Blogging is a strange occupation - a solitary writer in search of the sort of communion with others that used to happen in the pub, on the corner, on the bus is now engaging with others electronically instead. So much for progress.

THIS blog is about ideas - big and small - connected with one of the things I care about with a passion, namely the future of liberal thought in this country. I am instinctively a radical liberal, with a grudging belief in the value of markets but an abhorrence of statism and indifference, and a strong belief in social justice. I find Labour bankrupt of ideas, and the Tories intellectually flacid. This is my response.

I am intending always to stick to the point: there will be no rabble-rousing talk, and no wasted jibes at other parties and political philosophies.

Comments will be moderated, but anyone can leave one.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Future generations

I have been reading Nigel Lawson's rather strange book on global warming, An Appeal to Reason: a cool look at global warming and his even more curious dialogue with Oliver Letwin in the July edition of Standpoint magazine. Both pieces by Lawson are impassioned and at times intemperate (appropriately), but aside from that does he say anything that - policy differences aside - a liberal ought to pause over? Certainly the book has huge weaknesses (much for example depends upon his analysis of surface climate data for the first 8 years of the current century as an 'eccentricity' that cannot be explained by global warming theorists, while ignoring the fact that the data he uses has since been re-based by the Hadley Centre to give a more accurate picture of what's actually happening to our climate).

But there is one key point that ought to strike a chord with most liberals and it is about that old chesnut of intertemporal choice. (By the way, Lawson's discussion of it is has technical errors in presenting the economics of discounting future costs, but let's put that aside since it doesn't materially affect the value of the point he is making).

The question that I think most liberals would pause over is the extent to which we would choose to benefit future generations at the expense of our own. Is it, as Lawson says, largely a matter of moral choice rather than economics? I think he has a point.

Liberals like me are often too fond of arguing that future generations need to be endowed with some benefit by our forgoing some pleasure now and that this is a matter determined by some external necessity. 'Gosh,' we say, 'we must protect our granchildren from the prospect of not having X, the loss of which must surely be greater than the pain we'll suffer from not having it today'. It's a pure utilitarian argument, and there is nothing wrong with it.

What Lawson says, quite rightly in my view, is that liberals deceive themselves if they think that the liberal calculus isn't a moral preference rather than some abstract economic one. If we do want to preserve something for our grandchildren at the expense of ourselves that is a moral decision; but if we want to preserve something for our grandchildren at the expense of our children that is also an (albeit different) moral decision.

The question he quire rightly puts is, who has the right to make that scale of moral decision?

Can governments elected for four years ever be in a position to do it? What alternatives are there that are democratic? And how do we entrench the moral decisions of one generation with regard to the life chances of future remote generations as generational moral choices and not just the arbitrary decisions of one government to be overturned by another?

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