Friday, October 27, 2006

Don’t despair over integrity September 10, 2006

One ought to read a great book twice, at least. When I first read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace I was too young. I was only interested in the plot and the relationships between Natasha, Andrei, and Pierre. When I read it again in my forties, I was deeply moved by its moral concerns. I realised that the novel is really about the way we deceive ourselves, how we are false to others, how we oppress fellow human beings, and how we’re deeply unjust in our day to day lives. Most of this moral blindness seems man-made and avoidable. It makes one wonder if this is an intractable human condition, or can we change it?

It seems to me that ordinary human lives should not have to be so cruel and humiliating. Is it not possible to be more honest, fair, and kind in our relationships? Some of our misery is the result of the way the state treats us. Can we not reduce at least some of the grief that public officials inflict on us? It is in pursuit of these questions that I began to write this column more than ten years ago. The same questions sent me to the Mahabharata, and I tried to find answers in the epic’s elusive concept of dharma. I have concluded that we can reform our institutions, and this can change the morals and character of our people and deliver greater happiness to our society.

We are hopelessly addicted to the belief that corruption in India is caused by the crookedness of Indians. This is just not true. The truth is that India has far more red tape than other countries; red tape leads to corruption and distorts a people’s character. According to the World Bank’s “Doing Business” database, it takes 89 days to start a small business in India while it takes two days in Australia or Canada. There are more entry procedures in India; each procedure is a point of contact with an official; each contact is an opportunity to extract a bribe. Empirical studies show that burdensome entry regulations do not improve the quality of products, make work safer, or reduce pollution. They only hold back investment or force people into the informal economy. Hence, the Copenhagen Consensus of expert economists concluded in 2004 that easing start-up rules is more important for development than investing in infrastructure or health care.

In India it also takes longer to register a property, enforce a contract, and close a business. Indian managers spend more time on regulatory issues than managers in other countries. Thus, India ranks low among the 145 countries studied by the World Bank in the ease of doing business. Fortunately, reforms can quickly change country rankings. In 2005, 58 out of 145 countries cut red tape and simplified their regulations in some way. India was one of these—it improved its credit markets. Although it has been moving up since 1991, India remains a hostile business environment.

Civilized societies are less corrupt not because their character is superior but because their institutions are better at aligning the incentives of their citizens. There is nothing wrong in the character of Indians. The same Indians behave differently when they cross the immigration line at Heathrow airport. So, let us not despair about our integrity. Let’s focus on reforming our institutions, cutting red tape, and become a good place to do business. Our moral character will follow quickly. And yes, do read War and Peace, again.

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