Earlier this month, the National Food Security Bill was signed into law by President Pranab Mukherjee when he signed the ordinance sent to him by the Union cabinet. It marks the end of years of bitter debate on the merits and demerits of the planned law.
The arguments against the law are well known. Economically, it will be ruinous for India and politically it marks the high tide of expediency on part of a corrupt and beleaguered government. But there is one argument in its favour that has withstood scrutiny and only evokes stony silence on part of critics. It is the moral case for the law. In fact, right from the start, champions of the law, notably Harsh Mander, a former member of the National Advisory Council, have made their case in moral terms.
One only has to imagine the face of a hungry child with a bloated belly and his bulging and vacuous eyes and all one can say from the heart is give him food. The moral case is, apparently, unbeatable. Even the most diehard fiscal realist cannot give an answer to this sad human spectacle.
But is the moral argument really that strong? Can state action correct moral lapses in society? In any country, the two points at which the state can effect positive moral change are by the use of law and by the educational system. It is doubtful if either one can address specific moral issues. Using the law to correct moral wrongs—and let us assume that citizens not having jobs and incomes to buy food and leading decent lives are moral and not economic problems—will create moral problems on a far bigger scale.
Take the changes hoped from food law as an example. Implementing the law will require the use of existing government machinery—officials at various levels—to deliver the food from the warehouse all the way to schools and ration shops. But here is where the problem is: government officials are in the end rational agents responding to incentives. At every step of the chain, officials have an incentive to take a part of the food meant for the poor and dispose of it either in the open market or keep it for their consumption. While the government will have acted in a moral manner, how moral is it for officials to steal food meant for the poor? If one examines the entire distribution chain, one “moral” act by the government will unleash immoral behaviour by many. And to say that we don’t know if that will happen is not an argument.
The food law assumes that these rational agents will also be moral agents and there will be no divergence between rational and moral behaviours. This is an untenable assumption.
This is a problem with all rights-based laws in vogue in India. Take the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. There is simply too much evidence of poor job seekers being deprived of wages or being given only a fraction of wages. In the case of the right to information law, it is not unusual for applicants to be harassed or even murdered for seeking information. The examples can be multiplied manifold. Surely, these are serious moral transgressions. And so far, no government action has been able to stop such behaviour.
The hope of the advocates of the food law, and in fact all other rights-based approaches, is based on what can be called the numbers argument. If one expands the sheer scale and reach of these laws, the number of hungry, jobless and those without education will decrease dramatically. But to use an inapt Malthusian adaptation, one can safely state that rights when increased in an arithmetical ratio will lead to moral violations in a geometrical ratio.
The fragility of moral reasoning was best expressed by John Rawls, himself a great moral philosopher, when he said, “Why can’t it happen that upon reading a play or a novel or the life of a historical figure, or listening to a talk, we are introduced to an ideal…and then and there, before we do anything we are, as it were, seized by that ideal, which from then on deeply affects us?” (Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, p. 43). The simple answer is that rationality imposes strict limits on morality. This may sound cruel and heartless, but can one deny it?
If ending hunger and deprivation were a simple moral matter, moral individuals actuated by Rawlsian motivations are all that would be needed to correct existing wrongs. There would be no need for state action. In their hearts, the champions of the food law know this well. Some 17 years ago, when the right to food was just a dream, Jean Dreze, a moral and moving force behind the right, was asked by students at Punjab University why concerned citizens could not get together and help hungry Indians. He simply laughed at the idea. The recourse to state action is an understandable if erroneous idea. But it is a strategy of despair and in the years ahead, the results will be despairing.
Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist will take stock of matters economic, political and strategic—in India and elsewhere—every fortnight. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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