Monday, November 15, 2004

UNATTAINABLE IDEALS

Times of India, Nov 14, 2004

Ever since May 13, when the Left rose from the dead, we have heard constant carping about inequality and other talk reminiscent of our pre-1991 days. It amuses visitors that we are debating what was settled long ago with the death of communism. A thoughtful French academic observed the irony — while India talks about the poor, China talks about getting rich. He said, "While you debate if growth is pro or anti poor, the Chinese get on with the job, deliver growth and lift millions out of poverty. The Chinese must chuckle at your CMP — it's a sure way to keep Indians poor and India weak. If the same money went into productive investment rather than subsidies, you would create sustainable jobs and raise your growth rate. Why can't your government courageously tell the Left to back off, unless they also provide a method to deliver subsidies without losing 80 per cent on the way?"

It is true that many of us are sickened by the inequality in our society. We dislike the vast differences in the life prospects of our fellow citizens. We are even uneasy over nature's unfairness. Why should a prettier face get rewarded during the marriage season? Why should a person who happens to be born brighter also earn more? Neither's reward is as well-deserved as say a person who works hard. Looking back, communism's great appeal was its promise of equality. Certainly our path of democratic capitalism since 1991 leaves much to be desired. But it doesn't mean all our social and economic arrangements are unsatisfactory. It only means that our path does not live to an ideal. While equality is desirable, most sensible Indians will agree that the quest is hopelessly idealistic.

Unattainable ideals create their own problems — too often they give someone a stick to beat others into submission.

This is the unhappy story of the 20th century. Hannah Arendt famously said, "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs; but you can break a great many eggs without making an omelet." She was referring in part to 20th century's attempts to create an egalitarian society. All of these grand revolutions failed spectacularly, killed millions of people and caused great sorrow. Fortunately, we in India escaped the most violent outrages, but we did pay a great price in missed opportunities during the lost decades of Nehruvian socialism and the Licence Raj. Now we are more humble in our attempts to cure nature. No one talks about abolishing private property, because we know people's personal motivations will not shrink that far.

So, let's forget this talk of inequality unless we are willing to produce great crimes or suffer great costs in its name. The idea of a world in which all good things exist is not only unattainable but it is dangerous. Those who allow themselves to come under the spell of dogma, religious or secular, become victims of myopia and in the end become less human. Spontaneity is the fundamental human quality, and it's not compatible with ‘total solutions', as Isaiah Berlin said. Yet, we cannot just give up: I think we must do everything we can to reduce hunger, fight against injustice, and resist state-induced suffering, such as torture and wars. While not ruling out the unlikely possibility that human motivation might change one day and we might end the tyranny of inequality, today I think we have to "reaffirm unambiguously that open markets and rules based trade are the best engine to lift living standards, reduce environmental destruction, and build shared prosperity." Bill Clinton said this and he was right.

3 comments:

Dr. Health said...

It only means that our path does not live to an ideal.

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