WHAT DO WE WANT?
When I was in Texas visiting my friends recently, I visited the George Bush (the more decent one) presidential library. After looking at a nice, detailed replica of the White House, with the interior meticulously duplicated, we were about to walk out, when the lady at the desk asked me if I wanted "a letter personally signed by President Bush, in which he answers a question".
I thought, how uninteresting, because I could be sure I am going to get pre-scripted answers from a machine where you type the question and then get it answered. I chose one of the most cliche questions, "What do you think is the most pressing problem that America faces"? Out came a prewritten sheet of paper with a copy of el Presidente's signature. It was a nice touch, but the answer was so cliche (dealing with eradicating inequality or something) that I have forgotten the details.
So it is surprising that, on the eve of Independence Day, I find myself having a rather simple and unequivocal answer for the question, "What is the biggest problem that India faces?". There are of course many answers, but I find myself easily cutting through the thicket of these and finding the one.
Lack of individual freedom.
A look at newspapers in the last five years should be enough to see why this is the case. We pride ourselves on being a free democracy, and still are being stifled at the individual's level through many means. Individuals don't have property rights, individuals cannot honestly start a business without glitches or without politicians and contracters demanding a share of the profits, individuals cannot criticise the government without receiving threats and getting censored, individuals cannot seek quick and easy redress in courts and in the corridors of the law, and contrary to outsiders' belief, individuals don't have the freedom of speech to openly say something (including personal opinons on "controversial" matters) without fear of retribution from corrupt politicians and their hired goons, and at the least, face covert or overt censorship tacitly supported by the government. If the threats don't exist in the books, they at least informally exist over the telephone. And in spite of being a secular country, individuals really don't have the freedom of religion, and they don't have the freedom to criticise other religions. In the muck that covers many of our poverty-ridden streets, the most dominant element is the individual.
Mobs, on the other hand, as well-described in a post here
, have almost every possible freedom. In India, freedom of religion means the freedom by religious mobs to cause untold destruction to public property and individual well-being while the police stand by. That means that by inference, it emphatically does not allow for the freedom to practice one's religion without interference. No individual freedom to criticise religion exists, and all such criticism, no matter how mild, is arm-twisted by religious leaders to justify sending in their goons and attacking the individual.
If we were a dictatorship, this stifling of individual freedom would be obvious and there would be outcry. But in India, the stifling of individual rights always is draped by resorting to a show of democratic ideals. Without individual freedom, the word "freedom" loses its meaning, and in our country has thus lost a lot of its meaning. And this false show of freedom that we tout makes the problem even more serious, and the situation more dangerous. Because in a police state, everyone knows there is a problem. But in a country which lives under a veneer of freedom, identifying and solving such problems is much harder (although at least identifying them seems to become tragically easier every day)
I am not an unabashed fan of libertarianism, and I find some of its tenets untenable. I always wondered why Indian libertarians are always so vocal and passionate in their writings and arguments. But I realised that the reason of course is that libertarianism is first and foremost about individual freedom, and I realised that India perhaps more than any other country (with the obvious exceptions of totalitarian-like states) needs a desperate dose of libertarianism, mostly because of the, how shall I put it euphemistically, unusually inefficient government here. Right now, that dose is woefully missing. The government still decides what is good for us. It still takes away farmers' lands because it thrives on the lack of individual property rights that the farmers don't have. It censors movies and allows gangs of political goons to burn theaters, because it does not give a damn about what we as individuals and adults should be free to decide in terms of what we want to and not want to watch. It has accepted definitions of what it considers to be "Indian culture", and will uphold them by forcing them on individuals who might want to live their own culture. By implementing archaic bans on homosexuality, it does not even think of people's personal lifestyle preferences that do not intrude on others' privacy. The Indian government is a true champion in prosecuting victimless crimes, among other things.
I realised that it is not without reason that libertarians especially in India have agonized so much about an absence of their principles. I believe that government action is necessary in some sectors, but in our country, government action in almost every aspect has become unbearable and despicably misimplemented. And the most significant way in which this government makes its action unbearable is by interfering with the freedom of the individual. Some government in my opinion is always better than no government at all, but increasingly and more easily it seems to me that no government at all is eminently better than the Indian government. I may argue with libertarians about which taxes are necessary, and whether government action is the only suitable one for preempting environmental pollution and global warming, but when it comes to criticising the beast that is the Indian government, I am right there with them.
Ironically, in the few cases where even libertarians agree that government should levy taxes, such as law and order and public construction, the Indian government is so inefficient as to give good reason for losing faith even in those basic beliefs. I will be very uncomfortable if law and order is privatised, but given the way that our government implements law and order (or rather does not implement it), I am slowly starting to find privatisation of even law and order a comforting thought not just in my moments of madness. In the list of lesser and greater evils, the Indian government is wallowing at the top end of the scale in many respects. Again, I am not an unequivocal advocate of privatisation, and economist Kaushik Basu says that instead of privatisation of all services, the government should make its existing services competitive with private services. While this seems perfectly reasonable, given government inefficiency in even basic matters, this action seems to be an untenable dream. And once again, mostly because the government does not want to respect individual voices that demand better things for themselves.
So on the eve of our independence, in reply to the question, "What is the biggest problem facing our country today", probably for the first time, I could cut through the complexities of our problems, and instead of saying "Hmmm...it's hard to say which one is the most troublesome...there are just so many of them", I find it refreshing that I can give a quick one line answer largely free of ambiguities.
Lack of individual freedom.
And I find it depressing and alarming, precisely because I could find this answer so easily.
P.S. This is a tag...for everyone who reads this blog. "What is the biggest problem that India faces?"
P.S. 2: In general, I have to say that I mistrust both corporations and government, but some corrupt corporations are at least efficient, especially so in India!
Labels: India, libertarianism