It is a strange idea that we are the stewards of the earth. It is not clear who is “we” and which part of that “we” is a steward of which part of the earth; or which part of “we” is the owner of what the other part merely stewards. As the term has no technical economic meaning, let’s defer to Merriam-Webster, who defines a steward is an employee who manages somebody else’s property or caters to somebody else’s needs:

one employed in a large household or estate to manage domestic concerns (such as the supervision of servants, collection of rents, and keeping of accounts) …

an employee on a ship, airplane, bus, or train who manages the provisioning of food and attends passengers

In the current issue of Regulation, I review of Mark T. Mitchell’s recent book Plutocratic Socialism. On the stewardship issue, I write:

Mitchell argues that a property “owner” is the steward of future generations. But it is one thing to argue, as George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen does, that the welfare of future generations must not be discounted at the market interest rate … it is quite another to say that individuals of future generations own what current individuals now think is theirs. If individuals of future generations are wealthier than we are, it would be a redistribution from the poor to the rich.

Among Mitchell’s economic errors is the claim that an individual’s utility maximization leads to a situation where “the horizon of my concerns extends no further than the horizon of my own life or the duration of my desires.” As a matter of fact, many people spend money on their children and accumulate capital to leave an inheritance, sometimes to charities. It is, of course, not true that the rate at which an individual discounts the future is close to infinity. Moreover, the owner of capital who wants to consume it does that by selling it to another individual whose discount rate is lower. When an impatient owner wants to consume the future returns of his capital now, he merely transfers it to a new owner.

In other words, from all we know about our world, the market is the best possible steward. Nobody burns downs a forest he owns, which means a forest that he may sell, if it has a positive market value—that is, if it is expected to yield returns that someone in the future is likely to want.

We could argue that humans are ultimately the stewards of God’s creation, as Mitchell is also tempted to believe. This line of thought would lead us to theological issue whose relevance for the study of society is not immediately obvious. Why would God need stewards? Is he not powerful enough to take care of his creation? In order to do what with it—especially toward the end, we might add?

It is true that many humans who have some idea or intuition of their little place in time and space are aesthetically or sentimentally attached to, and intellectually intrigued by, the universe around them. Many have children and a potentially very long descendance (Et nati natorum, et qui nascentur ab illis, that is, “And the children of his children, and those who will be born from them,” as Virgil wrote so poetically in Aeneid), which binds them to the future. But how could that make you or I a general steward in any practical sense? Anyway, why would God prefer, if this verb applies, coercion and violence over voluntary social relations and the market?