Individuals and Society

It is very common today to find people advocating political solutions to problems (imagined or real). For example,

Lot of people take to smoking
Tax tobacco products heavily, Ban the portrayal of smoking in cinema, Punish celebrities who dare to smoke

High incidence of fatal accidents on roads
Make it mandatory to wear helmets while driving

Low representation of women in parliament
Make it mandatory for political parties to field women candidates in a certain percentage of constituencies.

and so on.

The implicit premise leading people to advocate such ‘solutions’ is that human behavior is primarily conditioned or determined by social circumstances and so the way to solve problems is to frame the right rules, to nudge people in the right directions. This premise is false. Society is merely a group of individuals. It is individual thoughts and actions that determine the course of a society, not the other way round. In fact it is redundant to talk about individual thoughts or actions. It is only individuals and not society that can think or act. Social conditions do have an impact on individuals’ decisions but the choice to act in a particular way ultimately lies with the individual.

Although it is easy to see that the fundamental power of choice lies with individuals, it is a fact that a large number of people do go through their lives like automatons, passively accepting widely held beliefs and acting accordingly. It is this that tempts people to advocate political solutions as a short cut to change peoples’ beliefs and thus their behavior. Further any attempts to implement political solutions makes a society more authoritarian and makes more of its members passive automatons. What then keeps such attempts from being successful? It is the fact that all human achievements are the result of the power of choice. As the number of passive automatons in a society increases, the achievements of its members shrink. Ironically those who believe that social conditions determine human behavior are the ones who do not understand the value of a society of free and independent men.

Civil Service and The Constitution (Part 1)

In an article in The Indian Express, Meeta Rajivlochan says that civil servants should “owe allegiance to the constitution first and foremost”. She goes on to say

“Overt neutrality and strong commitment to the Constitution and the rules of the land make a bureaucrat function much better”.

and concludes

“It is the danger of relinquishing a commitment to the Constitution of India in favour of a more personalised commitment  (political, religious, cultural or otherwise), and not corruption, which is by far the greatest malaise facing the civil service today. Corruption merely undermines the moral integrity of the individual. Abandoning of political neutrality undermines the entire structure and logic of bureaucracy.”

Meeta is right that corruption is not the greatest problem with the Indian state. She is also right in her identification of the problem. But she misses out on its cause. The idea that civil servants should be committed to upholding the constitution comes from the idea of rule by laws, not by men. But an implementation of that idea is only possible if laws are objective, principled and limited. The Indian constitution grants parliament almost unlimited powers to enact laws. It is this that allows politicians and thus the bureaucracy to get away with anything. It is this that breeds corruption.

(Part 2 will take a more detailed look at the Indian Constitution)


An article in today’s The Times of India – Cool cab overcharges ex-top cop (link unavailable) – reports that a cab driver who refused to carry an ex top cop at the fare he was willing to pay was fined and will probably have his license suspended for a month.
“Ribeiro (an ex top cop) argued with the driver that the fare could not exceed Rs 200 (the driver wanted Rs 350) but the driver refused. Ribeiro then took a non-AC taxi and got to his residence and the fare came to Rs 150. Later, the officer complained to the transport commissioner and gave him the taxi number. Following Ribeiro’s complaint, the traffic police fined Singh (the driver) Rs 200.”

” … While Singh is likely to have his licence suspended for a month, action will also be taken on the vehicle owner. “

“…A L Quadros, the general secretary of the Mumbai Taximen Union to which Singh belongs, admitted that the driver had made a mistake and that they were also considering some action against him.”

Some moral questions:

Why does a driver require a license to operate a cab? Why is it obligatory for a cab driver to carry a passenger against his judgement? How does the government acquire the right to decide legal fares (in the form of mandatory meters)?

Some practical questions:

Would the same action have been taken if the passenger did not have acquaintances in the ‘authorities’? Aren’t unions supposed to protect the interests of their members?

So much for the socialist claim that the license-raj and price controls protect the interests of the poor from “exploitation” by the rich.

Satire and Cynicism

The editorial page of The Sunday Times has columns by Shobhaa De, Jug Suraiya and Bachi Karkaria, often by all three of them (out of a total of 6 columns). These columns are satirical at best and merely sarcastic at worst. What does so much satire (and sarcasm) on the editorial page (titled ‘All That Matters’) of a widely read newspaper reveal about today’s culture?

The purpose of satire is to ridicule, discredit or expose vices or folly by means of wit and/or sarcasm. Satire is unserious by nature. It deals with concrete details and not with abstract ideas; with effects and not their causes; with the incidental and not the essential. It appeals to emotional evaluation and not to reasoned argument. It has nothing positive to offer.

So much satire reveals that a lot is wrong in the world. There is no dearth of events that can be ridiculed. But more importantly it reveals the cynicism that has set in. It reveals a culture that recognizes that a lot is wrong, fails to identify the causes and believes that any attempts to identify them are futile.

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