In recent days I've received two comments about my focus on liberty.
One commentator said: "I am as much for freedom as anyone else. However, the question is: freedom for what? If we do not answer this question then freedom is mostly used for selfish purposes only."
The other said: "In rather a back-handed manner, I say we Indians have more liberty than any other peoples around the world. No policies, no controls, no enforcement and 'jugaad' ruling supreme allows us to get away with anything. Governments have to enable people to reach their goal of happiness. If they do not focus on wellness as the key indicator, it doesn't work."
These are directly related comments, although made by different commentators. Both are utilitarian/instrumental. Both reject negative liberty and emphasise positive liberty.
Both lead to state intervention.
I can do no better than refer both commentators to Chapter 2 of my draft manuscript, The Discovery of Freedom which explains this issue in some detail.
Essentially, both these commentators believe that government has a role in "doing" something for us. The first commentator is suspicious of our "selfishness" which presumably implies that a government department should be established to prevent us from being selfish.
Freedom seems incomplete in itself. Presumably without a government "doing things for us" or "controlling our selfishness", we are somehow not human. To the second commentator it also appears that we can't be happy without a government that focuses on our "wellness".
(I challenge the commentator to define this term. I have suffered the most excruciating pain over the past two years – but appear "well" on the surface. And my blood tests are fine. There is NO wellness indicator! It can't be created. A blind Helen Keller is more capable ("well") than people with eyes. In any event, others' wellness is not our business. We should stay well and take care of our family. That will be contribution enough to society! If we need a doctor's assistance, let's take it. But let's not give the government a role in providing us with such assistance. Social insurance, yes. Direct assistance by government, No.).
This, by the way, is the fundamental difference between classical liberalism and all forms of socialism (including social liberalism/ Fabian socialism/ Keynesianism/ communism) – that the classical liberal asks government to ensure life and liberty and stop there (negative liberty), while the socialist finds this limitation on government somehow unsatisfying.
But ensuring negative liberty is no small task! Few (if any) governments perform it well. When a government can't even ensure life and liberty how can it possibly deliver anything else? So why not ask governments to ONLY focus on their key duty – defence, police and justice?
In brief, the difference between classical liberals (like Ambedkar, who wrote India's constitution) and socialists like Nehru (who destroyed it) is that socialists constantly undermine life and liberty even as they seek a role for government in our "happiness" or in "preventing our selfishness".
Socialist societies like USSR/China/India can't even protect life: leave alone liberty. So why would we ask such thoroughly incompetent governments to make us "happy" by doling out free sarees and TVs, or by asking indifferent arrogant IAS officers to look after our "wellness"?
A perspective that asks: "Freedom for what?" fails to notice that this is a purely personal question – for each of us to address. It is not a matter for public discussion.
If I have Rs.10 with me, I am free to do whatever I wish with it. That's not a question for public debate, but a matter purely determined by my personal preferences. Yes, it is an entirely "selfish" decision. I may buy an ice-cream with this Rs.10. Or – equally – I may, in my selfishness, donate it to a charity of my choice. My "selfishness" is programmed into my body, my soul. It is also known as human nature. I have yet to come across any human being (including those who wish for "positive" liberty) who prefers to give his ten rupees to government to solve his question: "Freedom for what"?
Through the exercise of my freedom if my expenditure of Rs.10 (or saving, if I so choose) leads me to happiness, that's fine. If it leads me to unhappiness, that too is fine. In any event, it is none of others' business.
Of course, if I harm anyone with my freedom, say by buying a ten rupee knife and stabbing someone with it, then the society must sharply clip my wings and punish me. That's the role of government: to ensure defence, policy and justice, and thus protect everyone's life and liberty.
If I don't harm anyone, though, then what role can a government possibly have in my life?
This summary of the negative-positive liberty divide between liberalism and socialism should suffice for my commentators. Should anyone be interested in further discussion, please do read DOF and its references – particularly Isaiah Berlin.
Corollary: A government has no role in "helping" entrepreneurs
Shantanu Bhagwat, fellow FTI colleague, perhaps unwittingly remarked in his blog post (on TOI), that: "I have nothing against the government trying to help entrepreneurs. It should; it must".
I believe Shantanu needs to clarify this, for this is not FTI policy. Or at least, it is unlikely to become FTI policy.
In particular, I have everything against the government trying to "help" anyone. I only ask that it protect life and liberty and leave us alone. The idea of a government "helping" someone is not just impossible, it can be dangerous.
Social insurance – which leads to direct funding of the poor is not "helping" but an insurance scheme available to everyone. Any direct assistance to specific people beyond this general scheme (e.g. subsidies) is neither defensible from first principles nor even feasible.
Thus, do we expect generalist IAS officers who have never been able to set up even a paan shop successfully to advise entrepreneurs on how to succeed in business? I suggest that their advice itself is dangerous, leave alone the idea of "picking winners"!
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