Institutions for Future Generations

by tylermjohn 1mo11th Nov 20195 min read46 comments


Given the plausibility of longtermism, many effective altruists are interested in identifying tractable ways to shape the very long-term future for the better. One neglected and potentially tractable way to vastly improve the value of the long-term future is by identifying future-beneficial political and economic institutions and policies and acting to increase the probability of their implementation at various levels of political organization. Will MacAskill recently advocated age-weighted voting as one such strategy for better-aligning the interests of governments with the interests of future generations to improve the value of the future. We can in principle imagine many more, and potentially more promising design and policy proposals for aligning institutional incentives with the interests of future generations so that States will be more likely to use their massive resources and influence to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic risks and put the world on a more positive long-term trajectory.

To that end, I've recently undertaken the project—funded by the Forethought Foundation—of identifying and taxonomizing as many future-beneficial political and economic institutions and policies as possible and evaluating them along at least the following dimensions:

  • How effectively could this design promote value in the very long-run?
  • How politically feasible is this proposal?
  • How likely is it to be co-opted by other (esp. shorttermist) interests?
  • How well could it function as a symbol for a wider longtermist movement?

To date, I've identified 33 distinct institutions and policies, ranging from the very incremental/realist to the relatively utopian. I'm writing to solicit your help identifying more potentially future-beneficial institutions and policies. Anything that comes to mind off the top of your head would probably be useful, as this topic is very under-theorized and if I don't list the idea here it's relatively likely that it hasn't been considered at any length anywhere else. I'd also be interested in general feedback on anything relevant to the project, especially suggested amendments to the evaluation criteria and any useful empirical research that would be relevant to making these evaluations.

I list all 33 designs below along with a brief and general description. Once the project is finished, it'll be publicly available as a report and I will be happy to share it back here.

Note that very few of these ideas originate with me; some of them are in existing literature, and others come from people who I've spoken to, who I acknowledge at the bottom of this post. Note also that not all of these proposals are expected to be good proposals. In the final report, less promising proposals will receive a more shallow review and more promising proposals will receive a more thorough review. Many might turn out to be quite unpromising.

Thanks in advance for your feedback!


Voting by Guardianship

Future people are granted suffrage which is exercised through ballots cast by a formal body of existing people selected to represent future people and who vote with the express purpose and function of voting on behalf of future people.

Demeny Voting

Some (possibly all) voters are given an additional vote which they are told to cast on behalf of future generations.

Special Voting Rules

Specific voting rules for matters concerning future generations, especially in the legislature. One model is a sub-majority rule model: if a pre-determined numerical sub-majority of the legislature determines that a bill is in contempt of future generations, the bill can be stalled or vetoed (subject to overturn by the Courts).

Ombudsperson for Future Generations

Receives and investigates public complaints which can culminate in legal cases taken on behalf of future people. Lacks formal sanctioning power, and relies on capacities to suggest, persuade, and initiate (and take) legal cases. Connected to and formed by the legislature.

Parliamentary Committees

Body in one or multiple parliamentary/legislative house(s), typically constituted by parliamentarians, which performs analysing research regarding future people and is able to give opinions on and introduce legislation. May have independent powers including veto.

Ministries for Future Generations

Departments in the executive branch which are immediate subdivisions of the cabinet and led by the head of government and of state. (AKA “executive department,” “office,” “state secretariat.”)

Independent Executive Agencies for Future Generations

Independent agencies created by the executive branch which are not located in the cabinet but which may be given cabinet-level authority.

In-government Think Tank

Advisory research group located within government set up to perform analytical research on the welfare of future generations but which may perform other functions such as coordinating government, facilitating conversation, and running workshops.

Non-binding Impact Assessments

Requires proposed policies to contain an assessment of their welfare impacts on future generations. The impact assessment serves only to quantify impacts, raise their salience, and embarrass proposals with excessive negative impact while praising proposals with positive impact.

Financial Institutions for Intergenerational Borrowing

World institutions which can issue debt to investors and invest the resources gained in future-beneficial interventions.

Intergenerational Sin Taxes

Tax companies proportionally to expected damages to future generations. Invest the resources gained in future-beneficial interventions.

Common Heritage Fund for Future Generations

International fund allocated for the benefit of future generations; in the tradition of previous heritage funds such as the Maltese Proposal regarding Common Heritage of Mankind, the UNESCO World Heritage Fund, and so forth.

World Tax for Future Generations

International tax to be invested in future-beneficial interventions. Marcel Szabó recommends a 1% import tax on world trade.

Contingency Trust Funds

When governmental officials fail to protect the political interests of future generations (whether through negligence or necessity), the trustee institutions would require the government to provide compensation for the damage done to future generations.

Pensions Proportionate to Economic Growth

Pay political leaders’ pensions in proportion to how the country’s economy is doing at their time of retirement (or similar) as an incentive mechanism.

Longer Election Cycles

Reduces extent of short-term incentives by extending time in government office.

Legislative Youth Quotas

Requires a specified proportion of legislators to be below a specified age.

Age Limits on Electorate

Inverse of youth quotas, setting an upper limit on the age of members of the legislature or in other branches of government.

Age-weighted Voting

Votes are a weighted function of age, most plausibly functioning to increase the formal political power of younger voters relative to older voters.

Enfranchisement of the Young

Lowering the voting age to bring in more young voters with a greater interest in the future going well.

Guardianship Voting for the Very Young

Lowering the voting age to 0, providing votes to those who cannot cast a ballot through trustee relationships with parents or other assigned guardians.

Intergenerational Deliberation Day

A designated day on which issues of future generations are discussed in government, schools, or in other deliberative contexts.

Additional Legislative House

Legislative house which is tasked directly with the concerns of future generations. Could be an "upper" house with more limited powers (e.g., can't introduce legislation and can only vote on matters of long-term importance) or might have special powers such as the ability to authorize certain executive decisions and appointments. Might be randomly appointed group of citizens.

The Court of Generations

An amendment to the US Constitution to create the Court of Generations. The Court, which will reside in the judicial branch of government, will judge whether present society is ‘in contempt of intolerably threatening the security of the blessings of liberty to our Posterity’. The Court will consist of a grand jury, made up of one citizen from each state, and the members of the Supreme Court. It will meet at least once every five years. The Court will have no authority to force the implementation of any social programmes or agenda. Rather, the Court will provide a focus for national discussion and prioritization of long-term issues. (Bruce Tonn)

Human Rights Law

Internationally-recognized legal rights for future generations, of subsistence, existence, etc. Need bits of government to carry out mandate, and there may be a body that ensures it is being carried out.

Royal Commission

Launched by the crown (in monarchies) to look into matters of extreme importance and investigate and advise on a very specific issue.

Policy Auditor/Target-setting

Office established to ensure follow-through on internally-described goals and targets by reviewing progress on these goals and giving recommendations.

Institutions for Protecting Future Democracy

Institutions designed to ensure intragenerational democratic control for future generations.

Constitutional Entrenchment

Codify the State’s interest in the welfare of future generations in fundamental governing documents for the nation. Must meet three conditions (Gonzalez-Ricoy): 1) inclusion in a legal document with normative superiority over ordinary statutes, 2) can only be amended by means that are more stringent than those of ordinary law-making procedures, 3) enforceable by an independent body with the ability to review statutes that may not comply with them.

Alter Formal Duties and Responsibilities of Political Leadership

Pass reform to change the stated duties and responsibilities of political leadership such as the duties of parliamentary offices. Depending on the jurisdiction, this can come with teeth, e.g., the power of judicial review in English law.

Quotas based on Group Membership

Require that certain governmental bodies (esp. legislatures) have a minimum number of members of certain groups (commonly: members of the environmental lobby).

UN High Commissioner for Future Generations

A sub-organ of the UN General Assembly which is tasked with international coordination and recommendation on issues of future generations.

Four-branch Model of Government

Supplement the traditional three-branch model of government (executive, legislative, judicial) with a fourth branch focused on future generations.


William MacAskill, Aron Vallinder, Alex Guerrero, Adam Gibbons, Ben Grodeck, Zach Freitas-Groff, Sam Hilton, Kian Mintz-Woo, Dominic Roser, Max Stauffer, Christoph Winter, Brown University Effective Altruists, this great book!