Thursday, September 29, 2005

PhD In Common Sense

Amit, in a thought-provoking post, worries about secular-right parties not resonating with Indians.

Today, politics throughout the country, especially in the heartland, is fought on the basis of identity, mostly caste. Ideas don't matter -- and even when they do, classical liberal ideas are deeply unintuitive. For example, if prices rise beyond what a poor man can afford, it is natural for him to believe that it is in his interest for price controls to be imposed, and for goods to be cheap enough for him to afford. When he sees the inequality in society, and rich men living in large houses with many cars, it is natural for him to believe that redistribution is just and will solve these inequalities. It is natural for him to welcome a move to give him free rice, and if he is a farmer, free electricity.

Most people are poor, of course, and ill-educated. The easy way out for politicians is to steer clear of economics, which they may not understand anyway, and stick to the things that win them votes.

At one level, this is true and daunting. We think the glass is more than half-full however.

Education, while obviously very important, is hardly a determinant for people seeing reason. Heck, even Pol Pot had emerged from Sorbonne.

This very-privileged blogger, even in his Ayn Rand spouting 20s, carried a lot of leftist baggage from all the years of Indian learning. Then, life happened and there's no cold shower more sobering than life herself. There is no way to describe the astonishment as layers upon layers of foolish thought were washed away.

Indians may not all have Ivy League credentials but they understand life. They are all micro-capitalists in their own lives -- they save, they bargain, they invest, they harvest, they buy, they sell, they barter, they protect their interests, they think about the future. This is India's vital, right-leaning, soil where the left has no business surviving. That they have is a mark of our failure -- something we must now correct. This is no time for lament, but one for fierce determination.

At B-school, we read about an economist visiting a Boston slum and asking a poor, single mom if the government should take away the riches of the more privileged and give them to her. She said no because, in her soul, she knew her son would grow up wealthy one day and she wouldn't want anybody to take away her son's hard-earned future wealth.

She hadn't been to Harvard and thank heavens for that because there she likely would have taken a tragic turn left. Instead, she'd earned her PhD in common sense from the school of life.

Why do we assume Indians aren't similarly sensible? Perhaps we haven't even tried engaging them out of our own fear of failure. We need to stop worrying about "educating" them on economics; instead, we need to start talking to them as our intellectual equals.


Kaunteya said...

I guess Winston Churchill's comment still holds true - 'The vice of Capitalism is inequal distribution of wealth; The vice of Communism is equal distribution of miseries'.
A prosperous India is no good for the Left. (Rich and middle class do not vote for them). There best bet is to keep India poor. Not surprisingly in places like Punjab and Gujarat the Left finds it difficult to find a foothold. Both the Gujaratis and Punjabis are pretty enterprising and very hard working.

In that sense I generally agree to Congress-man Jairam Ramesh's coined term - EOK or 'East of Kanpur'.
According to Jairam, you could cut a longitude through Kanpur and safely claim that the states lying to its east were significantly worse off than those lying to its west. This is so true. And the Left, baring Kerela, prospers only to the East of Kanpur, isn't it?

libertarian said...

Can't agree more with the micro-capitalist sentiment. The elitist view is a dim "barbarians at the gate" one that only serves the propounders and implies a division into "us" and "them" - the "thinkers" and "unwashed masses". Amit's article smacks of this elitism, a critical flaw. How does Amit explain the wealth created by a century of emigrating Indians, most of whom qualify as the "ill-educated" people he refers to. Same people - different result - must have been the system.

I can attest that the School of Hard Knocks is far more efficient than any PhD program. I'm constantly amazed at the entrepreneuship we, as a people, have displayed since 1947 inspite of the statist choke-holds placed on the people by our leftist governments.

My parents are a micro Horatio Alger story - started with nothing (battled some silly caste concerns), had steady jobs that did not pay the earth, and are crore-pathis today. You'd never guess it though - they drive around in an '87 Maruti - the quintessential millionaires next door. I dare say that this was possible only in India among all countries in South-Asia.

It gets better from here - let's not be prisoners of the past ...

Primary Red said...

That makes your folks genuine Indian heroes, libertarian.

Gameboys said...

I have seen similar senitments being expressed elsewhere as well (by Atanu on Deesha/Indian Economy blog comes to mind). While I do not dismiss their opinion, the 'common man' has a wordly wisdom that instills certain instincts - which usually turn out to be on the mark. On other hand, we have had leftists ruling forever in Kerala, the state with the highest literacy levels (granted there is a gap between literacy and education and also that there are other factors at play).

amit varma said...

PR, I couldn't more strongly share your hopes. However, I fear that you paint too rosy a picture. If the common man had so much common sense, we wouldn't have the governments we've had, nor would we have the kind of politicians we do. If the demand was commensensical (as you and I see that term), so would the supply be. We must ask ourselves two questions:

1] Is that the case?

2] If not, why not?

Also, to clarify, by "education" I don't mean an academic education with degrees et al, but the wisdom that life imparts. Looking at the politicians voted in by the common man, I don't see enough of it. But, like you, I hope the incremental progress we're making gathers critical mass and things do change.

libertarian said...

PR, yes they are. The shocking part is they, and millions like them, will gladly credit the government for opportunities they've seized! The thought that India has been built by hard-working folks such as they, rather than the political class, is an alien concept. Boggles my mind :-)

kaunteya, thanks for the EOK reference - interesting divide ...

libertarian said...


The quality of our politicians is a glass half-full or half-empty thing. I'm just grateful we have a system that has self-correction and representation built into it - we're very much a work in progress.

Take a look at Pakistan to see how bad it can get. They've had four constitutions in 58 years! The people are increasingly ideological - not very healthy (I think ideology should be the preserve of wonks and rabble-rousers). They grapple daily with basic governance questions that we have settled long ago. They truly are the nightmare you wake up sweating from.

It's a telling testimony to the India of 2004 that a party would stake it's electoral chances on "India shining", rather than "garibi hatao". The glass is half-full.

amit varma said...

Libertarian, the correct phrase, in practice, is not "self-correcting" but "status-quo-perpetuating". And comparing ourselves with a basketcase state is hardly productive -- you might as well compare us with North Korea then and feel really happy.

Just saw your earlier comment. The "century of emigrating Indians" is besides the point, because they made the riches once they left this oppressive system. Have things changed in India?

The people of India have chosen Laloo in Bihar, Mulayam in UP, Modi in Gujarat and Jayalalitha in TN; is that self-correction or a glass half-full?

The good things that have happened, as Primary Red put it in another post, are a "trickle of reforms." Unless we focus on what is left to be done, it will never get done.

And don't forget that the party which went to the polls with "Indian Shining" was soundly beaten. (In my mind, it was the right result for the wrong reasons. They should have been beaten for not pursuing reforms vigorously enough, but instead lost because of a complex combination of other reasons.)

As for your parents making it good, I'm sure they're exceptional people, but I'd have to say that if they made it big in India, they did it despite the system. More power to them, but it doesn't mean that the system doesn't need change.

Pankaj said...

Hello Primary Red,

Karat has only read Marxist history. He does not know that the first people to be liquidated when the ayatollahs came to power In Iran were the communists.

To Amit Varma,

N. Modi has provided Gujarat with one of its best administration and the spectacular growth of the state is proof of his great work. Electing him perhaps was the right choice the sensible Gujaratis made. You are only echoing the Modi demonization conducted by the left media post Gujarat.


Primary Red said...


While Amit is perfectly capable of debating your point, we'd simply like to observe that it is Mr. Modi's actions and rhetroic that have demonized him -- not the media.

We have little sympathy for the leftist/liberal cause, but we have even less regard for the bigotry Mr. Modi personifies. It's too bad that Gujarat has re-elected him.

Best regards.

libertarian said...


Change does not come quickly enough in India. True. And I'm not advocating any complacency. Far from it. But I don't subscribe to self-flagellation for not changing fast enough. I disagree that it is status-quo-propagation. We have a long road ahead. But it's sometimes good to stop and reflect on our achievements.

Regarding Modi and Laloo, I'm pretty sure my personal opinion of them matches yours. Mulayam and Jayalalitha give me pause. If we ignore their personalities, what has their performance been? Kind of a mixed bag. Which implies, they probably don't need to be nailed to a tree. Not great, but not disastrous either. We can't have SM Krishnas or Chandra Babus everywhere ... yet.

India Shining may have failed, but a pretty large party thought it was worth a shot. Just try imagining that happening before the '90s.

My goal with picking Pakistan is specific - not just comparing us to any failed country. They are our evil mini-Me. We share an enormous amount of commonality. We could easily have been them e.g. Indira's personal emergency.

Regarding my parents' making it, yes, they did it despite the system not because of it. But isn't that true in any system? It's a matter of degree. The American system is more conducive to wealth-creation than the Canadian system, but they're still impediments to some degree (think tax!). I'm convinced it's a lot easier to do it in India of 2005 than in the India of 1985 - glass half-full.

Pankaj, to your point about Gujarat governance: Modi is a murderer - period. Tell that story of good governance and spectacular growth to Ehsan Jaffrey's widow.

Pankaj said...

Hello Primary Red and Libertarian,

I am entirely in agreement with Mr. Varma on the points made by him in the Minoo Masani article on his blog and also here on the forum. However, there was just a small disagreement with just a small point made on N. Modi, which I expressed.

Let me now explain my position.

All too often, a media barrage of demonization sweeps us and we begin to base all our opinions on them. I think there is a need to look deeper and base ones opinions on facts. Gujarat 2002 was a product of great rage post Godhra. This rage cannot be understood by people who have never lived in Gujarat and experienced its religious hostilities right since the 1960’s. Part of the rage emanated from the specific targeting and burning of women and children at Godhra. The Gujarati media, and not the English media reported that approx. 10 lakhs people were on the streets in protest.

The Gujarat police reacted late but when it did, it shot dead more than 200 rioters, who were Hindus. Now we must tally this figure with the number of rioters shot dead in religious riots in the past to arrive at some perspective. Nevertheless, the Justice Nanavati commission inquiry is on and it will publish its findings in due time.

If N. Modi is thought of as a murderer, than we would have to apply the same logic and label Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, Indira Gandhi and J. Nehru {all prime ministers} as murderers. As the most ghastly riots took place during their rule. Why, we would also have to apply the logic used to label all the Indian nationalists as murderers because there decisions was partly responsible for the liquidation of Hindus in Pakistan with the partition riots.

A rhetorical statement is a common devise used in writings and speeches and is primarily meant to create a grand effect. But if we overuse rhetorics and use it to frame our ideas and opinions, than we are in the danger of sinking into nonsense. I think the idea of Modi as murderer is a grand rhetoric.

I’m sorry that all these are deviations from the general debate here on the forum. But these are my views and I think we must agree to disagree.

Kind Regards.

libertarian said...


Maybe I should qualify 'murderer'. Modi actively aided and abetted forces that terrorized citizens of the state (in this case, mostly Muslims). Further, he used forces of the state to do so. Presiding over a riot as every Indian prime minister has done, does not make him/her a murderer. Sanctioning it does. That's what Modi did. That's what Tytler, Bhagat and Sajjan Kumar did. That's what Bal Thackeray did. This is not rhetorical in the least. It is the simple truth.

I don't see what 1 million Gujaratis' rage has to do with exonerating Modi. A riot is a riot - people kill each other. The state and it's representatives, however, has a duty to put a stop to it - not look the other way, or actively stoke it.

But as you said, our viewpoints are too far apart and we can agree to disagree.


Blog Archive