In Singur, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Ratan Tata and Mamata Banerjee call for justice, so do the displaced farmers. In Jammu and Kashmir, separatist leader Syed Gilani, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and citizens call for justice. It’s a tragic paradox that violence reigns in the name of justice.
Unfortunately, collectivistic politics has made a mockery of “justice”; it has come to mean anything and everything to political parties, and nothing to citizens. Amartya Sen’s Hiren Mukherjee memorial parliamentary lecture on niti (governance) and nyaya (justice) on 11 August has played its part in muddling minds. In common law (which is the foundation of the Indian, US and other judicial systems), judges rule with the sole objective of protecting lives and property of citizens. In this simple notion of justice lies the road to development for the Hindus and Muslims of Jammu and Kashmir, farmers of Singur and citizens of India.
Common law derived its moral principles from the “natural law” tradition, which thinks all individuals have the right to own themselves and produce of their labour i.e., private property. Historically, natural law was associated with Christian theologists; by the time of the Scottish enlightenment, economists and philosophers realized its profound institutional role in industrial revolution.
The Common Law tradition segments law into (1) “property law” which directly protects private property, (2) “criminal law” which protects lives of individuals, (3) “tort law” which protects individuals from accidental damages, and (4) “contract law” which ensure promises are kept. There is no further purpose to law, yet without intention Common Law has served as the foundation of peace and prosperity. Peace because individuals gain access to each other’s property only by trade, no coercion is permissible. Prosperity because trade and specialization can proceed without hindrance from political parties. Government cannot disrupt trade or unduly tax citizens; limited government ensures efficient provision of police and judiciary.
Unfortunately, the two World Wars, communism, and Keynesianism hit liberalism hard. Governments were larger than ever before, and socialism the intellectual high ground. And justice became muddled. Right to education, right to leisure, right to what politicians want were all called justice. And this is Sen’s notion of justice. Social justice is, however, self-contradictory, for a simple reason. Since individuals have the right to own their produce, heavy taxation is theft. So is price control and taking away land for social good. We run into a logical contradiction — for justice we practise injustice.
And once justice loses meaning, collectivism triumphs, for the old solid moral foundation of law can now be replaced with political opportunism. The government takes to cost benefit analysis (CBA) — any and all actions are possible if politicians can claim it’s for the greater good of society. Only trade can ensure that exchange of property rights happen only when both parties are better off. With CBA, experts decide who should command resource and who should leave their property. Violence erupts as some citizens feel they lost out. Interest groups capture the government; if there is going to be theft, why not get the government to steal for me than from me.
And justice begins to mean different things to different people. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) claims it is unjust to halt development that will bring jobs to millions; displaced farmers claim it is unjust to take away lands. And both are right because justice has no meaning. Behind the present turmoil lies a muddled notion of justice. Private property must be reinstated as a fundamental constitutional right for justice to have meaning.
Vipin P. Veetil is a staff writer for Mint’s views pages. Comment at email@example.com