Tuesday, 28 August 2007

What did Thomas Jefferson say about "sustainability"?

This morning I have for you yet another why Thomas Jefferson is one of my all-time heroes.

He was the author of the Declaration of Independence -- that ringing declaration of Enlightenment values in action -- and one of history's great constitutional thinkers, helping deliver the modern world's first republic; he was the first to state explicitly that the foreign policy of a free country is explicitly free trade -- insisting too that free trade requires free sea lanes uninfested by piracy, and that appeasement of aggressors was both unprincipled and impractical. In his Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, he (with his co-author Madison) insisted on the complete legal separation of church and state -- an insistence without historical precedent, and still an example of how (and why) such a separation should be effected.

Jefferson lent his great mind to almost every area of human affairs, and in each he offered important and path-breaking insight.

And it turns out too he even had something to say about today's fashionable concern: sustainability.

In common use, "sustainability" amounts to a hand-wringing concern with "the well-being of future generations" -- notwithstanding that the wishes, desires and concerns of future generations are in no way known by this one, and that everything indicates (to the extent at least that the enemies of progress are unsuccessful) that future generations will be infinitely wealthier than this one -- a concern then both irrational and unethical, sacrificing as it does the wealth, prosperity and industry of today to a future that is never allowed to arrive.

Answering this question on the possible claims of future generations on this one (in a letter to Madison in a discussion on the Bill of Rights), Jefferson said, in short, that the Earth belongs to the living.
The question whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government. ... I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self evident, "that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;" that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it...
Explains Lubos Motl in a lucid post entitled 'Was Thomas Jefferson an Alarmist,'
Jefferson said very explicitly that the past generations - the dead people - or the people who are not yet living have no right to control the resources that exist at a given moment or bind the future generations to pay any money (or land). That's a good policy because otherwise we would be governed by zombies...  
According to Jefferson (as well as any other person who understands some of the basic principles of Western democracy), a generation has no right to bind another generation, e.g. by carbon targets or a territorial debt. Jefferson declares clearly that everything about these resources should be decided by the people who live at the particular moment. The Earth belongs to them in "usufruct". The purpose of this word - meaning the right to use assets of someone else - seems controversial but I certainly assume that the actual owner according to Jefferson is God or Nature and not future generations or anything of this sort... ...[T]he first generation or generations have the right to use them. 
How it could be otherwise? The civilization would be completely dysfunctional if people who don't live right now had any rights to decide what happens tonight. Jefferson knows it, every sane person knows it - probably not only in the West. Hansen doesn't. 
According to Jefferson, should our generation try to give gifts to the future generations out of the resources that, as he has explained, effectively belong to the living generation? Do these distant generations have such special relationships with each other and obligations with respect to each other? Once again, Jefferson is very transparent - maybe too transparent for our tastes, tastes of 21st century sissies - about the relationship that should exist between different generations:
... but that between society and society, or generation and generation, there is no municipal obligation, no umpire but the law of nature. We seem not to have perceived that, by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independent nation to another.
It's the law of nature, reality itself, that the notion of sustainability seeks to flout. And it's the good Mr Jefferson to whom who we can look to point that out.


  1. Jefferson was a lover of the environment. As he said in a letter to Edmund Bacon in 1806, "We must use a good deal of economy in our wood, never cutting down new, when we can make the old do".

    I'm not sure he would have been supportive of your statements had he been alive today.

    I think also the word "sustainability" has moved a long way from the 1987 Bruntland report. Unfortunately it can be taken to mean many different things. For me it is about nourishment rather than long winded statements about future generations.

    If we look after today, tomorrow will take care of itself.

    As Jefferson said to James Madison on 1785, "the earth is given as common stock for man to labour and live on".

    Knowing his love of the environment i would say he would not approve of raping the environment for short term gain especially financial given his abhorrence of the private banking system.

  2. Richard McGrath28 Aug 2007, 17:18:00

    Sustento - Firstly, I am sure Thomas Jefferson would actually be supportive of PC's comments. History has shown that resources are better managed and there is less degradation of the environment and pollution, and more efficient use of land and natural assets, when property is privately owned. The environmental disasters under communism in Eastern Europe since the last world war are testament to that.

    Secondly, I think you will find that Thomas Jefferson had no problem with private banking per se. He was actually opposed to the idea of a centralised state-run bank, but also railed against any bank that issued fiat paper money rather than notes backed by and redeemable for precious metal such as silver or gold.

    Thirdly, "raping the environment" is a mindless concept - it implies that "the environment" is capable of giving or withholding consent, which clearly it is not. If our ancestors had waited for the environment to give consent before lighting the first fire, our species probably would have disappeared eons ago.

  3. Richard,

    I agree totally that land prospers best under responsible stewardship whether managed by a private individual or commons trust.

    "I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs".

    I'd say he was absolutely correct in his opinion and understanding of how banks operated.

    Yes' "raping the environment" is an emotive term but the point i was making is he was a big fan of botany and very appreciative of the workings of the ecosystem. He would not have enjoyed growth at all costs if it were to cause a dysfunctional ecosystem.

    Perhaps i'm being a touch obtuse but i think the original post calls for a clearer understanding of what sustainability is. Although co-opted by the Green movement i think its a non political term.

    I think Jefferson would have been a strong supporter of sustainability but from the perspective of looking at the whole rather than anti-development.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Thanks for the post PC.

  4. Sustento

    You mention, "control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, etc."

    This is indeed the issuance of unbacked fiat money. It leads to boom and bust cycles. It is enabled by government legislation and the existence of national currencies and central banking schemes.

    Take a look at Rothbard's "What has the government done to our money." It's available free of charge on the Von Mises web site.

    Von Mises the Austrian Economist wrote at length on the depradations of the boom / bust cycle caused by unbacked fiat money. All available for free to anyone who cares to find out.


  5. Banker,

    Gold has many intrinsic qualities - lustre, malleability, conductivity etc - but value is not one such intrinsic quality.

    Value is determined by human beings and has meaning only to human beings. So arbitrarily declaring some commodity like gold to be the objective standard which underpins currency is to miss the point about what determines value.

    Because individuals determine the value of money, individuals should be free to pick and choose their currency of choice. Banks should be able to issue their own banknotes and back these up with whatever commodity they like - or not back the notes up at all.

    Let the market decide which currency has value, not government.

  6. Brian S

    Let the market decide is a good idea. Trouble is, it isn't allowed to.

    Fiat money is fraud. It can only exist in spite of the market. It is applied by coercion and force.


  7. Banker -

    The perils of not allowing the market to decide are about to become really clear I fear. I work for a major investment bank at Canary Wharf, London, and it feels like the financial world is on the brink of a precipice. Watch out for the unwinding of the SIV-Lites!

  8. Brian S

    I've been expecting some unravelling. Picking targets to short and getting the timing right is what I'm up to a lot lately. It's time to change tack and I'm about to start with that.

    I've had an uneasy feeling that something a lot bigger is looming. The Von Mises site and other Austrian School of Economics sites have had commentary, analysis and discussion along such lines for a while now. Even the mightiest of regulators can't hold back the tide, let alone frustrate reality indefinately...

    Time to get out of debt, return investor monies and cash them out now. That's my policy anyway. Take delivery, conclude contracts and pay out principle and return. What the clients do with their money after that I do not mind. I'm only interested in looking after my own interests really! Don't want to get caught out with other people's money!

    I reckon that things'll tick on for a while yet but I'm far enough along that I don't need to take the whole ride. When the action comes it'll be fast, severe and very exciting. For a whole lot of people there'll be trouble, possibly ruin, certainly hurt. For some very clever ones, a whole lot of advance. You'd certainly need to know what you were going to do ahead of time. Lots of analysis required starting right now.

    Riding trades through this action would be a young man's game (assuming it is going to be possible or allowed). There is vast return to be made punting against the idiocies of those who think they know better than everyone else.

    What are you expecting to happen in your quarter?


  9. As someone who has just started a blog about what we can learn from Thomas Jefferson(TJ), I'm excited to see your discussion of TJ and sustainability...before it veered off into the current financial situation. I think the original post missed the key points of TJ's letter, which was ignored by Madison as impractical. It wasn't about what we now call sustainability, rather he thought one generation shouldn't bind another by its laws and especially,its debts. He suggested all laws be renewed or expire at the end of a fixed period of around one generation, which of course he calculated mathematically. He opposed government,especially the federal government,creating large debts to be paid by their children and grandchildren. But could capatalism and government really survive without debt?
    As for "sustainabilty", sustento is quite right that when it came to the earth, "the environment", he was very progressively in favor of sustainability. He practiced advanced methods of crop rotation, contour plowing, etc., to preserve the soil. He complained that just because we had so much uncultivated land was no excuse for misusing it. I could go on. Basicly he wanted America to stay an agrarian society as long as possible,living in harmony with nature,but knew eventually we would have to change, but there is no reason to think his ethic of sustainability would have ever changed.
    To learn more, check out OurJefferson.com. Thanks for the stimulating thought.

  10. "But could capatalism and government really survive without debt?"

    Government has no moral right to bind the non-consenting to pay its debts. Always remember, tax is theft.

    re Crop Rotation.
    That's just Jefferson enhancing the performance of his own property. It was in his direct self-interest to try and so do. Fair enough. Unfortunately, in the end, he failed as a land owner.

    Was it too many gaming debts? I forget, but although an important political figure and thinker, he made serious mistakes and was deeply flawed. Slave owning was one issue. There were others. In the end he contributed more good than bad, and for that he should be admired. There is a lot to learn about from him.



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