Each week my neighbors and I engage in a curious ethical ritual. On Wednesday morning before we leave for work we set outside our doors an artifact that expresses our obligation to the welfare of future generations. We call these objects recycling bins.

Recycling is one example of an action that we take in the present to benefit a group in the future. The earth has enough space and resources that all current generations could be extremely wasteful without having a noticeably detrimental effect on the global population. Future generations, however, would likely suffer if we were wantonly careless in our use of resources. For this reason the recycling of waste products is viewed as an important, albeit minor, act of personal virtue.

Although most people probably do not need to be persuaded that we have moral obligations to future generations, it would be useful to examine what form such an argument would take. Philosopher Jim Nolt outlines it as follows:

1. We have obligations to all currently living people.

2. Future people are in no morally relevant respect different from currently living people.

3. We have obligations to all future people.

To the argument Nolt adds:

The moral irrelevance of time of birth is perhaps best understood by the realization that we are future people—to our predecessors. The distinction between past and future is, after all, not ultimate and absolute, but relative to temporal perspective. In that respect, it is like the designation, “foreigner,” which is relative to geographical perspective. Who counts as a foreigner depends on the country we inhabit. Likewise, who counts as a future person depends on the time we inhabit. All people are foreigners to people of countries other than their own. Likewise, all people belong to the future generations of their predecessors. [emphasis in original]

If this argument is true, then we have obligations (e.g., don’t despoil the planet) to future groups (e.g., people living in AD 2056). Many of us believe environmental stewardship is one of this class of obligations. Could defending free enterprise (i.e., capitalism) be another? As Arnold Kling argues,

One of the more under-appreciated arguments in favor of capitalism is that future generations ought to be counted as winners. That is, regardless of the proportion of winners and losers from capitalism in America in say, 1800, economic growth since then has made winners out of modern Americans. The dynamics of capitalism are such that, looking forward a few generations, the proportion of winners from economic growth approaches 100 percent, and the proportion of losers approaches zero. That is, economic growth will make nearly everyone will be better off several generations from now compared to where they would be without any economic growth.

Imagine if we were to travel back in time to America in 1848 and had a discussion about the benefits of the free market system with a proponent of “scientific socialism.” If we were to exclude future generations from consideration, the socialists might be able to make a stronger case for why under their economic system there may be more current winners than losers. But by that same reasoning, we could claim that companies in the mid-1800s who were dumping toxic chemicals into rivers and streams were creating more winners (i.e., industrialists and their workers) than losers, since the effects of the pollution would mostly impact people who were not yet born.

Similarly, if we only look at the people who are currently alive when we attempt to determine who wins/loses under capitalism, we overlook the largest group that will benefit the most: future generations.

This does not mean, of course, that we should discount the negative effect on the people who currently lose out in a free enterprise system. We can’t ignore the neighbors who exist today solely to benefit our neighbors who will exist in the future. But when considering the effects of an economic system, we ought to consider how it affects all people—both the living and those who will live after we are gone.

If we believe we have an obligation to recycle our soda cans to help future people, we should recognize we have an even greater obligation to preserve and pass on an economic system that will make them better off.