Monday, September 03, 2007

It’s time to free our schools August 12. 2007

A dear friend of mine has grown weary. He runs five schools in the slums of Delhi which provide a fine education to 13,500 poor children with 250 motivated teachers. But his idealism is frayed from fighting the ‘license raj’ for 20 years. He has been unable to gain accreditation for his schools because he is unwilling to bribe. Instead he is humiliated daily as he runs from one official to another. Ironically, ‘license raj’ went away in industry in 1991 but it still thrives in education. You need 11 licenses to run a school and each comes with a bribe. The most egregious one is an Essentiality Certificate by which a bureaucrat decides if your school is ‘essential’.

The answer to corruption is institutional reform--get rid of licenses and Essentiality Certificates and create massive disincentives against corruption. The new science of sociobiology explains how this works and how to get people to behave honestly. Evolutionary scientists teach us that human beings have evolved through a long struggle in which only the fittest have survived. The fittest are those who pass on their genes. But it is a mistake to believe that life is a tooth and claw struggle where only the selfish survive. Yes, we have evolved from animals—we share 98.6 percent of our genes with chimpanzees—but nature is replete with dharma-like goodness. Wolves and wild dogs bring food back for their young who cannot hunt. Dolphins will help lift an injured companion for hours to help him survive. Blackbirds and thrushes give warning calls when they spot a hawk even if it risks their own lives. Similarly, human parents make huge sacrifices for their children with little expectation of return. So, it is wrong to view nature as an amoral law of the jungle.

But how do you get human beings to behave as nicely with strangers as they do with their children? Two weeks ago I wrote in this column about two prisoners who would go free if they cooperated and how dharma-like behaviour emerges from reciprocal altruism. In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote that each person ‘learns from experience that if he aided his fellow-men he would receive aid in return’. However, if a person is mean, he will receive ‘tit for tat’ according to the principle of reciprocity. This is sociobiology’s answer to corruption: reciprocate corrupt behaviour with exemplary and quick punishment. Even Yudhishthira in the Mahabharata, who is inclined to turn the other cheek, realizes this and finally declares war on the Kauravas.

We have forgotten this lesson in India and this is why Gunnar Myrdal called us a ‘soft state’. Our idealistic approach to labour prevents quick punishment of the guilty. We have all the laws in place but our administrative processes are so ‘soft’ that they allow both the bribe taker and giver to get away, and this in turn sends a signal that corruption pays. Western countries were able to eliminate corruption because they punished it ruthlessly at various moments in their history. The message, ‘corruption does not pay’, became encoded in their culture, and their citizens over time acquired virtuous habits.

The answer to my friend’s problem is thus two-fold: first, liberalize and get rid of most licenses in education. If you do this, honest professionals will start good schools. More schools will mean more competition and this will improve quality all round, and good schools will drive out bad schools. Second, bribe-taking bureaucrats will behave decently if you vigorously inflict massive, rapid punishment on the guilty in accordance with sociobiology’s principle of reciprocity.

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