Sunday, December 23, 2012

Stop talking, start doing

Ratan Tata is a reticent man. He is 74 and retires this month as chairman after guiding his group to be the country’s number one, $ 100 billion, in revenues. He commands respect not only from his 450,000 employees but from the entire global business community. He is courteous and complains rarely. But earlier this month he spoke out in anguish. “Government inaction is driving investment away from the country,” he said, and this was forcing groups like the Tatas to seek opportunities abroad where you don’t have “a seven or eight year wait to get clearance for a steel plant.” The finance minister, P. Chidambaram, echoed this view, reminding us that over 100 mega projects had been stuck for years because of a lack of approvals. Clearly, this failure of the government is greatly responsible for bringing India’s economy to its knees. 

Not only CEOs but ordinary Indians have been voicing the same complaint for years. Why should it take 12 years to build a road or 10 years to get justice in our country? Our public debate is filled with talk of corruption, about the right to information, of democratic answerability but almost no one speaks about the need for quick decision making or enhancing the capacity of our weak, soft, and ‘flailing’ state. No amount of CAG’s disclosures or ranting about the Lokpal will improve the state’s ability to act or strengthen our crumbling institutions. Is our obsession with accountability and transparency making us forget that the state was, in fact, created for collective action?

Accountability is, of course, important. Over the past decade, campaigns by activists supported by intellectuals have brought significant gains, such as the Right to Information Act. The pressure exerted by Anna Hazare’s movement backed by the media have raised awareness of corruption in high places and even helped in the arrest of powerful people. We are rightly proud of these achievements which have strengthened our democracy. But these laudable steps have not significantly improved services of the state to the citizen. Cases are still stuck in the courts; roads are built at a snail’s pace; police will delay registering an FIR unless influence or money is exchanged; it takes 117 approvals and 7-10 years to build a power plant. The list goes on.

Oddly enough, the push for democratic accountability may have weakened our already feeble state. The average official, always faint hearted and timid, is now even more afraid of putting his pen to paper. This is the other side of our fight against corruption. The modern democratic state has to balance the ability to deliver services on time with accountability to the people. Other democracies have also faced this problem of balance but they have found a way to cope by reforming their institutions. All institutions, in fact, must aim for a balance between accountability and action. A company could not survive if the CEO spent the whole day listening to shareholders. A school would not be effective if its principal spent his time only listening to parents. Already scorned as a “nation of talkers and not doers”, India needs to shift its focus to action.

There is a great deal to be hopeful about India’s future. It is stable, open, and amazingly tolerant. Its economic reforms have put it on a promising path of rapid growth. It is breeding outstanding companies which are more innovative than most in Asia. Its middle class is growing rapidly and its poor will benefit from a more effective welfare system based on cash transfers. But India’s soft underbelly is a soft, weak state, whose institutions of governance—the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the police--are in desperate need of reform. This is one of the reasons why its economy has hit a wall as it approaches the $ 2 trillion GDP mark.

Ratan Tata and P. Chidambaram have focused on one symptom of the disease—paralysis in decision making at the centre. But even the solution--the recently formed cabinet committee on investment—invites scepticism. The issue is not ideological—a big versus a small state. India needs to achieve an effective balance between our government’s ability to act and be accountable to the people. 

Thursday, December 06, 2012

To equate capitalism with greed is a mistake

On an evening in early October , the announcer at one of our premier news channels screamed 'greed' while describing the misdeeds of the latest victim of Arvind Kejriwal. Earlier that day, Mr Kejriwal had accused Robert Vadra of receiving favours from the real estate company DLF Ltd. In the next breath, the announcer explained that crony capitalism was at the root of the problem. 

Indeed, not a day goes by when someone does not employ the word 'greed' to describe capitalism. They say that if envy is the sin of socialism , greed is the sin of capitalism. Capitalism is sometimes called a 'system of greed' and is this perhaps a reason why capitalism is finding it difficult to find a comfortable home in India? India is an open, tolerant, liberal democracy, but why is it unable to institutionalize free markets? Why does India have to reform by stealth? Corruption, for example , will not be beaten with a big, new authoritarian bureaucracy, as antigraft protesters want. It will diminish only when discretionary powers are wrested from dodgy bureaucrats and politicians and turned over to transparent, competitive markets. 

To equate 'capitalism' with 'greed' is a mistake. We tend to confuse self-interest in the marketplace with selfishness or greed. At the heart of capitalism is the idea of exchange between ordinary, self-interested human beings, who seek to advance their interests peacefully in the marketplace . Adam Smith called this 'rational self-interest' . It is the same motive that gets one to jump out of bed in the morning or makes one carry an umbrella if it rains—nothing selfish about that. To be human is to be self-interested , and this is what exchange in the market place entails. 

Greed or selfishness, on the other hand, is an excess of self interest and often transgresses on the rights of others. It is present in all of us, but we find it easier to see it in others and difficult to see it in ourselves. Greed can motivate theft, entail himsa—hurting anotherwhose opposite, ahimsa, is a virtue that Mahatma Gandhi extolled. But the other side of greed is ambition, a positive thing, and when rightly directed, is life-affirming . Herein lies the conundrum of human existence: that the same inner forces that result in a vice can just as easily become virtues that can motivate the well-being of our species. 
Those who believe that capitalism has been forced on us by the imperial West are also wrong. Friedrich Hayek, the Noble laureate, called the market a spontaneous order—it is natural for human beings to exchange goods and services, and this is how every society evolved money, laws, conventions and morals to guide behaviour in the marketplace. These are natural products of human endeavour. Competing and cooperating in the marketplace existed in India before the West was imperial or modern. 

Whether we like it or not, India is headed in the direction of some sort of democratic capitalism. After two decades of reforms, hardly anyone in India wants state ownership of production, where the absence of competition corrodes the character even more, as we know too well from the dark days of the 'license raj' . Our animus against capitalism has diminished after communism's fall as people increasingly believe that markets do deliver greater prosperity, but most think that capitalism is not a moral system. They continue to believe that morality must depend on religion. 

Although the market is neither moral nor immoral, human self-interest usually brings about good behaviour in the marketplace. A seller who does not treat his customers with fairness and civility will lose market share. A company that markets defective products will lose customers. A firm that does not promote the most deserving employees will lose talent to its competitors. A buyer who does not respect the market price will not survive. Lying and cheating will ruin a firm's image, making it untouchable to creditors and suppliers. Hence, free markets offer powerful incentives for ethical conduct, but they must be backed by state institutions that enforce contracts and punish criminal behaviour . If the market has an inbuilt morality, why are there so many crooks in the marketplace? The answer is that there are crooked people in every society, and this is why we need effective regulators, policemen and judges. We should design our institutions to catch crooks and not harass innocent people as we do so often. 

The other cause of our grief is to mistake being 'pro-market' with being 'probusiness' . To be 'pro-market' is to believe in competitive markets which help to keep prices low and gradually raise the quality of products . Competition also means that some businesses will die because they are poorly managed and cannot compete. Kingfisher Airlines and Air India should be allowed to die and not be bailed out by the government . Thus, being pro-market leads to 'rules-based capitalism' ; 'pro-business' often leads to 'crony capitalism' . Not to have explained this difference has been the great mistake of our reformers and this has led to the false impression that the reforms only make the rich richer. Crony capitalism exists in India today because of the lack of reforms in sectors such as mining and real estate. To get rid of crony capitalism we need more rather than less reform. 

The doom-mongers , who claim that we are now resigned to live in an age of decaying moral standards, are also wrong. Yes, the new Indian middle class is permissive and indulges enthusiastically in har mless pleasures. Yes, it is materialistic , consumerist and capitalistic. But these impulses are not to be mistaken for greed. Only when one's pleasure hurts another does it become a matter of the law and then, of course, it must be punished. The shared imagination of the new India with its harmless pleasure and victimless vice should not be condemned. Think of ours as a society in transition . Mass wealth is profoundly disturbing but once there is enough, India might again return to its old character of renunciation. 

Instead of religious rules, young Indians are motivated by duties to fellow human beings rather than to gods. Those who accuse them of shallow materialism ignore the injustices that prevailed when religion held a monopoly on morality. They overlook real ethical progress with regard to sexual and caste equality that our secular society has begun to deliver. So, the next time Kejriwal makes an expose and the TV screams 'greed' , do not fall into the trap of believing capitalist culture is morally sick or that we should return to a moral order rooted in socialism or religion.