The structural problem of democracy: future individuals have no votes


The principle of democracy, in its traditional and narrow form, can conflict with the maxim of intergenerational justice. The need to appease the electorate every four or five years means that politicians direct their actions towards satisfying the needs and desires of present citizens – their electorate. The interests, therefore, of future generations are all too often neglected.

Due to his limited time in office, a politician will not have to take responsibility for the consequences of her actions and also cannot be made liable for them. Today’s technological advancements mean that the consequences of our present undertakings, such as the instalment of nuclear energy plants, will have far reaching effects and a potentially deeply negative influence on the quality of life for numerous future generations.

Nuclear power stations in a country like Germany have produced 7196 tons of plutonium waste products (PU-239) until now. Plutonium has a half-life period of 24 110 years, meaning that there will still be one gram of today’s plutonium remaining in 789 471 years. Yet, even one single gram threatens human health.

If one considers that the history of mankind only began to be recorded 10 000 years ago, it becomes clear how long the impact of our current actions will be felt by future generations. Relevant time scales for human and environmental development differ widely (see figure 1). Today’s generation thus has the power to shape the future like never before. Yet, unfortunately, increases in technological possibilities have not gone hand in hand with an increase in the morality and far-sightedness of today’s decision makers.1



In the words of the former German president, Richard von Weizsäcker,


Every democracy is, generally speaking, founded on a structural problem, namely the glorification of the present and a neglect of the future. It is an indisputable fact that we cannot and do not want to be ruled differently than by representatives elected for a fixed amount of time - with no more leeway at their disposal than precisely their legislative terms of office for what they offer as solutions to our problems. We are not saying that the all politicians are unconcerned with the future. It is only faced with the problem of having to acquire a majority. (Friedrich; Mändler; Kimakowitz 1998, p. 53)


In today’s elections those individuals who will be born in the future cannot participate. They are not taken into account for the calculations of a politician, whilst he is organizing his re-election. If they could make their interests in the political decision-making process heard, majority conditions for important political decisions would be different. Policy on energy may serve as an example here: at present, the form of power production, based on fossil fuels, as utilised by today’s generation, facilitates a uniquely high standard of living, but today’s generation is thereby creating serious disadvantages for itself and future generations in the medium-term between the next fifty to one hundred years. We already know today - and having this knowledge is the crucial point - that such an energy policy leads to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As a consequence, the natural greenhouse effect is strengthened and temperatures rise worldwide. More and stronger hurricanes, inundations, streams of refugees and new conflicts will be the future results of this short-sighted policy. If only these future individuals, who are born in the next 200 years, could vote on energy policies, this would create a huge majority which would facilitate a quick shift to renewable sources of energy. If only these future individuals could vote on financial policy, public debt would be significantly lower than today. This fundamental dilemma of democracy leads to a preference for the present and to oblivion with regard to the future. Hence, succeeding generations are confronted with a structural disadvantage if democracy is not improved (Tremmel 1996). Generational justice affects the distribution of resources and life opportunities between generations. In view of the voicelessness of future generations it is not surprising that there will be insufficient resources remaining for them due to the competition for resources between present individuals and groups. Even if nature and mankind are not endangered as a whole, but ‘only’ parts of mankind and determined elements of nature (Renn and Knaus 1998, p. 18), the right of future generations to spend their life on an ecologically intact, biologically diverse planet, is nevertheless threatened like never before in the history of mankind. The ‘futurization’ of ecological problems means an existential danger for future generations.

In the face of present and future problems we cannot afford to ignore these problems any longer: we need new future ethics, in order to maintain the opportunities of future generations. This new ethic is already developing, but a significant change of consciousness is, as yet, not sufficiently reflected in positive law. It is precisely this that is necessary. The term ‘institutionalisation’ of intergenerational justice describes measures to safeguard the interests of future generations through institutions or written law. It is naive to hope that politicians will act in the interests of future generations in the same way that they do for those citizens who are alive today. The reason is not pure self-interest of today’s politicians, it rather lies in the political framework of every democracy. Every party tries to obtain votes, and therefore must concentrate on the short term perspective, that is, the preferences of the present electorate and the present interests of influential groups. In so far politicians of all parties, who want to look further ahead than at the next election (or even the next 30 years), are disadvantaged in the competition with their short-term thinking political rivals. Hence, ambitious politicians who strive for many terms cannot act in favour of future generations if there is a trade-off between the interests of the present and future generations. Therefore the framework of political action and responsibility need to be changed. Of course this must happen in such a way that the core principles of democracy remain intact. It is absurd to believe that doing away with liberal democracy is the solution to resolve the structural problem of democracy, as described above. Democracy is one of the most important social institutions that we can pass on to future generations; for this and many other reasons its abolishment is inconceivable. Additionally, such an abolishment would cause irreparable damage in relation to the maxim of generational justice for generations to come. If the influence of the electorate in politics, which is the very essence of liberal democracy, is to be maintained, terms of political office must be short, with frequent elections.