Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A hot summer of envy 21 May, 2006

Ever since the state election results, there has been more than the usual talk about “soaking the greedy middle class” by the emboldened Left. As it is, this government has been obsessed with redistributing poverty, and has done too little to create prosperity, which will only come through genuine reforms. Meanwhile, Arjun Singh, smelling an opportunity to become a Left immortal, has trumped his OBC coalition partners and declared a caste war. It promises to be a long hot summer of envy.

S. Narayan, the former finance secretary and economic advisor to the PM, writes that the real motive behind Arjun Singh’s move to extend reservations is envy. Having failed to improve government institutions, our babus and netas now want to control private ones. It will give them the clout to “visit, examine, ask questions and be feted by” the elite. He has a point. There are 265 universities in India, almost all of them under government control. Only about 25 of these are any good. The rest seldom produce an employable graduate. If government would focus on improving the quality of the 240 bad institutions, it would do more for the millions of OBCs than to throw them a few crumbs in the IITs and IIMs. If we rapidly increased the supply of good institutions there would be no need for reservations. But this would mean doing hard work, and it’s a lot easier to redistribute poverty.

If greed is the vice of capitalism, envy is the flaw of socialism. “From each according to ability and to each according to his need” was the rallying cry of Marxism as it set out to create a classless, egalitarian society. Socialist societies, however, turned out to be the most envious in history. “The searing heartburn of envy causes a choking feeling in the throat, squeezes the eyes out of their sockets”, says a character in Y. Olesha’s 1929 novella set in the Soviet Union, where turning in your neighbour for his perceived advantage became a way of life. Envy is felt more strongly between near equals than those widely separated in fortune. It doesn’t make sense to envy the Queen of England, does it? Envy is different from jealousy--one is jealous about what one has, but envious about what others have. The philosopher, John Rawls wrote: “A person who envies another is prepared to make both persons worse off to reduce the gap between them”. Envy was a major factor behind the killing of Pramod Mahajan.

That wonderful character in the Mahabharata, Karna, struck a great blow against the caste system when he refused to switch sides. He stood up courageously to his mother. He told her that his “real” parents were his low caste family who had brought him up and not the royal one into which he had been born. Thus, he rejected society’s claim that status arises from birth. Although Karna was against the caste system, he was not envious. He was born with great talent, which was nurtured by private sector rishis rather than CPM’s unionised time-servers. He would have supported merit and vehemently opposed reservations. He would have embraced the affirmative action proposal I made in my last column, which would promote excellence and equity. Manmohan Singh, the economist, will quickly appreciate the lesson from Karna’s story--we must expand India’s talent pool without lowering standards. Thus, he would be wiser if he listens to Karna rather his envy inspired populist colleagues.

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