One of the weirdest ideas in conservatism is the ‘democracy of the dead.’ The phrase is GK Chesterton’s, but it echoes the words of Edmund Burke:
“Society is indeed a contract… a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
In a thought-provoking essay for Aeon, Thomas Wells argues that the dead and the living are properly represented in our society, but those who are to be born are disenfranchised:
“Though it might not look it, this is a profoundly radical thought. We already have a device with which to represent the wishes of past generations. Constitutions, the voices of our history, do not chain us to the past, for they can always be outvoted, but they do have a powerful influence on what our societies do now. We lack any such mechanism for considering the interests of future generations. And this is a trickier problem than might at first be obvious. Indeed, the very structure of reality seems to conspire against us.”
The “structure of reality” is a reference to the fact that time flows in one direction, which is to the disadvantage of those described by Wells as the “downstream” generations:
“Our predecessors have imposed – unilaterally – the consequences of their political negotiations upon us: their economic regime, immigration policies, the national borders that they drew up. But they were also able to explain themselves to us…
“By contrast, future generations must accept whatever we choose to bequeath them, and they have no way of informing us of their values. In this, they are even more helpless than foreigners, on whom our political decisions about pollution, trade, war and so on are similarly imposed without consent.”
Ideally, we, the living, would use our monopoly of votes to look beyond our own interests to those of future generations. But can we be trusted to do so? Thomas Wells doesn’t think so, which leads him to propose a radical change to our constitution:
“If current citizens can’t help but be short-sighted, perhaps we should consider introducing agents who can vote in a far-seeing and impartial way. They would need to be credibly motivated to defend the basic interests of future generations as a whole, rather than certain favoured subsets, and they would require the expertise to calculate the long-term actuarial implications of government policies.”
In other words, “those who are to be born” would get proxy votes. It’s certainly an interesting idea, but who would be chosen to be proxy voters for the future?
“Such voters would have to be more than human. I am thinking of civic organisations, such as charitable foundations, environmentalist advocacy groups or non-partisan think tanks. To ensure that these voters have some political weight – but not too much – we might award eligible non-governmental organisations (NGOs) equal shares of a block of votes adding up to, say, 10 per cent of the electorate.”
To get an idea of how such an electorate might use their extra power, let’s consider the issue of public sector borrowing. It should be obvious that running up enormous debts is exactly what our children and grandchildren wouldn’t want us to do. Yet you could bet your house that the left-leaning individuals who run our NGOs would be far from fiscally conservative.
One could also argue that the dead are equally, if not more, deserving of the vote. It is true that our ancestors, unlike our descendants, are permanently beyond harm – but we are surely honour-bound to respect the legacies of those who made sacrifices for our good. As the Greek proverb has it: “a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
If those old men still had a say then they’d ask that their trees be properly tended by us in the present so that future generations might enjoy them too.
In a Burkean democracy, the dead are the surest allies of those yet to be born.