little strong literature on building future-oriented institutions and policy, I didn't find a lot of great success stories of policymakers doing this, and it actually just seems pretty hard to get right. I think there are a few great things people can do to generally make governments more future-oriented, like lowering the discount rate and infusing better technology expertise into governance, but most of these things are technocratic, moderate, and look less like "representing future generations" than I initially expected. I also increasingly find abstract institutional design work less relevant than policy work. I'm still optimistic that someone could find ideas better than the ones that I found, and I would still be excited if a huge number of economists and political scientists spent much more time thinking about these mechanism design issues, but I think marginal resources are better invested in existential risk policy, especially AI policy.

I'll try to answer any questions, but it's been a few years since I've thought about these things much and I'm unsure how much of the doc I still endorse today!


*I make no guarantee that the scoring system used in the doc is accurate, internally consistent, or informative. I meant to spend more time developing a useful scoring system, but because I didn't manage to do that it's best to think of the scoring system as notes for me rather than informative for general readers.


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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:40 PM

Thanks for the post! When I first started studying intergenerational justice, I was kind of surprised that political philosophers in the area pay little attention to the debate on discount rates (not even to argue about how to decide it democratically), and put a lot of pressure on discussios on representation and on the so-called "boundary problem". (which is sort of curious: most of the scholars I've talked to buy the consequences of the nonidentity problem, and so conclude that future people don't really have rights... and yet, they think it's ok to discuss how they should be represented, etc.) I became a bit disillusioned. On the other hand, I became more hopeful with some initiatives that are likely too recent to have figured on your reviews, and I was wondering if you have any opinion on them: a) the Vanuatu initiative: a UN resolution asking ICJ for a opinion on legal responsibilities regarding climate change - explicitly mentioning future generations; b) the GCR management act in US.

I am sorry but I don’t really have time to check the document right now but I would love to get your perspective on the potential value of just giving all people standing to sue on the behalf of future people or even natural habitats against policies that harm their interests? This seems pretty easy to do but could have pretty big consequences if the legal system would need to start consider and weigh those perspectives as well. Any thoughts or reactions?