Yesterday evening I was at the National Law School in Bangalore. I was invited to have a conversation with the students on the subjects covered in my book, Transforming India. It was a lively conversation and in fact quite heated at points. I enjoy a good argument — sometimes I think I should have been a trial lawyer. In any event, I argued my case and to my pleasant surprise there was push-back from some of the students.
I say it was a pleasant surprise because in general I have found that students in India are not very vocal about their opinions. It could be because of their disinterest in the topic, or because of their incomprehension, or because of some failing of mine — or a combination of them all. Therefore I was delighted to actually have an animated conversation with the students at the NLS.
I think my propositions are quite reasonable. In fact I think they are reasonable to the extent of being self-evidently true and there should be little debate about their validity. So why did some in the audience find some of my assertions wrong?
There could be many reasons for that. One of the fundamental reasons could be that economists think differently from the general public. Economists talk at a level of abstraction which is hard for non-economists to follow. I remember quite vividly how I reacted when I first came across economic models which reduced all the complexity of the world of production to three factors of land, labor and capital — and in some cases to just land and labor.
Economists even end up producing widgets using nothing other than labor. How could that exercise be illuminating in the least way? Yet surprisingly that kind of seemingly simple-minded modeling is extremely useful.
Students of law are trained to know the details of the set of existing laws, and to take specific real world situations and apply the laws to argue their cases. There’s a specificity in that kind of work which is very useful to them but when it comes to economic reasoning, getting bogged down in details is the worst barrier to comprehension.
Last evening once again revealed a puzzle which really evades my comprehension. Why don’t some people intuitively understand the value of freedom? Why don’t they see that being free is a good in itself? Why do they bend to the will of others so willingly?
We live in an imperfect world in which we need to make compromises. To avoid anarchy, we have to compromise and allow for a government. But recognizing that government is a necessary evil, we should seek to keep it at a minimum. Yet some people believe that the problems of our society require more government rather than less.
In India, people have been fed too much socialism and it has become second nature to them. They cannot imagine a world of freedom from government interference and control of their lives. Our greatest challenge is simply this: how do we awaken the desire for freedom of our people?
The good news is that philosophically Indians are tolerant. Our dharmic traditions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism — are founded on the idea of tolerance and acceptance (unlike the Abrahamic faiths which are intolerant and exclusive.) It will be easier for us to cross over to the side of freedom (libertarianism) because tolerance is part of our existing mental make-up.
Human freedom is inextricably bound with tolerance. As Milton Friedman argued (see the video), the foundation of liberatarianism is tolerance.
Have fun watching Uncle Friedman.