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Monday, December 1, 2008

So what do we do about our government?

Warning : This is a longish post and in contrast to my recent ones, there is no attempt at humour. Wordplay will be back in a day or two.

From apathy, to shock, to rage, to indignance, to disgust, to weariness, to apathy. The cycle continues.

The same words are being said. The same issues are being bickered over. The same solutions are being debated.

"Why can’t we have better intelligence?" "Isn’t it appalling that politicians have cornered the best cops for their own security?" "What do we do to bring Muslims into the mainstream of development & prosperity?" "Why can’t we have harsher laws?" "Why is the Indian state so much about power and so little about governance?"

Every one of us has been asking some of these questions. All of us have answers for some of them. The same old answers. We talk of citizens taking up arms. We drape ourselves in our national flag. We resolve to vote next time. We light candles. We wear white shirts. You know what we're actually doing? We are just deluding ourselves that our anger, our patriotism and our temporary activism will somehow create a mythical force that would lead to an efficient government. A government that will guarantee security, ensure prosperity, build infrastructure, protect our heritage, preserve our environment, regulate our industry, administer justice and promote harmony & equality.

But what is government? It is not an abstract entity that is filled with good intentions and endless talent.


We feel that government by definition, is good, but our politicians are bad. We feel that government is efficient, but our bureaucrats are not. But what is government other than politicians and bureaucrats? Government is made up of nothing more and nothing less than people like you or me, who have the added desire and the stamina to seek public office. How can any government be more selfless than its politicians, or more efficient than its bureaucrats?

Throwing one bunch of politicians out and bringing another set in is not really going to change anything, is it? There isn’t any superhero in the opposition parties, or indeed in the world, who can efficiently deliver all the myriad expectations we have from our government. A government, like any organization, can only do what it is capable of doing. It cannot achieve things that it is not designed to achieve. Regardless of our expectations.

The point therefore is not to make our expectations greater and louder. It is, in fact, to reduce our expectation from government, so that the state can concentrate on a few important things, and perhaps do it with excellence. Let’s therefore take a step back and see what our reduced expectation could be. What are our core needs from government?

The biggest reason why individuals voluntarily organize themselves into societies is physical security. The right to life. At a day-to-day level, this is to prevent anyone from harming us physically or coercing us through the initiation of force. The right to life can be extended into the right to freedom of action. After all life is not just the absence of death. It is the freedom and ability to think, say and do what we want. This in turn leads to the right to property. Which is nothing but the right to enjoy the result of our actions – the fruits of our labour – and to dispose of it as we please. We need government to protect these core rights of ours.

This would mean that at a fundamental level, we need government to run a police force and justice system. We also need to protect our society from other societies which may use force on us. Thus the army. If we define the role of government as these key things, and nothing more, we may perhaps, have a chance of getting security & justice. After all, when the expectations are few and well-defined, the politicians and bureaucrats become accountable, and more importantly the task becomes possible. As a side effect, if the power of government is limited to these areas, the avenues for corruption are few, and there is therefore no incentive for thugs and crooks to run for office.

But we don’t stop here, do we? We want government to do everything for us. We want some bureaucrat to control our industrialists (instead of exercising our right of not buying his product). We want a minister to protect local industry (by imposing tariffs and reducing efficiency at the cost of the consumer). We want government to provide us with cheap gasoline (thereby allowing us to waste resources). We want a dictator to ban smoking in restaurants (instead of us hurting the owner by denying him our patronage). We want government to protect our culture (by holding society ransom to a few people’s moral standards). Every one of us tries to use government to live off somebody else. Every one of us tries to use government to impose our personal views on others. Government, as a result, becomes just an instrument for the mutual violation of rights. Exercised by whichever group is committed enough to vote as a gang.

Having given government so many things to do, so many departments to run, and so many contradictory claims to cater to, why are we surprised when we find that we have a government that cannot perform its core functions effectively? Why are we surprised that our politicians are good-for-nothing? Why are we frustrated whenever we deal with the state apparatus. It’s time we understood that politicians will be self-serving and bureaucrats will be lazy. They are humans like you and me, and will only do what serves their chances of individual growth. They are simply not qualified to do most of the things we expect from them.

The mistake we have made therefore, is not in electing lousy people. It is in giving them too much power over our lives. It is in being dependent on government for all the wrong things. For every thing. Thereby endangering our real needs like our physical security.

Let us see what would happen if we limited government to the protection of the three key rights. Especially in the light of the attack on Mumbai. Firstly, freedom of speech would ensure that religious beliefs and fanaticism can be openly discussed. In today’s world, the moment something becomes a question of ‘faith’, it becomes a taboo subject. We tread gingerly in order to avoid hurting anyone’s sentiments. Not because we are sensitive, but because we are scared. The moment any group of people decides to get offended, they are free to unleash mob violence. Sometimes, this is even enforced by the state itself, through censorship and bans. If government protected freedom of speech (action), we could have a free and frank discussion on our various communities and practices. So that there is mutual tolerance based on knowledge. Not mutual toleration based on fear. A community cannot feel alienated if everybody is discussing it. It feels alienated when nobody wants to understand it.

Secondly, the right to property would encourage individuals and entrepreneurs to take whatever measures they deem fit to protect their belongings. Of course, the police will be there to augment safety. I understand that no private security force may have the skills to resist attacks of this scale. But a true notion of private property would also motivate individuals and businesses to take some steps for preventive protection. This can only help. We will not have the current trend of shoving all responsibility to the government and then just whining when things go wrong.

And thirdly, the police force would be efficient. After all, they don’t have to worry about when bars are closing and whether women are singing and whether people are listening to music in their cars. Their goal will be focused and they’ll be equipped, trained and paid well for performing their one important task.

Incidentally, once we detach government from notions of ideology, and abstracts like socialism, secularism and other such things, there is no concept of 'terrorism' either. Terrorism will be stripped off its garb of ‘ideology’. Terrorists will be captured and punished for what they are – armed thugs who are violating other people’s rights to life and property. The political dimension can be completely removed.

A police force that only focuses on protecting people from harm would also ensure better community involvement in the process. Most people hate policemen these days. After all, the cops take protection money from traders. They harass couples in the night. They represent the might of a bully government. We fear them and suspect them because we see that their primary job is to control us. But imagine if the police were our friends. If their only job is to protect us, we would help them help us. People would report suspicious people or activities. We would approach the cops if something bothers us. We will not hesitate to 'get involved'. This community awareness and participation would in turn reinforce the efficiency of the police and a positive loop can be created towards greater security.

We would then become a society that uses government to liberate itself. But what do we have now? We have the government we deserve. We have a sheepdog because we choose to be sheep. We bleat impotently because that is the only power we have retained. We use platitudes like the spirit of Mumbai’ because we want to hide our helplessness behind euphemisms. Why do you think we carry on with our lives after every attack and atrocity? Not because of some noble spirit. Simply because we have no choice. What else is there to do.

I've heard many arguments against limited government. Once the security threat is forgotten, people will still want to impose their views through governmental force. They will ask, "How do we ensure that common resources are protected?" "How can we achieve social justice (whatever that means)?" "Isn’t this anarchy?"

No. It isn’t. The government that we discussed so far is the central government (with the state governments thrown in for administrative purposes). This does not mean communities cannot voluntarily organize themselves into cities and make whatever rules they think is for their good. A community can decide that it wants to pool-in money and build a park. It can decide that it will not allow loud music after 11pm or whatever. It can make any rules as long as the fundamental rights of the individual are not violated. The difference between a voluntary community (like a neighbourhood or a city) making rules and a country doing so is very simple. Communities compete for the talent of people. If I do not like the rules of a community, I can move somewhere else. I can take my talent, my innovation and my hard work elsewhere. Sheer competition for human resources will make every community strive towards providing a great quality of life to its voluntary inhabitants. But countries don’t work like that. I was born in this entity called India and I am only eligible for an Indian passport. Of course I can emigrate, but that involves a huge cost and effort. Even if I can pay it, not everyone can. Most people have no choice but to live in their country of birth. There is nothing voluntary about it. So a government, which runs a non-voluntary community, has no incentive to compete and provide a better quality of life to its citizens. Which means that the politicians will not do it. Let’s have a thousand cities that make rules. Let government just provide the underpinning of laws and rights. And do that well.

Another objection is the developmental one. The fact that private enterprise will not get into projects that are good for all but do not give profits immediately. Like roads or dams or whatever. Perhaps this is true. Let government get into this. But why as a monopoly? Maybe our country needed the government to run air services sixty years back (though I doubt it). But if the stated reason is that private enterprise aren’t capable of providing air services, then why use licenses and quotas to prevent them from trying in the first place? Isn’t that some kind of weird self-fulfilling logic? Let me reluctantly concede that in a large and poor country like ours, we need government investment in some areas. But why on earth do we need tax money spent on these areas after private players have come in and are providing great service. Why, for instance, do we need BSNL now? Gratitude? Isn’t that bizarre, considering it’s our tax money that was spent earlier and is being spent now? So let the government invest in infra-structure, but till and only till private enterprise is in a position to take over. A private monopoly is still threatened by nimble competition. A legalized government monopoly has absolutely no reason to be efficient. As Milton Friedman said, "If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there'd be a shortage of sand."

A third objection is the so-called humanitarian one. How do we help the ‘have-nots’ or the victims of natural disasters? Don’t we need government for that? So the government will magnanimously donate resources. But excuse me. The government doesn’t have any resources. It does not create any wealth. The only money it has is the tax that is coerced from us. So what gives it the right to use my money for charity without my consent. Let’s put it this way. If a person wants to give charity he can do so anyway. If he doesn’t want to give charity, then nobody can force it out of him. If the majority wants to give charity let them do so by all means. But how can even one person be looted of his money (through tax) because the majority wants to give it to someone else? How is it humanitarian to rob one human and give it to another? There is a related argument that government is needed to channelize the charity. This is absurd because there are more than enough voluntary organizations that will probably do a better job. If the market allows it, there may even be meta-charity outfits that specialize in coordinating the efforts of other smaller charities.

The point is that we do not need government to make rules, we don't need it for development and we don't it them for redistribution. We need it to protect our life and liberty.

We have been through a traumatic week. But let us come out of this with some real changes. A few mindless heads rolling and a million symbolic gestures are not going to change anything. In these times of trouble let us not call for more government, more laws and more control. The more government we have, the less we feel the need to protect ourselves, be self-reliant, give charity, be considerate, be tolerant or be social. Because every law that is made makes us hand over some human virtue to the state. Every decree that we accept makes us a little less human.

The less government we have, the better we will live together. And most importantly, the more efficient that government would be, in protecting our life, our property and our freedom of action.

Note : There are numerous people writing about liberty on the internet. As I am a diligent reader of these posts, I am sure that I have borrowed many arguments and perhaps even exact phrases from them. Unfortunately I have no clue what I have borrowed from whom. My apologies to all of them for not being able to give credit where it is due.
While I have written one long, perhaps drawling article, Sauvik Chakraverti has written over three hundred beautiful ones on this subject. One of the best days I have had, is the day I spent going through his archive.

Update : I just read an article posted by K.M. which makes a related argument in a powerful manner. Here it is.

38 comments:

Vikram Dhaliwal said...

Couldn't agree more. The libertarian has finally spoken, and spoken well.

sonia said...

what a loooong post.and i read through it. well done da! btw really prefer this honest passion to the usual word play. can't we have more of this?

samjo said...

its a super read Machcha... and enlightening one at that! hope to read more from you...

Aru said...

hmm.. What about education? Health? You are an IIT-IIM ian yourself.. Surely, subsidised education and health have worked, no? Why not keep those as well? I am a MBBS graduate, PG aspirant.. I couldn't imagine paying through my nose for PG education at a private institution.. Also,if I invest heavily in medical education, I'd be looking to recover it with sufficient profit as soon as possible(doctors start making decent money earliest by age 30) and wouldn't that make me to resort to 'unethical' practices? I am sorry if I sound too short sighted or self-centred here.

Ramesh Srivats said...

Aru, I got myself the tax-subsidized education becuase it was there. There is absolutely no need for it. Any bank would give a loan to a person who has got admission to one of these places.

What kind of argument is the fact that unless my tax pays for your education, you'll be unethical? Doesn't that sound like extortion?

Incidentally, the point I was trying to make was that - if government has to do stuff like take care of people's MBBS fees, how do you expect them to do the crucial stuff like protecting our borders.

Gireesh said...

I can see the logic in your argument.But one fundamental assumption that you are making is that all of us care and all of us are intelligent enough to run this sort of a set up.

1.If you look at the voting percentage in india ,it will answer the Q ,as to how much we "care" about goverance and our involvement in it

2.If you look at an apartment complex and its Association meetings.U can find answers to second part of my apprehension.(that we are intelligent enuf to sit together and come to a conclusion)

We are a illiterate country and cannot talk and reach a conclusion . Lets wait and see..

Change is good though :D

Ramesh Srivats said...

Thanks for commenting Gireesh. I am making the assumption that all of us care about our own lives. But there is no question of being intelligent enough to run the set-up. The whole point of this 'set-up' is that nobody runs it. Everyone takes care of their own lives and government protects the key three rights.

Aru said...

Hmm... See, my dilemma is this. Health is a necessity.. And hence the way corporate hospitals extort money from people for stuff they do AND don't do doesn't seem really nice to me.. So, we get rid of this 'government' which extorts money in order to pave way for a bunch of other people who're gonna the same thing. Where's the progress? What I am saying is there are things that ARE working.. institutions like AIIMS are both centres of amazing education and research potential.. A humble PHC in a remote village might be the only way the residents can get decent medical care since it's not lucrative business to practice private medicine there..

Sauvik said...

Superb post - and thanks for the compliments.

The key issue is the Sovereign providing what Adam Smith called "an exact administration of justice." Note: Smith did not say that the Sovereign has to make laws. Thus we can do without "democratic legislation."

However, I think you have great hopes for good policing. Yet you also say they are bullies who extort money from all traders. You say no one likes them. They are only feared. It will be a really tall order to reform this corrupt and brutal force. You seem to have hope. I don't.

I think if all crimes are treated as "torts" - that is, crimes against Individuals (not crimes against The State), then victims will be compensated quickly and the perpetrators will have to shell out fat cash. This is better than the police, the prosecution and the (unlikely) jail term. Also, victims should be allowed, in tort cases, to collect their own evidence and prosecute on their own. These will all be "civil cases" and there will be no "criminal justice system." Utopia? Perhaps. But we must think in that direction.

Note that such a system will be good for the poor: they will find free lawyers willing to take up their cases for a percentage of the claim. Today, they are out of the loop.

Vibhash Prakash Awasthi said...

Well written, well analyzed..but where is the action? what are we doing?

Ramesh Srivats said...

Thanks Vibhash. Actually I have been thinking about the same question. The "how do we get there?" part. There are organizations like Centre for Civil Society which are doing work in this area. You may want to check the out.

My top priority - Constitutional reform. The Indian constitution after over 100 amendments has become a hotch-potch of loopholes and absurdities. The two key changes needed are - a) bringing back the right to property (removed by Indira Gandhi) and deleting "socialistic" from our preamble (added by Indira Gandhi). Also the RPA (representation of people's act) needs to be modified so that liberal parties can at least stand for elections. There is a PIL pending on this for quite some time.

How do we bring about this constitutional reform - Am not sure public opinion is enough, though it is a start. Civil Disobedience perhaps. Let's just stop observing unnecessary laws and see what happens. I know its a bit radical. I'm not even sure if I'll have the guts to stand up to a lathi-wielding cop. But I can't think of a better way for change.

Gireesh said...

Oops,Ramesh..looks like i didnt write my thoughts properly in the first comment.I am basically trying to say,as a breed we crave for leaders ..We have Heroes in the form of cine-stars,Crickers,Politicians and we even have Favourite gods(God Save us on that atleast).

So we always try to delegate responsibilty in one way or the other.
So your model of..all ppl minding their business might not work out.
We simply lack the courage to take our life into our hands,because in that case we are accountable to ourselves.In reality,our sub-conscious like to blame all but us for any mishap with things in our life.
"Like i did engineering ,because my dad wanted me to.I married her coz ,my mom wanted me to.I did this because my frnd wanted to do it that way.I did the particular module this way because the client asked for it this way and so on"

I rest my case.

Rahul Jauhari said...

Ramesh, there is tremendous fury in the people.
The fury was inevitable.
But needs to be mass-channelized to crack concrete, tangible, do-able steps.
Fact remains - this time, since the 'elite' have ALSO been hit - the backlash is far more visible, cogent, articulate and aggresive - and the politicians are not equipped to handle that.
When a tragedy strikes the bottom of the pyramid, they get away with distributing blankets, food packets and money.
Even a RGV visit can work at times.
The upper end of the society doesn't care much about these.
And that's where the politicians/people in power have been caught.
They have NEVER had to deal with the fury of this lot.
And they are STILL dealing with it in the only way they have known.
I feel the change will happen because this tragedy has hit the opinion makers.
And that's what will make the difference this time.

aativas said...

I believe we are going through the same cycle for last many years. Is it that we have not identified the core of the issue that we struggle? Is it because the 'vastness' of the country affects us? (Meaning everytime some feel secure that 'thank god, it is only there and not here...')Is it because we 'have made' politicians and beaurocrats according to our needs that we don't know what to do with them and worst is: what to do without them? Bringing people together or governing people together is not an easy job in India - may be even not anywhere in the world. Unless we make changes in ourselves (different levels, different categories, different aspects...) this will continue to happen again. We are so much divided and our patrotism is so superfical that beyond emotional outburst nothing is going to happen.... But the common men and women are the hope. If the situation arises, a leadership (individual/collective) may emerge. It is time we act, let us accept the initial confusion about the exact action. Let people share what 'actions' they are taking and one of that will click. It should. Otherwise there will be nothing to govern...

K Subramanian @ work said...

Hard action (like constitutional reform, defining the role of government etc.) is admirable. But it would be rather incomplete if there are no softer measures that change us from within. Softer measures that instill self patriotism and national pride.

To counter terrorist 'jehad', we need some desi 'junoon' (Sound bite for NDTV!).

Hence as an addendum to Ramesh's original post, may I add that all of us commit to developing and imparting a sense of national purpose / pride - and then transmitting it through all the technology available to us.

Instead of asking what good deed have we done today, let us ask - what national deed (big or small) have we done today?

And that would be a beginning...

What's In A Name ? said...

I wholly agree on the BSNL point with you. The others are just too far-fetched from here in time. Too idealistic. But, that's how we should all be in our hearts to make a better community of us.

ravi said...

Ramesh,

I remain unconvinced by the libertarian position, especially the elevation of property rights (the corruption of which, I submit is the root cause of most modern disagreements and greivances) to one of a handful of fundamental rights.

A quasi-utilitarian like me doesn't typically argue in terms of "natural rights", but let me try! The basic question remains: what is the nature of the threat to the exercise of my freedoms (of speech, life, etc)? For thousands of years it was the exercise of force by individuals or powerful groups of individuals. It is a libertarian stroke of genius (I will admit!) that converts government, a device of the peaceful majority to ensure the exercise of their freedoms, into the very thing (the lawless mob) that it was created to counter.

And this bit of libertarian logic appeals because it holds a kernel of validity: in the absence of a vigilant citizenry government can either be usurped by the [few] powerful (or lawless), or worse, it can easily turn into an oppressive force in the lives of those it has been chartered to liberate. But by the very same "rights" reasoning, there should be no objection to the formation of a collective by the populace to alter the material factors (a previous commentor noted one: "health") that affect
their capabilities and freedoms. Government, seen as the legitimate representation of the will of the people, is in this sense, the creator of freedoms and wealth (not the usurper via taxes, which in this interpretation lose the demonic imagery of the "taxman" and instead constitute a legitimate usage fee).

What is the prescription? By limiting government while still affording it the greatest source of its ability to dominate us (i.e., the exercise of overwhelming power in the name of policing and national security), I submit, the problem is only made worse. Nor is it a feasible option to go the whole hog and abandon government alltogether. Such notions as the division of labour, an understanding of natural monopolies and public goods, efficiencies gained through standardisation, and so on, demand a more sophisticated approach.

IMHO, the solution is "vigilant citizenry". Those enamoured with capitalism see this idea well enough when it comes to publicly traded corporations with a shareholder appointed board of directors. In the absence of shareholder vigilance meltdowns, abuse and corruption, as we have witnessed in recent busts (especially in the USA) are inevitable. Rarely is the call raised (in said circles) to abandon capitalism as a result, for capitalists realise, just as socialists like me do, that it makes little sense to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Shareholder vigilance, however, need not be limited to heckling during the annual meeting, any more than citizenship democracy is complete via the token act of voting. You propose constitutional reform. It would be a tremendous first step if we were to even first familiarise ourselvess with the core arguments and justifications offered in such documents (rather than the rote memorisation of edicts). In speaking of the Constitution of the USA, Thomas Jefferson called for each generation to hold its own constitutional convention to decide for themselves the laws by which they choose to organise their lives. The ability to perform such deliberations, even in the absence of immediate and horrific pressures (such as war or terrorism), should differentiate us as a species capable of civilisation. Whether it be libertarianism or communism, I am afraid the conclusion at the end of each exercise, will be the simple maxim: there is no such thing as a free lunch.

With warm regards and apologies for any unintended combative tone,
Ravi

donraja said...

Hey Ramesh
It's not a long post by any standards. Infact its very short considering that what should have taken volumes has been summarized so simply.
But I still think that apart from making changes in the constitution we also need to change the people. If I think govt, or politicians and close my eyes only pathetic disgusting faces flash in front of me. Not one who can grasp the essence of this post.
It's like when we upgrade software, we still tend to use the older version. It's human to do so. And these are dogs we are speaking about.
There will always be resistance to change. So we'll also need to change those damn resisters.

Neon said...

A nice take on the subject. I must admit that I've never thought in this angle, and you make a lot of sense.

However, you say " So let the government invest in infra-structure, but till and only till private enterprise is in a position to take over." What about the employees of that government enterprise? Do we fire them? We can auction out the physical infrastructure to private companies but we would need to let go of a lot of people. It's often said that if you have a government job, you're settled for life. Is it fair to fire a hard worker in order to let the private companies take over?

Ramesh Srivats said...

Thanks all for all the responses and the POVs.

Neon,
When private enterprise enters a field that was primarily run by the government, they usually recruit from the government. Like IA pilots and Telecom engineers. In fact, the signal that it's time for government to exit could be when they find it impossible to get talent because there are too many private options for the workforce. The ones who usually don't find a job are the corrupt/lazy ones and perhaps the low-skilled ones. However heartless it may seem, I have no desire for my tax-money to be used to run an inefficient operation (with all its associated costs) just to employ these people (or for that matter any people). This is just veiled charity. And you know my views on forced charity.

donraja,
I do not expect the government to voluntary give up its powers. As I said, government is nothing but politicians and bureaucrats, and they (like you or me) are not going to act against their self-interest. A change like this has to be driven by the citizens. Which of course, leads to the question of how does one convince all citizens. After all, the majority do benefit (or think they do) from the looting of the taxpayers. Ayn Rand suggested a strike. I've heard talk about civil disobedience. Am sure that talk and discussion will help this meme to propagate. But honestly, I don't know if it is enough. Any ideas?

Ravi,
No problems with the tone. And I know you had asked me this question in an earlier post. I hadn't replied then because I thought we could do it over a beer (or four) in Jan when you are here. But what the hell, let's start now and continue it then :-).
Firstly, you would notice that I have scrupulously avoided using tags like libertarianism in my post. This was because, while I am familiar with libertarianism, I have no clue what alternate views like utilitarianism mean, leave alone quasi-utilitarianism. Will tackle my ignorance and get back to you on that (like Sarah Palin). But why do you think property rights are unnecessary? As a thought experiment, think about complete anarchy. Along with protecting your life (and the lives of those you care), wouldn't you protect your property? In fact aren't these the only two things you will protect? You wouldn't then be worried about the environment, or the employment of others, or the education of neighbours and so on, would you? My point is that this core need for protection of life (and therefore action) and property is the primary reason for organizing ourselves into societies and is therefore the fundamental expectation from government. The government, unlike what you said, does not create freedoms. We are born free. It protects it. Government does not create wealth. It protects it. So I ask for limited government with dominant power but that power is not given to be turned back against the citizens. The power is given only so that there can be an effective response against initiators of violence. So you can't take a ganglord government on one side, an anarchy at the other and call for a more 'sophisticated approach'. Of course, it will have to be something in between. The question is what in between? Have you seen this video- http://in.youtube.com/watch?v=ODJfwa9XKZQ&feature=related.
I agree with you that citizens have to be vigilant. Just because we have elected a government, it doesn't mean, that we can sit back and forget our own responsibility towards our life and property (which is why perhaps share-holder vigilance is more effective than regulation). But part of this vigilance must also be vigilance towards the government. Government also belongs to us and we should ensure that it is doing its job.
Am sure we'll continue this in Jan. Looking forward to it. And I promise to figure out what quasi-utilitarianism means by then :-).

What's in a name,
If this is too idealistic, what is the practical solution you propose?

Subu,
We have quite a lot of patriotism. It comes out during every cricket match. Unfortunately, patriotism is only of use, when there is an external threat (which may be the case now). While, we retain it for whatever good it does, we need what you call hard measures to change us from the inside - like constitutional reform. Lots of people are changing their facebook ids into the national flag and lighting candles everywhere. My worry is that - after performing all these symbolic gestures, all we'll get in return are a few other symbolic gestures - like a few thugs resigning and a few totalitarian laws passed. And we'll all be lulled into thinking that we have done enough.

aativas,
I completely agree.

Rahul,
How does one channelize fury? If I am angry, the only way I can channelize it is by going out and hitting someone. Or perhaps I can bear more pain than I usually can. So will this public fury be channelized through riots? Will it be used to topple a few politicians so that others just like them will take over?
I completely agree with your take on why the outrage seems to be more this time. But I'm afraid, I don't see the solution. What are the concrete steps you talk about?
Perhaps civil disobedience is one way of channelizing the fury into the ability to absorb pain (though I'm not sure if I'm brave enough or er... angry enough to do it).

Gireesh,
If a man cares for his life, he will defend it. If he doesn't, why should others defend it?

Phew. That was fun. Let's continue the discussion guys.

manju said...

"If a man cares for his life, he will defend it. If he doesn't, why should others defend it?"

In my opinion, this will lead to survival of the fittest.

Is this really what we would like?

What about those handicapped/ underprivileged/ illterate unfortunate who cannot defend themselves?

It is not always the case that we lack the courage- sometimes we may lack the capacity for no fault of ours.

Ramesh Srivats said...

Manju,

I'm not talking about someone DOES not care about his life. If you read the comment Gireesh had written, the context is clear.

But we can discuss charity, in general. Yes, 'underprivileged' and 'unfortunate' people will need the help of others. But there a lots of people who feel the way you do and will help these people voluntarily. For instance, I would like to help street children by helping them learn a trade, get an education, whatever. But I will do this voluntarily.

When government does it, they take my money by force. What gives them that right? And incidentally some bureaucrat disburses the money. And you know with what care one treats other people's money.

rambodoc said...

This is one of the finest expositions of the laissez-faire society one can read in a single page. Ayn Rand couldn't have put it better, I dare say!
BTW, I visited South Africa a couple of months back, and I found that they have (by circumstance) a private security industry that is very advanced and sophisticated. The State has totally failed in its basic functions of protecting life and liberty.
They have excellent roadways. The newer ones I found being repaired/expanded/built were all by private companies. The State gives the contract of building a road to one company, and in return the latter has a lease over that property for a fixed number of years. A better system than ours, where potholes outnumber bricks.

george said...

Paraphrasing the numerous defienitions I have found of the word governement- the government is a collection of people of are elected/chosen to govern/run an organisation/country by a majority of that organisation/country. By definition the government is smaller group of people who represent the larger collective or organisation.

WHO DOES THIS GOVERNMENT REPRESENT? DO THEY HAVE A MANISFESTO? ARE THEY FOLLOWING IT?

Is someone checking?

Jager said...

You should check out Ayn Rand. This was her exact point in her books. Atlas Shrugged was in fact, according to a 1991 Library of Congress poll, the second most influential book after the bible in America.

The reason people have been leaving India is the same reason for many of our problems today: government is screwed up.

musefree said...

Great post. While most of your points have been made earlier by many others, the matter is important enough to justify reiteration. And when made as clearly and strongly as in this post, it's a joy to read. I'll add a link in my blog.

Pramod Biligiri said...

I mostly agree with you that government ought to be limited - at least from an economic perspective.

But currently I'm stuck on the fact that it's only because of government that we enjoy any property rights. The premise is that government will redistribute your wealth to some extent, provided you agree to their protection of your property.

Property rights won't exist without the redistributive powers of government.

There are also compelling ethical arguments for socialism - how to distribute natural resources? how is "new" property to be allocated? Since individuals vary in physical, intellectual and economic capabilities, is it fair to draw up a social contract which pretends as if they are all equal?

I am not trolling. Just trying to bring something new to the libertarian type discussions. Anyway, these are the questions I think about nowadays...

musefree said...

Pramod, I am not entirely sure what you mean by 'redistribution'. In any case, I don't see why we must accept the premise that "government will redistribute your wealth to some extent, provided you agree to their protection of your property" if by redistribution, you mean something more than minimum taxation.

As for ethics and 'ethical' justifications for socialism/libertarianism, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you read Nozick's "Anarchy, State and Utopia". Ultimately a moral code, even a completely rational one, is subjective to the extent that it depends on what you view as the ultimate goals. But to the extent that a particular kind of morality can be philosophically justified, Nozick's book justifies libertarianism better than anyone before or since. That is not to say that is flawless, or perfect as a political prescription (hope to elaborate on this some time in my blog) but still, you should definitely read it if you are interested in ethics.

For the contrary view, i.e. an ethical justification of socialism, read Rawl's "A theory of Justice".

Ramesh Srivats said...

Pramod,
I don't understand your premise that if we form government in order to protect our property, we have to assign to it some redistribution rights. Could you elaborate?
The 'natural resources' question is one that is widely discussed. My view is that all property is private. Maybe it's unfair for a guy born today to find that all the land is taken up, but any other alternate system seems even more unfair. It's either this way or complete abandonment of private property. Which would then totally disincentivize anybody from being productive. The question of allocation doesn't arise. Who will allocate?

Musefree,
Thanks. And thanks for the link. I do agree this is standard libertarian fare. I wrote this because it seemed apt at a time people are clamouring for more government, more laws, removing security as an expectation from the government. Then why do we need it at all?

Jager,
I am one of those guys who are accused of 'never growing out of the Ayn Rand phase." I've read Atlas Shrugged many times.

George,
The definition you have collected works only for democratic governments. Very few democracies really represent anybody. It is always a trade-off of issues wherein many tight groups who strongly wants one particular thing, get what they want at the cost of other groups. With a first-past-the-post system, the government is usually not what the majority wants. Which is why we need to be a strictly constitutional republic to curb misuse of power.

Rambodoc,
Thanks.

Ramsay said...

It is said that every cloud has a silver lining. Thanks to the Mumbai attacks this posting is both topical and timely. It has brought to the fore once again a question that has vexed nations for far too long - more government or less. You have put forward the liberal case with your characteristic cogency but, having come so far on the path of progress and development today, it would be wrong to simply lay all blame on the Government's doorstep. You cannot put the clock back or try reinventing the wheel. After all, it was the government that responded in such a determined manner to repulse the attackers. Or we might well have had a massacre on the scale of a Bali, Beslan, London, Madrid or NYC. It will be clear to any serious student of political science that modern government has evolved only in response to the earlier failures of nation states to preserve and protect their lands from marauding armies. In this way, as some others have rightly pointed out, they are able to provide education, employment, medical facilities, undertake huge infrastructural works, and give the people a reasonable standard of living. Milton Friedman's short-sighted remark (with apologies to Sauvik, constant companion and close confidante) must have been made at a time when the Gulf was actually a desert, not the oasis of greenery it has been turned into today by the government. Even if in a democracy government means taking two steps forward and one backward (come election time), to me it is still mankind's best hope of making advances in the arts and sciences and thereby rewrite history. However, your post does give hope that perhaps we may still aim for a better future.

Padmanabhan said...

Beautiful. I dont think it could have been said better. Brilliant.

Arby K said...

The primary function of government is to ensure security. It is easier to contribute to a society when u don't have to watch ur back everytime. If it cannot provide security, it has failed as a system. And without anyone to take care of security, it will be lead to anarchy. Rest assured. Any form of self security may not be optimum, because personal skills vary from person to person. As in every field, ppl involved in security should be specialists,not generalists, to be more effective

Trailblazer said...

Spot on, indeed.

Anonymous said...

Nice one..even I think this way many a times but I guess like any other article this one too has the stamp of the mind set of the category the author belongs to...in this case may be well-educated and decent/good income level... If the government's responsibility is limited to protection of just the three rights u mentioned they might be able to solve the problems of the the category of people I was talking about previously but what about millions of people in India who do not have proper education, food and housing. The very point of having so many departments, ministers, officers is to ensure that we have some authority to take care of all the issues of concern to all sections of the community. The solution u were suggesting of forming some regional communities would be very little help in a country as diverse and vast like ours and may finally result in small hubs or groups o caste, income level, educational level. In fact, the necessity of having some authority which monitors and see to it that justice is done to every section of the community has led to a government of so many depts. Though ur suggestion of having a limited government does make the government more accountable for its actions, it necessitates many individuals to be selfless to make sure that they don;t leave out some sections of people behind in their pursuit of their own rights, which is never actually possible. So, may be it a better idea, though not very easy, to have a government take care of all the things with the people electing them instead of having a limited government and placing more responsibility on individuals.

Nirmal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nirmal said...

A reaction to the Mumbai attack though it is, it would sum up (well.. in a bit longish post) the feelings of an Indian libertarian.

While I consider myself as a sort of a libertarian, I feel that taxation is the most misused of libertarian arguments. And since you've expressed similar feelings (coercion, looting and similar words with regard to tax), I feel I should add the standard taxation raison d'etre clause :)
In modern times taxation is not about funding the King's summer home or winter vacation. Its about payment for the services rendered to you by society. Now the fair quantum of tax is debatable but tax can't be completely tarred as looting. That part of tax that gets lost in translation is definitely looting. And that quantum of tax that you pay but services not rendered is also looting but that's about it. You may not use public transport but your employees might and if they didn't they'd be that much more expensive and if they were too expensive for you, your quality of life and thus your professional life would suffer. You might have to be cleaning your fan instead of writing this particular post.
You might think that taxing you to spend on the education of some backward region is coercive but you might well be an entrepreneur in MP who finds the perfect resources for his auto ancilliary factory and then you might forgive the govt. for its folly of educating them.
Do you think fighting the naxals is money well spent? Whether yes or no, you might appreciate the fact that people with nothing to lose tend to revolt. teh shortest of crash courses in the history of the last two centuries will highlight that. In a lesser country they might overrun the govt. but for a liberal democracy like ours its confined to the naxalites. And since prevention is better than cure, I think staving off or removing despondency in backward areas is money well spent.
And that's only a start. I completely agree though with any arguments for transparency of taxation and govt. and public debates on their size.
Finally as I said, I only said I'm "sort of" libertarian. As a philosophy I admire it. But we live in a contextual world. I finally have to live in a society and my contributions define my justification for being there. But a completely libertarian society cannot hope to realise what we as a species can realise. I agree with the some of the anti-libertarian arguments here. There is no space for species-wide ambition. No space program, no nano engineering, no Aids vaccine. Rather it would be a society of scattered communities that barters cakes for plumbing services Happy, yes (not me.. I'm not a picket fence guy myself). Even the libertarian icon, the fabled Howard Roark wouldn't find productive work for his vison of building utilitarian mega-housing projects.
And finally we do have empirical evidence of what happens when we try to systemically introduce Libertarianism. We get post-Reagan United States and Greenspan economics.

Nirmal said...

I noticed I put two "finally"s. :) I'm a professional ranter..typical of me. Sorry about that.

Anonymous said...

So what's your opinion on the recent bailout packages by the US government. Shouldnt we let the market correct itself?

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