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Usufruct

A rare, longish, overtly political blog post from me. Something that’s been on my mind the last couple days:

In 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to James Madison in which he makes the case that a federal bond should be paid within one generation of incurring the debt, because “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living….No man can, by natural right, oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeeded him in that occupation, to the payment of debts contracted by him. For if he could, he might, during his own life, eat up the usufruct of lands of several generations to come, and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living.”

It seems likely, as we enter the latest debate about raising the federal debt ceiling, that we will hear talk about the immorality of passing on to future generations the federal debts of the current generation. I think this is a worthwhile conversation, and the word “usufruct” – a term from Roman law that describes the right to enjoy and use another person’s property as long as it is done with care and without waste – is one potentially useful concept. I think of usufruct as an extension of the commons.

Tea Partiers and fiscal conservatives are right when they say we are mortgaging our kids’ futures. The day my next kid is born in February he or she will inherit a $30,000 share of the U.S. debt. Welcome to the world.

The problem I have, though, with debates like the one ramping up in Washington is not that they are too sweeping but rather too limited. Politicians and pundits have tunnel vision. The same people who make grand moral statements about the national debt, calling as witnesses the multitude unborn, are often the same folks who dismiss outright warnings that we are squandering our natural and cultural inheritance – polluting the air and water, poisoning the land, frittering away the topsoil, slashing funds for public art and K-12 arts education, and promoting censorship.

Just as “anti-life” positions on war and the death penalty can undermine someone’s “pro-life” position on abortion, talking about our kids’ economic future without talking about our natural and cultural commons seems myopic and even self-defeating. The earth belongs only in usufruct to the living. We need to start developing a “seamless garment” approach to our conversation about the natural, cultural, and economic future we are merely holding in trust.

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One comment on “Usufruct

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