It’s frustrating being a libertarian in India. Libertarians, broadly, believe that every person should have the freedom to do whatever they want with their person or property as long as they do not infringe on the similar freedoms of others. Surely this would seem a good way for people to live . Naturally, libertarians believe in both social and economic freedoms. They believe that what two consenting adults do inside closed doors should not be the state’s business. Equally, they believe the state should not interfere when two consenting parties trade with each other. And yet, despite having gained political freedom 60 years ago, personal and economic freedoms are routinely denied in India. Even worse, no political party speaks up.
Consider our Left parties. They speak up for personal freedoms , such as free speech and against censorship, but, bound by dogma, they oppose economic freedom. They do not understand that allowing people to trade freely creates prosperity better than government handouts can. They do not see the good that our limited reforms of the last 15 years have done. They point to the existence of povertyas evidence that the reforms have failed, not admitting that the reforms have not been carried out in the areas that affect our poor the most.
Most of the policies that the Left supports, such as the labour laws and the minimum wage, harm poor people the most. It does not accept that poverty is a result of insufficient jobs and low productivity, and that unleashing private enterprise would solve these problems. It opposes foreign investment, as if anything but employment and prosperity could result from it. It views economics as a zero-sum game, and assumes that the only way to enrich the poor is to steal from the rich.
Then consider the Right. The religious right routinely tramples on personal freedoms in the name of religion and tradition and suchlike. It takes offence at any criticism, and is an enemy of free speech. The extreme elements of it, which are more common than we acknowledge treat an entire minority as subhuman. Inspired by nationalistic fervour, they often oppose economic freedoms as well.
But why blame the political parties? Politics is all about demand and supply: Our politicians do not value freedom because our people do not demand it.
When it comes to economic freedoms, many of the great truths of economics are deeply unintuitive. The fact that markets aren’t zero-sum, for example, or that the spontaneous order of millions of individuals working separately towards their self-interest can produce and distribute goods far more efficiently than central planning can. Also, most of us have grown up in a socialist framework and, instinctively, look to our mai-baap state for solutions. We want it to provide jobs, to lift people out of poverty, to provide free education, and so on. “What does a poor man care about freedom?” an IAS officer friend recently asked me. “All he wants is food.” And indeed, the connection between economic freedom, jobs and food on the plate is not one that is immediately obvious.
When it comes to personal freedoms, we don’t even notice their absence. As a matter of routine, films are censored, books are banned, and our personal and sexual preferences are restricted. Whether it’s M.F. Husain painting a Hindu goddess nude or an Orkut forum about Shivaji or a comedian making fun of Mahatma Gandhi, we ask, by default, that it be stopped. How can free speech thrive in a country where giving offence is treated as a crime?
Am I hopeful for things changing? Yes and no. Yes, because as the cause and effect of economic freedom becomes more clear, people will see through socialist rhetoric and realize that only free enterprise can provide jobs, lift our living standards, and raise this country out of poverty. Such a clear-cut utilitarian case is harder to make for personal freedoms, and political parties, in any case, thrive on catering to special-interest groups. They are, thus, more likely to restrict freedom even further. Immense sighs emerge. Perhaps I should simply have been a Communist or a Fascist.
Amit Varma writes the popular blog, India Uncut, at www.indiauncut.com. We look forward to your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org