Saturday, June 05, 2010

Private Affluence, Public Squalor

Recently on Karan Thapar’s program on television, a ‘stylish left wing’ commentator (SLW for short, a useful acronym that I owe to Saubhik Chakrabarti) said with a straight face that our troubles with the Maoists originated in our neo-liberal economic model and our post-1991obsession with growth. She then went on to lecture us about the callousness of the new middle class whose chief passion is vulgar consumption, and there is growing disparity between the rich and the poor.

Karan Thapar, sensing a juicy moment of controversy, smacked his lips and looked intently at me, asking me to respond. I explained patiently to my distinguished SLW panellist that growth is a necessary condition for lifting the poor everywhere, including in the tribal areas. It is not a sufficient condition, however, for people also need functioning schools and primary health centres, honest policemen and forest officers. The real problem, I said, is not with our economic model, but with poor governance. As a result we have public squalor amidst private affluence. So, don’t blame growth, blame the state’s inability to deliver public services, especially in remote tribal areas, where the police and forest officers tend to be rapacious.

Private success and public failure is an old debate between the defenders of capitalism and its critics, but it has revived again after the global financial crisis of 2008. Hence the historian, Tony Judt, laments like my SLW panellist, in his new book, Ill Fares the Land: ‘Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue of the pursuit of material self-interest indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of collective purpose.”

For a hundred years, public life in liberal Western societies has been conducted in the shadow of the Left-Right divide and it has provided a peg to understand public affairs. In the 1960s, politics infected the young who thought they knew how to fix the world. In the 1970s, there was a backlash to their unmerited arrogance. The Right triumphed intellectually in the 1970s and politically in the 1980s with success of Thatcher and Reagan. The Left grew defensive, especially after the collapse of communism. By 2000, the Washington consensus was the ruling wisdom in the world as country after country deregulated, lowered taxes and privatised enthusiastically. Today, after the crash of 2008, there is an awakening, and the Leftish rhetoric of Obama in America resonates with voters.

We have a somewhat different Left-Right divide in India. Most of us who call ourselves liberals in India are tolerant of dissenting attitudes and oppose interference in the affairs of others, but we do not generally oppose state intervention on ideological grounds. We do have a deep commitment to religious and political tolerance, but most of us would be called ‘social democrats’ in Europe. Although we do not generally oppose state intervention on behalf of the poor, we do feel badly let down by the incapacity, incompetence, and corruption of the Indian state. The inefficiency of the public sector is an issue everywhere, but in India it diminishes us daily. We do not oppose the public sector for threatening our liberty, as Americans do. We oppose it for its inefficiency. Our problem is not of the ‘what’ but of the ‘how’.
Meanwhile, the world has also changed. Despite the crash of 2008, hardly anyone really wants to replace capitalism. People mostly want to reform the financial sector. It was different when I was in college. We believed that a state-run economy was the best way to promote growth. Today nobody does, except perhaps in North Korea. Policy makers everywhere, especially those under the age of fifty, have a free-market orientation. There may be differences of emphasis, but they are all oriented toward markets. One reason is that capitalism has produced the highest standard of living in history. Since 1991, it has lifted millions of people in China, India, and Brazil out of poverty.
Ideology thus seems to have had its day. Marxism is no longer attractive to the young. No one defends the public sector on the grounds of collective interest. There are, of course, many models capitalism in the world. The countries of Scandinavia are more egalitarian; those on the European continent have a much greater commitment to public health and welfare; the English speaking countries, especially the UK and America, have the greatest commitment to the market and are the most suspicious of excessive regulation. They also suffer from the greatest inequality.

The future of India and China is mercifully no longer dependent on ideology. The race between the two hangs on the more practical question if India can fix its governance before China fixes its politics. Because the state has failed to deliver in India our policy makers increasingly seek pragmatic public-private partnerships. But this is a slow process for people are still suspicious of the market. They may not seek moral perfection in public life but they tend to impute good motives to government officials. They think businessmen make money for their own good and markets loot the unfortunate. They have trouble in seeing that the pursuit of profits can lift the general standard of living of the whole population. The idea is too counterintuitive. Hence, SLW commentators are always popular on TV.

Like Max Weber, the Mahabharata, would have approved of ideology’s decline in our times. The epic is unique in engaging with the world of politics and suspicious of public figures who seek moral perfection. When King Yudhishthira feels guilty after the war for ‘having killed those who ought not to be killed’, he decides to renounce the throne. To avert a political crisis, the dying Bhishma tries to dissuade him, teaching him that the dharma of a political leader is pragmatic and prudent, what Edmund Burke called the ‘god of this lower world.’ A political leader must eschew the ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ and follow the ‘ethic of responsibility’, as Weber put it. Our experience with the last UPA government taught us that when ideology becomes the driving force of politics then room for compromise is diminished and this makes for a dangerous world. The answer to Maoism in our tribal areas is to reform public institutions—the police, bureaucracy, and the judiciary--and not get distracted by futile, SLV discussions of economic models.
Gurcharan Das is the author of ‘The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma’