Sunday, July 18, 2010

Liberty vs choices

T N Ninan on liberty vs choices

  • Societies usually emphasise one of two values: freedom or liberty (as in the United States, where they talk constantly of “libedy”) and equality (typically in the socialist states). The two are often posed as a choice; the more you have of one, the less you have of the other. The US was a surprisingly equal society in the late 1970s, in the wake of President Johnson’s Great Society legislation of the 1960s, but has become progressively unequal under mostly Republican presidents since. And though the Soviet Union is defunct, the independent countries which were once Soviet constituents, as well as the “transition economies” of Eastern Europe, remain among the most equal societies on Earth.

  • Those who drew up India’s Constitution in 1950 tried to ride both horses. The Constitution underlined the inviolability of basic freedoms, by enshrining fundamental rights, but also stressed equality (social and economic justice) through the Directive Principles. This has typified the choices made in public policy for 60 years. Through the socialist phase, the fundamental rights were chipped away (for example, the right to property, while the first amendment circumscribed freedom of speech). Through the reform years, it is freedom (in favour of individual volition, and a rollback of state control) that has gained the upper hand.

  • For some reason, those on the equality platform think that stressing modalities (i.e. minimising waste, corruption, etc.) is somehow anti-poor. Ditto with providing the intended beneficiaries the freedom to choose. They are also opposed to taking away subsidies enjoyed by the non-poor (as on cooking gas) to provide the fiscal elbow room to hand out more subsidies to the poor. Perhaps they think that the efficient and honest delivery of goods and services to a properly selected target population is a pipedream and, therefore, a diversionary tactic by those who speak in the name of efficiency but only want to deny the poor their due. Or, the expansion of the state is an ideological end in itself — as must be the case with the Communists. Also, talk of markets being efficient, or at least working better than bureaucrats do, is to the bleeding hearts the equivalent of waving a red rag. Despite all this, is it too much to hope that the revived National Advisory Council, dominated by well-meaning, civil-society activists, will look to see how efficiency also enhances equity?

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