“Bread for today, hunger for tomorrow.” This old saying highlights how today’s policy can dramatically impact the future, causing immense damage to generations not yet physically on the scene. When considering current policy proposals, we have to consider how we can fairly weigh the wellbeing of future people against that of present people, since trade-offs are inevitable. Weighting the future too heavily means that present people will have to pay exorbitant costs to ensure future wellbeing. Weighting it too lightly means that future people may be miserable while present people enjoy excess.
Accordingly, determining which policies are best is no simple task. Economists have tried to evaluate policies with a mind for protecting the present by discounting future persons’ wellbeing, or accounting for the fact that the benefits of policies may diminish in value over time. Yet economists also struggle to agree on which discount rates are appropriate.
Rather than attempting evaluations with uncertain discount parameters, a universal rights-based approach offers a decisive way to make fair policy with intergenerational impacts — particularly in regard to climate policy. This approach is based on the idea that all persons in the present and future have the right to an adequate standard of living and that all policy decisions must be predicated on preserving this right for people across time. A universal rights-based approach supports policy evaluation around the presence of specified rights, which strikes a balance between future and present concerns. The concrete and practical nature of a universal rights-based approach solidifies its status as the best candidate for policymaking.
Conceptualizing Universal Rights-Based Evaluations
Rights-based approaches to policymaking and evaluation begin by establishing a minimum quality of life that all people are guaranteed. While typical rights-based approaches do not explicitly include the rights of future persons, universal rights-based approaches do. The inclusion of these rights when evaluating policies can provide a mechanism to overcome short-sighted policymaking that harms future persons in order to help present ones.
For example, if one of our given rights is “access to clean water,” then any policy that reduces access to clean water for future generations, even if it does not do so for the current generation, would be undesirable under the universal rights-based approach. This outcome differs from the policy that would result from a utilitarian or traditional rights-based process, which might fail to achieve fair intergenerational standards. Overcoming this potential failure with regard to issues as large as climate change poses a critical challenge for lawmakers to which adopting this unique approach might offer a solution.
Implementing Universal Rights-Based Policies
While rights can generally be effective way to guarantee a certain level of wellbeing for people across time, which rights people should be guaranteed remains a difficult question. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights offers a potential answer to this question with its provision of an “adequate standard of living” to all people. This broad right includes several smaller entitlements, namely the right to clean air, the right to sufficient food, and the right to clean water. All three of these fundamental rights are quantifiable and provide a foundation for the establishment of even greater rights.
While these three rights are not comprehensive or the only rights that can be considered under a universal rights-based approach, their necessity for many other secondary rights makes them useful for policy evaluation around larger issues. For instance, it is difficult to imagine a society that is able to ensure a right to equality if large portions of the population are unable to meet the basic needs of survival. Requiring policy to guarantee these basic needs helps ensure that other rights such as equality are possible as well.
When confronted with the challenge of how to enact policy so that future concerns acquire proper weight, it seems that the imperative to guarantee universal rights across time could justify considerable restrictions on how present persons live. Accounting for the rights of all future persons, for instance, may suggest creating stronger policies around sustainability. This emphasis on sustainability clearly encompasses environmental concerns but also other infrastructural concerns with providing clean water and adequate food. In fact, investment in policies such as reducing carbon emissions and creating sustainable systems is likely required by a universal rights-based policy as otherwise, future people, especially in developing nations, may be unable to realize their fundamental rights to clean water, food, and air. These policies are forward-looking in a way that traditional rights-based approaches fail to be. As a result, these policies guarantee the rights necessary for a higher quality life for more people across time and maximize intergenerational welfare.
With global issues as pressing as the climate crisis, a comprehensive way to create and evaluate policy is sorely needed. In this time, a universal rights-based approach can allow for decisive policy evaluation that guarantees a future world that is worth living in.
Image Credit: Unsplash/Bob Blob