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Lessons from Jefferson

July 10, 2024

While Thomas Jefferson has a problematic history, his concerns about the binding of decisions made by one generation on future ones are highly relevant today.

Thomas Jefferson died 198 years ago on the 4th of July, but we really shouldn’t wait two more years to notice, and take to heart, an important argument in political/economic philosophy that Jefferson made in a letter to James Madison dated 6 September 1789. Jefferson was in Paris as Minister to France, but would return to the United States later that month.

Properly understood, Jefferson’s reasoning here is just what is needed to dispel the two enormous blind spots shared, unfortunately, by almost every politician and public intellectual in the United States, to say nothing of the citizens at large.

His theme is “The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another,” and he answers this question in the negative. He draws conclusions both financial, as to the absurdity of allowing one generation to incur burdensome debts to be paid by succeeding generations, and legislative: “On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law.”

So it is philosophically ridiculous to hold that the present Constitution, most of it still dating to 240+ years ago, is morally binding on us today. It is repellent to allow people of seven generations ago to veto the gun laws that we would like to implement, based on our knowledge of guns as they exist today. The same goes for environmental laws. It is repellent to continue to use the very worst method of any so-called democracy to choose a chief executive.

We should realize that our Constitution, far from being an implementation of the ideal of representative democracy, makes representative democracy impossible. We should focus instead on our other founding document, the one for which Jefferson is famous: “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…”

But the way Jefferson supports his main thesis sheds light on the largest issue of our age, an issue that affects the entire planet, not just this nation. He writes: “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.” The unfamiliar word usufruct means “the fruit of use”: this relates to what we now call sustainability, the idea that we should be running our economy based on what earth systems are able to provide year by year, without degrading those systems in the process.

Well, in the two centuries since Jefferson’s death we the world economy has instead “transitioned” into a state of complete dependence on fossil carbon, a stock resource which is limited and depleting. Now a lot of well-intentioned people are pinning their hopes on what they call the “energy transition”, but as long as we keep pricing coal, oil, and gas essentially at their cost of extraction, we should not pretend that we are being remotely serious about transitioning back into a sustainable course.

Phil Jensen

The author was born in 1955 and lives in Sonoma County, California, with his husband and a young Cairn terrier. He retired in 2005 after a career in software. He has a complicated relationship to atheism, Christianity, and Zen Buddhism. He loves many kinds of music, including Renaissance polyphony, Bruckner, the Grateful Dead, and ambient (thanks, Hearts of Space). He identifies strongly with the fictional character Chad C. Mulligan, from John Brunner’s remarkable 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar: one who has important insights into the human predicament but great difficulty in getting his fellow humans to pay attention.