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Intergenerational fairness goes beyond economic competition

  • 05 March 2015

Intergenerational goings on are stirring public consciousness recently. On Thursday the Intergenerational Report is published.

Some commentators have been describing government deficits as ‘generational theft’. And in a thoughtful speech, federal Coalition member Kelly O’Dwyer argued that budgetary fairness extends beyond the redistribution of benefits. It also includes fairness to our descendants (intergenerational equity) and consideration of the hidden winners and losers in any budget.

Intergenerational equity needs to be set within a broader context than that of economic competition between individuals. Generally, it means accepting that the way in which we live in the world today should not impoverish future generations. Or positively, that the way we order our human relationships today, including the relationships that comprise the economy, should benefit future generations as well as our own.

This view assumes that human beings are not simply instruments of economic growth, but that the economy serves the good of all human beings. In all economic transactions we need to keep in mind both our own good and the good of society as a whole. The test of commitment to the common good will be our care for the needs of the most disadvantaged. So fairness is not simply about relationships between competing individuals and groups but about the ordering of society so that it serves the good of all.

The economy should not be seen as a series of unrelated transactions between individuals but as an organic framework of relationships between interdependent persons. It needs to be ordered so that it ensures fairness in the future as well as the present.

In accomplishing this task, a Government’s main challenge is to promote a mature ethical vision in its citizens, and especially among the powerful and wealthy, that looks to the common good, especially to those affected by its activities, as well as to individual and company benefit. Wealth does have a community dividend. That ethical framework should also guide such government regulation of the economy as is necessary to meet the challenges of the future.

Governments are also responsible for ensuring the building of infrastructure in communications, transport, education and health necessary for the flourishing and development of future generations. This inevitably means taking on debt which will be passed on to the next generation. The benefits conferred on the beneficiaries, of course, will far outweigh the burden of repayment. The claim that borrowing is intergenerational theft may be justified when levelled against debt frivolously