Warning : This is a longish post and in contrast to my recent ones, there is no attempt at humour. Wordplay will be back in a day or two.
From apathy, to shock, to rage, to indignance, to disgust, to weariness, to apathy. The cycle continues.
The same words are being said. The same issues are being bickered over. The same solutions are being debated.
“Why can’t we have better intelligence?” “Isn’t it appalling that politicians have cornered the best cops for their own security?” “What do we do to bring Muslims into the mainstream of development & prosperity?” “Why can’t we have harsher laws?” “Why is the Indian state so much about power and so little about governance?”
Every one of us has been asking some of these questions. All of us have answers for some of them. The same old answers. We talk of citizens taking up arms. We drape ourselves in our national flag. We resolve to vote next time. We light candles. We wear white shirts. You know what we’re actually doing? We are just deluding ourselves that our anger, our patriotism and our temporary activism will somehow create a mythical force that would lead to an efficient government. A government that will guarantee security, ensure prosperity, build infrastructure, protect our heritage, preserve our environment, regulate our industry, administer justice and promote harmony & equality.
But what is government? It is not an abstract entity that is filled with good intentions and endless talent.
We feel that government by definition, is good, but our politicians are bad. We feel that government is efficient, but our bureaucrats are not. But what is government other than politicians and bureaucrats? Government is made up of nothing more and nothing less than people like you or me, who have the added desire and the stamina to seek public office. How can any government be more selfless than its politicians, or more efficient than its bureaucrats?
Throwing one bunch of politicians out and bringing another set in is not really going to change anything, is it? There isn’t any superhero in the opposition parties, or indeed in the world, who can efficiently deliver all the myriad expectations we have from our government. A government, like any organization, can only do what it is capable of doing. It cannot achieve things that it is not designed to achieve. Regardless of our expectations.
The point therefore is not to make our expectations greater and louder. It is, in fact, to reduce our expectation from government, so that the state can concentrate on a few important things, and perhaps do it with excellence. Let’s therefore take a step back and see what our reduced expectation could be. What are our core needs from government?
The biggest reason why individuals voluntarily organize themselves into societies is physical security. The right to life. At a day-to-day level, this is to prevent anyone from harming us physically or coercing us through the initiation of force. The right to life can be extended into the right to freedom of action. After all life is not just the absence of death. It is the freedom and ability to think, say and do what we want. This in turn leads to the right to property. Which is nothing but the right to enjoy the result of our actions – the fruits of our labour – and to dispose of it as we please. We need government to protect these core rights of ours.
This would mean that at a fundamental level, we need government to run a police force and justice system. We also need to protect our society from other societies which may use force on us. Thus the army. If we define the role of government as these key things, and nothing more, we may perhaps, have a chance of getting security & justice. After all, when the expectations are few and well-defined, the politicians and bureaucrats become accountable, and more importantly the task becomes possible. As a side effect, if the power of government is limited to these areas, the avenues for corruption are few, and there is therefore no incentive for thugs and crooks to run for office.
But we don’t stop here, do we? We want government to do everything for us. We want some bureaucrat to control our industrialists (instead of exercising our right of not buying his product). We want a minister to protect local industry (by imposing tariffs and reducing efficiency at the cost of the consumer). We want government to provide us with cheap gasoline (thereby allowing us to waste resources). We want a dictator to ban smoking in restaurants (instead of us hurting the owner by denying him our patronage). We want government to protect our culture (by holding society ransom to a few people’s moral standards). Every one of us tries to use government to live off somebody else. Every one of us tries to use government to impose our personal views on others. Government, as a result, becomes just an instrument for the mutual violation of rights. Exercised by whichever group is committed enough to vote as a gang.
Having given government so many things to do, so many departments to run, and so many contradictory claims to cater to, why are we surprised when we find that we have a government that cannot perform its core functions effectively? Why are we surprised that our politicians are good-for-nothing? Why are we frustrated whenever we deal with the state apparatus. It’s time we understood that politicians will be self-serving and bureaucrats will be lazy. They are humans like you and me, and will only do what serves their chances of individual growth. They are simply not qualified to do most of the things we expect from them.
The mistake we have made therefore, is not in electing lousy people. It is in giving them too much power over our lives. It is in being dependent on government for all the wrong things. For every thing. Thereby endangering our real needs like our physical security.
Let us see what would happen if we limited government to the protection of the three key rights. Especially in the light of the attack on Mumbai. Firstly, freedom of speech would ensure that religious beliefs and fanaticism can be openly discussed. In today’s world, the moment something becomes a question of ‘faith’, it becomes a taboo subject. We tread gingerly in order to avoid hurting anyone’s sentiments. Not because we are sensitive, but because we are scared. The moment any group of people decides to get offended, they are free to unleash mob violence. Sometimes, this is even enforced by the state itself, through censorship and bans. If government protected freedom of speech (action), we could have a free and frank discussion on our various communities and practices. So that there is mutual tolerance based on knowledge. Not mutual toleration based on fear. A community cannot feel alienated if everybody is discussing it. It feels alienated when nobody wants to understand it.
Secondly, the right to property would encourage individuals and entrepreneurs to take whatever measures they deem fit to protect their belongings. Of course, the police will be there to augment safety. I understand that no private security force may have the skills to resist attacks of this scale. But a true notion of private property would also motivate individuals and businesses to take some steps for preventive protection. This can only help. We will not have the current trend of shoving all responsibility to the government and then just whining when things go wrong.
And thirdly, the police force would be efficient. After all, they don’t have to worry about when bars are closing and whether women are singing and whether people are listening to music in their cars. Their goal will be focused and they’ll be equipped, trained and paid well for performing their one important task.
Incidentally, once we detach government from notions of ideology, and abstracts like socialism, secularism and other such things, there is no concept of ‘terrorism’ either. Terrorism will be stripped off its garb of ‘ideology’. Terrorists will be captured and punished for what they are – armed thugs who are violating other people’s rights to life and property. The political dimension can be completely removed.
A police force that only focuses on protecting people from harm would also ensure better community involvement in the process. Most people hate policemen these days. After all, the cops take protection money from traders. They harass couples in the night. They represent the might of a bully government. We fear them and suspect them because we see that their primary job is to control us. But imagine if the police were our friends. If their only job is to protect us, we would help them help us. People would report suspicious people or activities. We would approach the cops if something bothers us. We will not hesitate to ‘get involved’. This community awareness and participation would in turn reinforce the efficiency of the police and a positive loop can be created towards greater security.
We would then become a society that uses government to liberate itself. But what do we have now? We have the government we deserve. We have a sheepdog because we choose to be sheep. We bleat impotently because that is the only power we have retained. We use platitudes like the spirit of Mumbai’ because we want to hide our helplessness behind euphemisms. Why do you think we carry on with our lives after every attack and atrocity? Not because of some noble spirit. Simply because we have no choice. What else is there to do.
I’ve heard many arguments against limited government. Once the security threat is forgotten, people will still want to impose their views through governmental force. They will ask, “How do we ensure that common resources are protected?” “How can we achieve social justice (whatever that means)?” “Isn’t this anarchy?”
No. It isn’t. The government that we discussed so far is the central government (with the state governments thrown in for administrative purposes). This does not mean communities cannot voluntarily organize themselves into cities and make whatever rules they think is for their good. A community can decide that it wants to pool-in money and build a park. It can decide that it will not allow loud music after 11pm or whatever. It can make any rules as long as the fundamental rights of the individual are not violated. The difference between a voluntary community (like a neighbourhood or a city) making rules and a country doing so is very simple. Communities compete for the talent of people. If I do not like the rules of a community, I can move somewhere else. I can take my talent, my innovation and my hard work elsewhere. Sheer competition for human resources will make every community strive towards providing a great quality of life to its voluntary inhabitants. But countries don’t work like that. I was born in this entity called India and I am only eligible for an Indian passport. Of course I can emigrate, but that involves a huge cost and effort. Even if I can pay it, not everyone can. Most people have no choice but to live in their country of birth. There is nothing voluntary about it. So a government, which runs a non-voluntary community, has no incentive to compete and provide a better quality of life to its citizens. Which means that the politicians will not do it. Let’s have a thousand cities that make rules. Let government just provide the underpinning of laws and rights. And do that well.
Another objection is the developmental one. The fact that private enterprise will not get into projects that are good for all but do not give profits immediately. Like roads or dams or whatever. Perhaps this is true. Let government get into this. But why as a monopoly? Maybe our country needed the government to run air services sixty years back (though I doubt it). But if the stated reason is that private enterprise aren’t capable of providing air services, then why use licenses and quotas to prevent them from trying in the first place? Isn’t that some kind of weird self-fulfilling logic? Let me reluctantly concede that in a large and poor country like ours, we need government investment in some areas. But why on earth do we need tax money spent on these areas after private players have come in and are providing great service. Why, for instance, do we need BSNL now? Gratitude? Isn’t that bizarre, considering it’s our tax money that was spent earlier and is being spent now? So let the government invest in infra-structure, but till and only till private enterprise is in a position to take over. A private monopoly is still threatened by nimble competition. A legalized government monopoly has absolutely no reason to be efficient. As Milton Friedman said, “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there’d be a shortage of sand.”
A third objection is the so-called humanitarian one. How do we help the ‘have-nots’ or the victims of natural disasters? Don’t we need government for that? So the government will magnanimously donate resources. But excuse me. The government doesn’t have any resources. It does not create any wealth. The only money it has is the tax that is coerced from us. So what gives it the right to use my money for charity without my consent. Let’s put it this way. If a person wants to give charity he can do so anyway. If he doesn’t want to give charity, then nobody can force it out of him. If the majority wants to give charity let them do so by all means. But how can even one person be looted of his money (through tax) because the majority wants to give it to someone else? How is it humanitarian to rob one human and give it to another? There is a related argument that government is needed to channelize the charity. This is absurd because there are more than enough voluntary organizations that will probably do a better job. If the market allows it, there may even be meta-charity outfits that specialize in coordinating the efforts of other smaller charities.
The point is that we do not need government to make rules, we don’t need it for development and we don’t it them for redistribution. We need it to protect our life and liberty.
We have been through a traumatic week. But let us come out of this with some real changes. A few mindless heads rolling and a million symbolic gestures are not going to change anything. In these times of trouble let us not call for more government, more laws and more control. The more government we have, the less we feel the need to protect ourselves, be self-reliant, give charity, be considerate, be tolerant or be social. Because every law that is made makes us hand over some human virtue to the state. Every decree that we accept makes us a little less human.
The less government we have, the better we will live together. And most importantly, the more efficient that government would be, in protecting our life, our property and our freedom of action.
Note : There are numerous people writing about liberty on the internet. As I am a diligent reader of these posts, I am sure that I have borrowed many arguments and perhaps even exact phrases from them. Unfortunately I have no clue what I have borrowed from whom. My apologies to all of them for not being able to give credit where it is due.
While I have written one long, perhaps drawling article, Sauvik Chakraverti has written over three hundred beautiful ones on this subject. One of the best days I have had, is the day I spent going through his archive.
Update : I just read an article posted by K.M. which makes a related argument in a powerful manner. Here it is.