07/03/2007 11:58 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

"And Our Posterity"

Conservatives believe in self‑reliance, hard work, and individualism. We are each to look out for ourselves and our families and not rely on others, particularly the state, for economic security. This has been the dominant political philosophy since the age of Reagan and, with the notable exception of the age of Roosevelt, say 1932 until 1968, the public philosophy throughout most of U.S. history.

Conservatives have allowed for the U.S. government to provide national security and, with few exceptions, seem happy to pay taxes to finance it even at extraordinarily high levels by comparative international standards. Otherwise, we are pretty much in this for ourselves.

This philosophy meets with one exception, however, and it happens to be the Constitution of the United States. In its preamble the people of the United States establish the Constitution to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty "to ourselves and our posterity."

Taken literally and applied seriously, the political implications of our obligation to our posterity are revolutionary. If, as it seems clearly to do, our Constitution obliges us to consider the impact of our political decisions on future generations and their union, their justice, their tranquility, their defense, their welfare, and their liberty, we'd better recast our debates.

Instead of Congress considering whose ox is gored and whose is fattened by this year's tax bill, its members should consider whether that bill will add to or reduce the debt left to our posterity. Instead of presidents suspending civil liberties for reasons of short term expediency, they must think about the precedents they are setting for future leaders who may be less scrupulous. Instead of the judiciary erasing precedents according to the dominant ideology of the day, courts must regard the importance of the law's predictability for decades to come.

Perhaps most of all, our government should think differently about its stewardship of public resources including most importantly our national and global commons-our air, water, land, and climate. Our current vice president has stated that if there is a one percent chance of a terrorist attack occurring it will be treated as a serious threat. Should not he and the president use the same standard for climate change. If there is a one percent chance that our present energy consumption patterns could elevate greenhouse gas emissions to an irreversible tipping point, our Constitution requires that he take action to ensure the welfare and the blessings of liberty for our posterity.

The Founders made the moral guidepost of intergenerational accountability equal to their immediate interests ("to ourselves and our posterity") in creating the Union. Our government is not at liberty to disregard the consequences of its actions on our posterity. Indeed, if it takes seriously the full meaning of our Constitution's preamble, it has no choice but to consider with utmost seriousness its duties, responsibilities, and obligations to those who shall inherit this great nation from us..