Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Economic power to people instead of trying to over-regulate

In conversation with Dr JP Narayan, Founder, Lok Satta Party, Hyderabad.

Q1: What does freedom mean to you?

Dr. JP Narayan: The freedom for each of us means several things. The first and the obvious one is the right to do whatever we feel like doing in our lives to enjoy life in the full measure, as long as someone is not hurt. That is self-evident. The second is the economic freedom: that I do whatever I like in terms of economic activity or professional pursuit in life. The third is the political freedom that includes freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of organization, freedom to protest and so forth. The fourth is,to indulge in intellectual athleticism. Just because you have constitutional freedoms, if your potential is not fulfilled and you cannot reach the level that you are capable of reaching, only because you didn’t have the opportunity, then that is not full freedom. In a society, where you deny people basic education, you can pretend that there is freedom. But that freedom is vacuous. Therefore, the ability and the opportunity to indulge in intellectual athleticism means the freedom to fulfill your potential. That means the opportunity to grow. And for all these freedoms to be exercised, we require quality public discourse. Unless you create an enabling climate to be able to exercise your freedom fully, and if there are implicit or explicit threats in society or in media or in politics, then what freedom you have normatively on paper does not mean much. Therefore, an enabling climate is an integral part of freedom.All these together constitute freedom for me.

Q2: Is there anything holding you back from achieving that kind of freedom?

Dr. JP Narayan: As I said before, if we take the freedom to do whatever you please, the government is intrusive unnecessarily in a variety of ways. Such intrusion does not allow us to do whatever pleases us. Now, I do not drink personally but if a government imposes prohibition as part of a policy, then government is deciding what you should eat or drink. If the government tells you, you should not eat meat then your personal freedom is affected. In India today there is a certain climate because of certain taboos to try and dictate what individuals do in their personal lives. Therefore, the fundamental precept that you can do pretty much what you like as long as someone else is not hurt, that is violated. If your food, dress, drink — all these are decided by the state then freedom is definitely imperiled.

The second is economic freedom. While since 1991, we made rapid strides in delicensing and restoring economic freedom to the bulk of the people, still there are too many economic restrictions in this country which are hurting us. And even the recent demonetization demonstrates how freedom is restricted. While the policy is perfectly legitimate,its implementation has been illiberal and arbitrary. If you have rationing of currency, then all the freedoms that are guaranteed by the constitution are meaningless. Your life and livelihood are seriously imperiled as you don’t have currency, because all the freedoms, particularly the economic freedoms are exercised through the currency of money. If that money is not available, if that medium is not available in adequate measure for no fault of the people, then certainly that freedom is impinged.

But even otherwise, there are still too many restrictions and too much of corruption and too much of an incompetent, arbitrary-raj continuing which undermines our economic freedom. In terms of political freedom, normatively all the political rights exist. Our constitution is sound; we have Supreme Court and other constitutional organs. But unfortunately, often times, the way that they are exercising their jurisdiction is less than adequate. For instance, for long, people did not have the right to form cooperatives, though it is implicit in the Constitution in Article 19(1)(c). Lok Satta has been in the forefront of the struggle to recognize that constitutional freedom explicitly and therefore the 97th amendment of the Constitution came into place. There are many restraints on our political freedoms because there are threats on a day to day basis, either by using authority or by using the muscle power on the street to prevent you to exercise your freedoms- freedom of speech, freedom of assembly or freedom of protest.When rule of law is not properly and fairly enforced, our freedoms are diminished. And we have made no serious efforts to build and maintain an effective system of rule of law.

Then as I said before, if you have no ability to fulfill your potential, you have no opportunity to grow to the extent that your potential that is endowed by nature, then all freedoms are meaningless. In India, we have arguably one of the worst outcomes in the field of education and the potential of most of our children is unfulfilled. Most of the freedoms cannot be genuinely exercised by the bulk of the children of this country.

And in recent times you see that in politics, media and the society, public discourse has become extremely coarse. It has become very vulgar and violent in expression. It has become intolerant and it is not accepting dissent and there is no reasoned argument based on evidence. Coarse discourse certainly undermines both our political freedoms and economic freedoms. Every society must constantly be vigilant to make sure that freedom is truly available to the people. Take the United States, the way Mr. Donald Trump has risen, the way a certain coarseness has taken hold of the discourse there shows that even in a mature democracy there are some problems with operational aspect of freedom. Certainly India too is going through such a phase. Unless we are all alert and alive to these problems we will not be fulfilling our constitutional mandate and we will not be ensuring true freedom to all the people.

Q3: What do you think is the greatest challenge to the freedom in the society?

Dr. JP Narayan: The challenge stems from three sources. One is the constant struggle between state power and citizens’ liberty. That is why we have separation of powers and federalism — both horizontal and vertical dispersal of powers. But in India, this dispersal of powers is inadequate. The reason why we insist on dispersal of power is, there will be no single focus of power and therefore abuse of power can be curtailed. As long as power is highly centralized in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister, there is always a problem. The second threat is economic decision making. The government’s arbitrariness in making laws, sometimes questionable laws, constitutionally unsound laws or policies. For instance, this whole business of rationing currency, this whole business of denying people’s own money to them which is a fundamental blow to the economic freedom of the people. The arbitrariness of the governments in the office and the inability of the courts and the people to distinguish between the legitimate and illegitimate role of the government are fundamental problems because our institutions have not matured enough, and our constitutional authorities are not able to protect the citizen’s freedom. Third challenge is the coarse public discourse. A climate of intolerance and a willingness to attribute evil motives to all dissent instead of engaging in a healthy debate is always a problem. We all have right to disagree with each other. Only logic and facts must dictate our conclusions, not prejudices. And we cannot attribute malice to our critics. If we disagree with them, let us argue, let us debate, and if finally agreement is not possible, let us agree to disagree. But, just because you disagree with me I cannot assume that you are evil or bad or you are not a patriot. Such vilification is a very dangerous trend, and of late that tendency is visible in our country.

Q4: If given a choice,what is that one way you would think a government can make its citizens more free?

Dr. JP Narayan: A government must curtail its own powers-in a variety of ways. One way is dispersal of power- decentralization of power vertically and deconcentration of power horizontally, giving more and more economic power to people instead of trying to over-regulate,clearly defining the government’s role and sticking to that well. We have in India an expansive role of a government coupled with extreme incapacity to deliver. This is a very dangerous combination- low level of capacity to deliver and excessive role played in a variety of sectors which are not the governments’ businesses. The single mantra is let the government limit its role and disperse power as much as is humanly possible.

Q5: What would your ideal society be like?

Dr. JP Narayan: I don’t know if there is an ideal society, but the way out I look at it is in terms of hierarchy of needs. First order is survival — as an individual and as a species. Human beings are not unique in that sense. But there are higher order requirements for human beings. Maslow said in one way;we can build on that and identify a hierarchy of priorities or principles in human life.

Therefore, after basic issues of survival are taken care of, the way we should organize a society is to ensure that there is harmony of two kinds.

(i) Harmony in nature — Increasingly in 21st century we are realizing that humans cannot do whatever pleases us and undermine nature. Healthy and happy life demands harmony in nature.

(ii) Harmony in society- Within a nation or over the planet we are in a global village today.Unless there is a harmony in society across caste, region, religion, skin color, language, nationality across all these boundaries, unless we are all able to find the capacity to live in harmony with each other, and at peace with each other — not merely in peace but at peace with each other –we cannot live a happy life. Harmony is important within a society, it is important across societies.

Then the third order of priority is the larger concept of freedom. There are two elements in freedom — the political freedoms that we discussed and the freedom to give full play to the creative potential of every individual human being.True freedom means giving every individual an opportunity,and creating conditions in which most of the avoidable suffering is eliminated. Only then can human beings actually have a meaningful life.

If we have these broad principles in mind — survival, harmony and opportunity — and if we pursue these principles in our society, in our state and as individual human beings, then I think such a society is safe, free, harmonious and happy. That is my broader vision for humanity and that is why I keep telling people — ‘I do not know if there is a God, but I believe there is sin; and the two greatest sins are unfulfilled potential and avoidable suffering’. We must eliminate both these sins.

Q6: Who do you think holds the key to bringing such a society about?

Dr. JP Narayan: Often times, we overstate the importance of state.Those who are critics of the state as well as the players of the State exaggerate the importance of the state. While state is important, ultimately it is society and it is the market. So ultimately State, Society and Market- there must be a harmony among these three forces and each must play its role. All my life, I have fought for institutional change in the state system because that is one of the key enablers to promote both freedom and happiness in the society. But it does not mean that state is the only enabler, nor is it the most powerful enabler. Right now, in Indian conditions the state seems to be the most problematic institution. But I think we must recognize that the culture of the society, the society itself, the way the society is organized, whether the society accepts diversity or not, whether society is hierarchical or non-hierarchical, egalitarian in its approach from family to the nation or in egalitarian in unquestioningly accepting inequalities by birth — these things shape a society as much as the state itself.

It is also not enough to have free markets. Do people really have reasonable access to market or is market access denied to a large number of people– by denial of education,or access to market network and credit system. A free market operates only when people have both the freedom and the opportunity to participate in the market in a productive manner.

I think all these three — state, society and market –must be in harmony. The people who believe too much in the state power may end up being fascist; the people who believe too much in society’s power may end up being extremely traditionalist and obscurantist; the people who believe in too much market power may become extremely laissez faire, accepting extreme inequalities without recognizing that market access itself could be a mechanism by which a society can deny opportunity to the bulk of the people. I think a balance and harmony among these three great forces- state, society and market is the key to enduring prosperity, stability and happiness.

Courtesy: Spontaneous Order

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