Atanu Dey On India's Development

Don’t they like freedom?

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Everybody likes to be free. That’s evident not only from introspection (which only humans, as far as we can tell, are capable of) but from just looking around we can be certain that all other humans also want to be free. Not just humans, all sentient beings prefer being free. Even lower animals — dolphins, dogs, elephants, tigers, cats, birds, and what have you — have a definite preference for not being constrained. It must be genetically hard-coded in living beings since freedom is good for life. That much is clear. The question is why then is there so much lack of freedom.

If there’s one thing that we don’t get satiated with it must be freedom. No one, I truly believe, says, “No, that is too much freedom for me. I want limits to what I am allowed to do. I want others to dictate to me what I should want, do, think, feel and behave.” For all other goods, we do have a satiation point, although how much of it we want varies from individual to individual. We want food, clothing, housing cars, friends, electronic gizmos, . . . ad nauseum. But there is a limit as expressed in that Latin phrase — to the point of nausea. Beyond that we don’t want any more.

Even money — the most fungible of all goods — has a satiation point. We want more of it but the desire for money is definitely limited, with the possible exception of those who are pathologically insane.[1] After a point, having too much of it is a burden. Money is good but it is not an end in itself. It is only a means to an end, and it is not even the only means. Money is not a terminal value. Freedom is the terminal value and money only has instrumental value to that end. Anything beyond the amount of money required for ensuring freedom from material want does not add to our utility and is therefore useless.

To repeat, freedom is a terminal value. That’s what we all want. All other things we do can be eventually traced to that goal of having freedom. We are happy when we are free. Everything seems to point to that. Our daily human struggle — collective or individual — is ultimately directed towards that one goal. The little boy wants to be free to do what he wants, the puppy wants to be free to go outside or come in, the grown up wants to work at a job that she finds pleasant, groups of people all over the world want to be free from the dictates of whoever is controlling them. We get out of bed to do things not because we value doing those things but because it helps us creep a little bit closer to being free.

That desire to be free is so deep rooted that it has been the one constant tune to which (most) humans dance. For millennia the wise among the ancients have searched for a way to be free, to be liberated. Liberation, moksha, nirvana — that’s the search. All are searching for that lost chord but only some have found it.

Rational people want freedom, of course. The average person wants freedom from material wants, at least to start off with. Those who have transcended their material needs, go on to desire freedom from desire itself. The more advanced seek freedom from attachment. Not just the average or the wise, even severely deluded people want freedom. Gandhi wanted freedom, for himself and probably from himself.

The cry of freedom moves the masses. The masses are not enlightened beings but even they rise up when they hear the cry for freedom. The desire for freedom is so strong and blinding that they are willing to enslave themselves to those who promise them freedom. That’s the ultimate irony. Billions of people willingly submit themselves to cruel masters just because they are promised freedom from material want.

So then, why is freedom not seen much of around the world. Why is it that only a small percentage of the world’s population has any appreciable degree of it? But first, let’s note two facts. The fact is that the parts of the world where the people are the most free are the parts which are materially prosperous. Material prosperity is not the end all and be all of human existence but it is certainly the most basic necessity for the realization of human potential. Another fact is that the world today has the technology that makes it possible for every human to be materially non-deprived. This was not true just a couple of centuries ago but today now the world has the resources and the technology for that.

Let’s get back to the question I started off with. Why does it appear that people don’t like freedom? Apparently some people don’t like freedom. That claim is based on a simple premise and it is this: if people really sincerely desired freedom, it would not be possible for them to not have freedom. After all, if enough number of people desire freedom, they would have it. It’s one of those things that for everyone to have it, all that is needed is a certain fraction of the people to demand it. And since not sufficient people (apparently) in a particular society want it, that society does not have it.

To make this idea a little bit concrete, let’s take the case of freedom of expression which is an important component of a broad conception of freedom. Suppose in a certain society only one percent of the people feel that freedom of expression is important and the rest feel that there should be severe restrictions on what people are allowed to say. That society will not have the freedom of expression regardless of whether it is a democracy or an autocracy or any other kind of -cracy. Conversely, suppose an overwhelming segment of the population values freedom of expression, I think it is self-evident that freedom of expression will be the societal norm.

Societal norms arise from within the society and they reflect the broad consensus and the consciousness of the majority of the people. They don’t have to go to regularly scheduled formal polls to express their desires; the will of the collective emerges all by itself. If the people did not want it, it would not be a reality for them. In other words, in the jargon that is so beloved of economists, norms are endogenous — arising from within the system. (The antonym is “exogenous” — given or imposed from outside the system.)

My claim is that if a society has a repressive government, then it means that a sufficiently large segment of the population wants a repressive government. A necessary corollary to that claim is that if a sufficiently large segment of the population wants a particular type of government, they will have it. Therefore, I claim that wherever you find governments repressing their people, it’s because that is what the people want.

That some people want a repressive government is an outlandish claim. It is not only outlandish, it directly contradicts the first part of this essay that people want freedom and it is hard-coded in their genes. In the rest of this I will resolve that apparent contradiction.

Any given population is heterogeneous along many dimensions. There are rich people and there are poor people; there are productive people and non-productive; skilled people and non-skilled people; talented people and the other type; hardworking people and lazy people; informed people and ignorant people; honest people and dishonest people; there are old people and young people; males and females. Let’s just consider the division between the rich and the poor, in this case.

Suppose the poor were convinced that it is the avarice of the rich that is responsible for their misfortunes. For the moment we will set aside the question of how the poor came to be poor, or how the belief arose that the rich are responsible for the situation. Now suppose the poor see the government as their agent and endow the government with the power to redress their grievances. This the government does through wealth redistribution. Which means that the government does away with the right to property. If the government feels like it, it simply appropriates a part or the whole of your property and does whatever it wants to do with it. It takes property from the haves and transfers it to the have-nots. The loss of the right to property is a restriction of freedom.

This story has three main characters: the poor, the rich and the government. The poor are happy to receive stuff; the rich are unhappy; and the government is happy. The happiness of the latter arises from two sources: first, it is good to be powerful and make others bend to your will. It’s a natural animal instinct, and the human animal gets more out of it than do non-human animals. The second source of happiness for the government (we must remember that governments are people too) is that in the process of the redistribution, they get to keep some part of the other people’s stuff they are handling.

But wait, what about the rich? Are they not powerful? Actually, they are not powerful relative to the poor. Here’s how. Every government has to have popular support. Every. Dictators and authoritarian governments not excepted. In the government’s move to remove property rights, it has the support of the poor — which in most cases (and especially in poor countries) — who outnumber the rich. The poor want the wealth to be redistributed and the government is only too happy to oblige. It may be that good people were once in government who could take the long or enlightened view. But only those who are skilled in the game of promising redistribution win and in time the government is made of people who are good at it.

What are the factors that drive this redistribution game? It’s a combination of envy, greed, sloth and ignorance — all very human failings but ultimately supremely destructive at both the individual and the societal levels. I reluctantly admit that in moments of weakness, I envy the rich even though I am far from being poor. How much more the envy of the rich among the really poor I probably cannot imagine. I am not immune to greed or laziness either. My only saving grace, I boldly claim, is that I know that giving up any bit of my freedom in exchange for me to receive some free stuff is a very stupid trade.

People who support governments that steal from the rich are being myopic. The habit of stealing grows, and while the promise made is that the rich will be robbed to give to the poor, in truth the government steals from the poor with equal relish. The theft from the poor is not so visible but is equally or even more despicable and destructive. What the poor lose is not just self-respect (being on the dole cannot be very good for the soul) but also the capacity to shape their own destiny. Slavery and dependency are not very distinct concepts.

Given a choice between keeping the right to property intact and getting free stuff, if the poor choose the latter, then society ends up with a government which steals stuff and redistributes some of it. As noted earlier, the poor have to outnumber the rich, and is always so in poor countries. Two related matters to consider now. One, why don’t the rich prevail? And second, why does the basic instinct for freedom get subverted? Let’s take the first one now.

The non-poor can be further segmented into the middle-class (which is also sometimes called the bourgeoise or the social middle-class), and the rich upper-class. You and I belong to the bourgeois. We mostly make our daily living in middle-class occupations such as being engineers, scientists, office-workers, small-time merchants, etc. We are get a salary. We are the people who are the haves that the government preys upon.

The upper-class rich are those who make their fortunes by being close to the government and indeed are (in most poor countries) rich because of their proximity and their intimate relationship with the government. Governments in poor countries are heavily interventionists in the economy and have the power to make or break the fortunes of the upper-class rich. In this piece, I will focus on only on the dynamics of the middle-class, the poor and the government. The filthy rich in poor countries, for the purposes of this exercise, can be considered as part of the government because their fortunes are so intimately and inextricably related. The license-control-permit-quota raj that India is so famous for lies at the foundation of that relationship.

In the most important sectors of the economy, the government steals private assets outright under some pretext or the other. It is called nationalization. It is naturally rationalized on the grounds that is in the national interest — and in the service of the poor. For instance, an international air carrier is nationalized. The government never does anything but for the benefit of the poor.

So the summary of the story so far is this. The poor, the middle-class and the government (together with the upper-class rich) are locked in a game. The government to stay in power has to have the support of the poor because they outnumber the middle-class. This the government does by redistributive policies which amount to confiscation through various means of private property. These policies are supported by the poor but the society as a whole loses an important bit of an essential freedom. Society gives up freedom in exchange for free stuff.

This theft cannot go unnoticed. So the government faces the problem of people speaking up. It solves that problem with clamping down on the freedom of speech and expression. Another piece of the freedom edifice crumbles to dust. The poor — uneducated for the most part — cannot fathom what the whole fuss about freedom of expression is anyway, and they are not concerned. The government, to ensure that education is government directed, controls the education system with an iron fist. The people only get to know what the government wants them to know. But then what to do about those media channels — newspapers, radio, TV, and now of course the internet. The answer is simple: censorship and licensing of those channels that the government does not own, and outright ownership of others.

So we began with the crushing of property rights. Then came along destruction of the freedom of expression. Control of the education sector became essential. The private sector was made subservient to government diktats. Somewhere along the way came the control of the private sector.

Let’s get go back to the freedom of expression for a bit. Everyone truly wants it just as everyone wants to be free. But — and this is a big but — many people want to restrict others on expressions that does not suit them. The contradiction between wanting freedom of expression for themselves and simultaneous restrictions on the similar freedom of others is not apparent to them. However the government is quite happy to oblige and restrict freedom of expression because it serves the government’s objective also.

So back to the question. Do people value freedom or not? The answer depends on many things. One has to know what freedom is to really value it. Freedom is a terminal value but it also has an instrumental role. Its instrumental role is that it increases material prosperity. If one does not know that it is so valuable, it is possible that one gives it up in exchange for trinkets. If enough number of people get into that exchange, then the outcome is predictable. The result is poverty.

At some level of analysis, the poor are themselves responsible for the poverty they suffer and endure. The government, at that level of analysis, is neither benevolent nor malevolent. It just is a response to the underlying reality. What the government does is what any “rational” actor would do if he or she were in government: maximize his or her own payoffs.

There is a way out. If we were to fully comprehend the underlying causes of poverty, the solution cannot but be absolutely clear. All our searching would lead us to the inevitable conclusion.

The story that I have told (imperfectly) is simple. It is what economists call a model. Just as an aside, a model is just a story. Any story has a bunch of characters in it. These characters act in certain ways according to the personalities that the author gives them. The author chooses from the universe of all possible characters and their traits those that are important for her story. So also, an economist’s model is a story and the economist chooses which characters to have in it and how they interact with each other. What makes an economist’s story interesting is whether or not the story conforms in some way with reality. To judge that, you have to look out your window and see if the story is believable in the sense that the story the model tells is like what is happening outside your window.

In this model, I chose three characters: the poor, the non-poor and the government. This is just the first draft, so to speak. But even in this rough sketch you can see that the characters are true to life. The government is indeed doing what is in keeping with its nature. It is a government of the poor, by the poor, for the poor. Its main objective is to extract wealth. For this it needs the support of the poor. That means it has to pit the poor against the non-poor. The government has to create divisions and if there are already tears in the social fabric, it has to deepen them.

The government has to make policies that ensure that the numbers of the poor increase. It has to control all aspects of the economy not just to extract as much rents as it can but also as a by-product enlarge the number of the poor. They depend on the poor for their legitimacy and poverty is their friend — and who would willingly give up their friend!

India is a classic case of a people who have collectively, at least in the last couple of centuries, never really valued freedom. What will it take to awaken them to the great wonders of being a free people? Lots of people have tried and judging from the results have failed miserably. Swami Vivekananda was eloquent and forceful. Result: The people are in deep slumber. Sri Aurobindo tried and eventually retired to his ashram.

Ultimately, the slavery preached by some continued to fascinate the masses. Gandhi, Nehru and the whole bunch of sepoys ruled over them. Freedom didn’t mean a damn thing.

I am not done. But then I am never done. Yet this one I will provisionally close with a quote from Milton Friedman, that great champion of freedom:

Freedom is not the natural state of mankind. It is a rare and wonderful achievement. It will take an understanding of what freedom is, of where the dangers to freedom come from. It will take the courage to act on that understanding if we are not only to preserve the freedoms that we have, but to realize the full potential of a truly free society.

Be well, do good work and keep in touch.

Draft: June 11th. Revised 11 PM Pacific Daylight Time.

NOTES:

[1] There are people who amass huge wealth, counted in billions of dollars. These people can be put into two broad categories. First, those who made the money by selling stuff. They created something that others value and use, and for which they get paid as the producer. The wealth that these people have is a fraction of the value they created for society. Eventually, many of these people give away their wealth for purposes that makes them feel good but are also good for society. They endow great social causes such as scientific research or build institutions.

The other category of people who amass billions do so by stealing. They do not create wealth for society; they just steal it from society. Stealing a bit from here or there is a minor moral failing and is no more damaging to society than bad breath or sloppy table manners. But stealing in the billions does incalculable damage to society and to the world. These people are pathologically insane, because rational people will not steal so much that it does them no good and yet causes so much harm.

In contrast to those who make billions selling, those who make billions stealing cannot even give away their ill-gotten wealth for a useful cause. One lady in India who is among the most politically powerful is reported to have tens of billions of stolen money in foreign banks. Wonder what she plans to do with it.

  • tp

    Mebbe the unwashed masses want freedom from freedom.

  • Suramya

    What a wonderful article Atanu! You have made my day.

    However, it also made me sad because it seems very difficult to get out of this mess. The only key to the problem seems to be educating poor; but with such a large poor population and the Government hell bent on creating more poverty, we will be lucky if we get out of such a mess by next decade or two.

  • anup

    “Gandhi wanted freedom, for himself and probably from himself.”

    I had a good laugh after reading this line. :)

    Osho has said, “Grow wings, and do not buy crutches.” The Indian poor are interested in doing precisely the opposite; they buy crutches with their vote and lose their freedom.

  • jp

    If there is a single instinct one can blame for all this, it all starts with “I need a son to take care of me when I am old and feeble.” After Amir Khan’s new program I have heard comments of the form “sex selection is not the problem, sex is”, which, mixing metaphors here, really hits the spot. But honestly, seeing how they go about their other businesses, I can’t imagine the average Indian would have energy or motivation for sex if it did not give them that son (=insurance) with probability about half.

  • SV

    Very well put, wish it reaches the people who need to understand this.

  • allwyn

    theres lot to learn from rome. There too slavery was prevalent and then spartacus fought then it took 100s of yrs to change. ppl believe that this is the way like they did in rome and when ppl believe there is a better way it will change!

  • Andy

    Dear Atanu

    Will you be so kind enough to relate the same with USA? USA is in middle of the same debate between Poor, MiddleClass, Rich and Government as you would know. Is Govt in US trying to dumb down/sals down middle class so as to garner the popular Poor class support? Your valuable thoughts on this coundroum can be of great value to many of us NRIs caught in the middle of this