Ridiculous lyrics

Yun to akela hi aksar
Gir ke sambhal sakta hoon main
Tum jo pakad lo haath mera
Duniya badal sakta hoon main
Maanga hai tumhe
duniya ke liye
Ab khud hi sanam faisla kijiye

From the movie: Mere Jeevan Saathi (1970). Lyricist: Majrooh Sultanpuri

Rough English translation:

Usually, all by myself,
after a fall, I can pick myself up.
But if you take my hand,
I can change the world.
I have asked for you,
for the sake of the world.
Now, my love, decide for yourself

Love is the most selfish emotion that one can experience. Claiming that it is for the sake of the world – I wonder what it takes to sink so low.

Altruism

Just happened to read this comment on a post about the relevance of Silverlight (a web software development framework from Microsoft)

It is the same song and dance all over again. The technology names are mere variables in a profit creation algorithm. Geeks love this drama though, as if it matters somehow. If all the time and energy spent discussing this crap was instead spent trying to help the less fortunate live better lives, the world would be a much better place. Oh well, that’s life!

                    — Josh Smith

What??? It is precisely because some people spend time and effort to choose and develop various technologies and make profits that anyone – fortunate or not – is able to live a better life.

For context, the person writing the comment is the owner of a high quality blog on WPF and Silverlight and by all indications loves his work.

Superstition and the free market

These days, several local TV channels here in Mumbai show advertisements for trinkets, bracelets, necklaces, armbands and what not with mystical powers. Usually these advertisements are preceded with a disclaimer stating that the channel does not take any responsibility for the claims made in the advertisements. I suppose most rational people would be disgusted by this and would be indignant at the channels and the swindlers who make such “products”. I cannot help feeling disgust myself but this is merely the free market at work and it is all for the good. There is a large number of people who are superstitious and desperate enough to try out these things and it is inevitable that someone will cater to them. The beauty of the free market is that it “works” even when the participants in the market are irrational. Whatever one may think of the swindlers and the channels involved, the free market (in this case) transfers money from superstitious fools to more rational people. That is good. And as more and more such “entrepreneurs” step into the market, the ineffectiveness of their “products” becomes easier to see. That is good too. Perhaps some fools will come to their senses after burning their fingers. That is good too. Those who don’t deserve to lose their money. That is justice. And the free market achieves this without coercion and without the altruism involved in activist efforts to reform people. Leave men free to deal with reality on their own terms and you have freedom, justice, efficiency and progress.

Consider the opposite where a government tries to regulate and restrict the sale of such “products”. Who pays for the government’s efforts? The rational tax payers. Who benefits? The superstitious fools. The net result? Money is transferred from the productive rational people to superstitious fools. Virtue is penalised and stupidity is protected. Can one imagine injustice worse than this? The only thing that can justify this is the miserable doctrine of altruism. Prevent men from dealing with reality on their own terms and you have bureaucracy, injustice and inefficiency.

Selfishness and death

I happened to watch a Hindi movie “Hu tu tu” while on a short break. The movie is about two people who are suffocated by the corruption of their politician parents and the system in general. In the climax, the couple blow themselves up along with their parents at a political rally. The socialist/communist sympathizing is disturbing but the climax is striking. It illustrates what bad philosophy does to serious minded people who question the system. Something is very wrong when killing someone, no matter how evil, becomes a higher purpose than living one’s own life. In one scene the male protagonist (Sunil Shetty) explains that he doesn’t know if what he is doing is right or wrong, but he knows that it is not selfish and that is extremely satisfying. Perhaps the script writer did not realize how effective the story line is as a warning against selflessness. A proper life is selfish and consistent selflessness is death. The movie illustrates that very well.

Update: The script is written by the celebrated Gulzar and his daughter Meghana

Book Review: Superfreakonomics

I had some spare time at an airport, and happened to pick up Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. I haven’t read Freakonomics (I do plan to now) and didn’t know what to expect. I found the book to be an interesting read. It covers a wide range of topics – too many to list – but does so in an engaging and often witty way. The variety in topics makes this a particularly difficult book to review and I will not make any attempt to cover or even mention most of the contents.

Chapter 1 deals with prostitution. The authors write

Since time immemorial and all over the world, men have wanted more sex than they could get for free. So what inevitably emerges is a supply of women who, for the right price, are willing to satisfy this demand.

Interesting. I hadn’t encountered this description before. A few pages further down, the authors note that the prostitute’s wage has fallen drastically over time and attribute it to the change in sexual mores that has resulted in “competition for the prostitute” – any woman who is willing to have sex with a man for free. The authors write

If prostitution were a typical industry, it might have hired lobbyists to fight against the encroachment of premarital sex. They would have pushed to have premarital sex criminalized or, at the very least, heavily taxed.

That is just hilarious. I wonder if the social conservatives (in India and abroad) who preach abstinence, oppose the mixing of the sexes etc. realize that they are promoting prostitution.

Chapter 3 – titled Unbelievable stories about apathy and altruism – was the one I found most interesting. The authors describe experiments conducted by economists in the 80s to measure altruism. The typical experiment involved two players, one of whom was given a sum of money with the choice to keep all of it or give any part of it to the other player. Players gave 20% of their money on average. The experimenters took this as proof of altruism. The authors then describe experiments by John List. List conducted the same experiment – called the Dictator game – with some variants. In the first variant, the player given the money ($20) was given the choice to give the other player any part of it or take $1 from the other player. Only half the number of people who had given money in the original version now gave money. In the second variant, the player making the decision was told that the other player was also given the same amount of money. The choice offered was to take the entire amount from the other player or to give any portion of her own money. In this variant, only 10% of the players gave money while more than 40% took all of the other player’s money. In the final variant, both players had to work for their money with the choice being the same as in the previous variant. In this variant two-thirds of the players neither gave nor took any money while 28% took the other player’s money. The authors note “It [the final variant of the experiment] suggests that when a person comes into some money honestly and believes that another person has done the same, she neither gives away what she earned nor takes what doesn’t belong to her.”

It should be obvious that any of the experimenters could have tried the twists that List used. In fact, without such twists, the experiments look quite weak. Yet they did not do so over a period of two decades. That indicates that the experiments’ motivation was a desire to find proof for hard-wired altruism rather a simple scientific enquiry.

After discussing a few factors that might influence the outcomes of such experiments such as selection bias – the people who volunteer to play along are more likely to be cooperative, the effect of scrutiny and the absence of a real-world context, the authors write

If John List’s research proves anything, it’s that a question like “Are people innately altruistic?” is the wrong kind of question to ask. People aren’t “good” or “bad”. People are people, and they respond to incentives. They can nearly always be manipulated – for good or ill – if only you find the right levers.
So are human beings capable of generous, selfless, even heroic behavior? Absolutely. Are they also capable of heartless acts of apathy? Absolutely.

I disagree with the authors but that is a subject for another post. Meanwhile, there several interesting questions worth considering. Were the experimenters really measuring altruism (or its lack, in the case of List) at all? Do such experimental results justify conclusions of the form that the experimenters drew – human beings are hardwired for altruism? If not, what would be required to establish (or reject) ahypothesis that a certain kind of behavior is hardwired?

Chapters 4 describes how several problems that were once thought of as difficult or unsurmountable have been solved very effectively at a low cost. As one instance, the authors write of how the simple practice of doctors disinfecting their hands before treating patients saved innumerable lives. It seems awful that doctors were/are responsible for easily avoidable deaths. It seems even more awful that doctors resisted and still resist policies that require them to wash/disinfect their hands. My reaction was – how could they be so negligent when the cost (potentially lost human lives) is so high? A little reflection shows that such negligence is not uncommon at all in any profession. Washing hands is after all a boring, time consuming act and its consequences (prevention of infection) are not apparant at all by their very nature. A parallel example from the field of software is writing tests – also a boring, time-consuming act whose consequences are not apparant. Is the cost of not writing tests as high as the cost of not washing hands? Again, it is doesn’t seems so, but in a world where the use of software is all-pervasive, it might even be higher. This is a good lesson in looking beyond the obvious.

Chapter 5 is about global warming and how there might be a cheap and simple solution to the problem – injecting sulphur compounds into the upper atmosphere. But don’t expect anyone to try it (or be allowed to try it). I find the whole issue of global warming extremely boring – I don’t think I have a single post on it here. But I suspect that the contents of this one chapter – less than a fifth of the book – will dominate most reactions to this book.

Overall, the book is a collection of a large number of interesting and thought-provoking analyses and anecdotes and the attitude of the authors is refreshingly healthy.

Secularism, Enlightenment and India

A colleague sent me this link to an article in The Hindu and asked for my thoughts. From the article

For a long time it was held that a close link existed between the modernisation of society and the secularisation of the population. Consequently, it was argued that the influence of religion declined in post-enlightenment society. This assumption, Professor Habermas suggests, was based on three considerations. First, the progress in science and technology made causal explanation possible and more importantly, for a scientifically enlightened mind it was difficult to reconcile with theocentric and metaphysical worldviews. Secondly, the churches and other religious organisations lost their control over law, politics, public welfare, education and science. Finally, the economic transformation led to higher levels of welfare and greater social security. The impact of these developments, it is argued, has led to the decline of the relevance and influence of religion.
…the view that “the secularist certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernisation is losing ground.” It is not only that this expectation has not been realised, religion has emerged as a powerful influence in the public sphere all over the world. This is particularly so in India.

The existence of the public sphere [in Europe] was contingent upon the access of all citizens to, and protection of individual rights by, the rule of law. In essence, the character of the public sphere as it evolved in Europe in the 18th century was secular and democratic.

Unlike in Europe the public sphere in India was not the product of a free bourgeois society; it took shape within the political, social and economic parameters set by the colonial government.
(Emphasis mine)

The article concludes with

Retrieving the secular character of the public sphere is therefore imperative; otherwise its religious character is likely to impinge upon the functions of the state.

The article with its implied positive evaluation of enlightenment ideas and recognition of their relevance to the issue of secularism is very much welcome in an age where enlightenment ideas have almost been forgotten. But it itself suffers from an incomplete understanding of all the implications of these ideas. Protection of individual rights by the rule of law is not compatible with democracy (atleast as we might understand it from concrete examples today). Democracy is about placing the control of human affairs in the public sphere. Individual rights are about limiting the control of human affairs to the actual individuals involved, primarily by the recognition of private property. (This might seem unrelated to the issue of secularism and the influence of religion, but bear with me for a while.) This uneasy relationship between democracy and individual rights (note the difference in character between the French revolution which was essentially democratic and the American revolution which instituted a government for the purpose of protecting individual rights) persists to this day and has been the apparant cause of the failure of enlightenment ideas to have as large and lasting an influence as might have been expected. But that is not all. It is worth noting that pre-enlightenment Europe was neither democratic nor did it have any conception of individual rights. How did both ideas emerge out of the same intellectual change?

I am no historian – or even a good student of history – but it seems to me that the enlightenment thinkers never really rejected religion in all its implications. Religion offers more than an explanation of the world. It offers moral principles. The progress in science that made causal explanations possible led people to abandon the role of religion in understanding the world. Note that this progress has been lasting. Even the church today accepts that religion is not a guide to understanding the world. But there was no equivalent progress in moral theory that would lead people to abandon the role of religion in evaluating the world and guiding human action. The enlightenment brought about political, scientific and industrial revolutions. It did not result in any moral revolution. The moral base of religion – altruism – was not challenged at all. On the contrary, it led some intellectuals to believe that morality is mostly irrelevant to progress. For example, the character of Enjolras in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – the leader of an uprising, and in my reading, a mirror to Hugo’s own ideas – believed (if memory serves me right) that progress would be automatic and inevitable provided that people had access to (scientific) education. This was naive. Morality is indispensable to human existence.

It seems to me that enlightenment ideas split into two distinct streams. One stream could be characterized by the French revolution, militantly anti-religious and with an emphasis on democracy, equality and social justice. This stream secularized altruism without changing any of its fundamentals. It substituted God by society and the church and the king by the state. The other stream could be characterized by the American revolution, ambivalent to religion and with an emphasis on liberty and self-evident inalienable individual rights endowed by a creator. But a complex concept like individual rights cannot be self-evident. By not grounding individual rights in reason, this stream was left without a moral foundation independent of religion. The overtly-secular, altruist, democratic stream failed. It took Europe through several dictatorships, wars and misery. The liberal, pro individual rights but more religious stream succeeded. It allowed America to enjoy more than a century of uinterrupted peace and prosperity (except for the civil war that abolished slavery). But, over time, through lack of an explicit moral foundation, the American stream itself split into the modern secular Europe inspired liberals (an insult to the original classical sense of the term) and the religious conservatives seeking to conserve the political system of liberty with an incompatible base of altruist Christianity.

Note that no stream ever rejected altruism and it was the secular democratic, left-leaning intellectuals who upheld it most consistently. Now the case of India. Indian political leaders educated in Europe brought back the European ideas and attempted to foist them upon a servile, religious people. Worse, in attempting to fight colonialism, they absorbed Marxist ideas from Russia. Needless to say, they failed miserably, discrediting secularism in the process. As Gurcharan Das’s wrote in the article that I criticized in my last post, “Part of the reason that the sensible idea of secularism is having so much difficulty finding a home in India is that the most vocal and intellectual advocates of secularism were once Marxists”. Marxism – the most consistent political implication of altruism, is only for educated idiots. The uneducated “masses” – that Marx had such a disdain for – never have and never will accept it. But the association of secularism with Marxism does indeed make the spread of secularism difficult.

Anyone concerned with the increasing role of religion in public affairs in general and political affairs in particular should be looking to discover/establish a morality based on reason. Until such a morality becomes culturally dominant, it will be impossible to eliminate the role of religion. But that is not something the secularists in India understand. For a concrete example, consider the expose of the Khap Panchayat system in Today’s Times. Read it here, here, here and here. From the last link,

Daryal Singh, one of Tikait’s retainers, adds that “shameless people (lovers) deserve to die.’’ He gives graphic accounts of lovers being “hanged, tortured or nailed to death”. But Singh stands alone in providing the only real explanation for what sustains this medieval system: bad governance. “The government has failed to provide basic necessities. It’s impossible for people to survive without the samaj. They can’t challenge it,’’ he says.

It would be difficult to mis-diagnose the problem worse. Even the villagers are more intelligent than that. They know that they are following a moral code. Providing basic necessities is not going to change their moral code. And what basic necessities anyway? From another article in the links

There are pucca houses, cobbled streets, wellfed cattle, neat schools and sprawling green fields. It’s easy to be impressed by the colleges and professional institutes that dot the area. But Sanghi, like most villages in this prosperous belt, has dark secrets to keep. Here, rape is casual, murder-by-pesticide of teenage daughters acceptable and it is routine to dispose of their bodies by burning them in cattlecarts.

Defeat the morality and religion – with all its mindless rituals and superstitions – will go away. But without challenging the morality and in the lack of any alternative (socialist ideology is not an alternative), religion will continue to grow in influence.

The moral vs the practical

Via NoodleFood I came across this blog post on time management. The post is quite good in general but one particular point is not.

Determine what matters most to you. Make a list of the people, activities, and things in your life that mean the most to you and then spend the vast majority of your time focusing on these items. Be honest with yourself, though, and put on your list what really matters to you, not what you think should matter to you. [emphasis changed]

Consider the emphasized part. The author makes a distinction between what you think should matter to you and what really matters to you, between the moral and the practical. And then he goes on to say that you should choose the practical and disregard the moral. But if  ‘what you think should matter to you’ is not ‘what really matters to you’, then you have a much bigger problem than time management. If that which you consider to be moral is not practical, what sort of a moral code do you have? What purpose does it serve?

A person whose value judgements do not match his actions is a hypocrite. But the author advises exactly such hypocrisy and calls it ‘being honest to yourself’! What is the result of hypocrisy? A sense of guilt. The author seems to know that. In another point he writes

If an activity or responsibility isn’t on your list of what matters most to you, say “no” to it. Learn to say “no” in such a way as to not be a jerk, but say “no” when you need to. This is where I greatly differ from most people because I don’t feel guilty about protecting my time. [emphasis added]

I agree with the point. You shouldn’t feel guilty about protecting your time. But why do most people feel guilty about it? Because their moral code tells them that the good consists of serving others, that other peoples’ claims on your time or money or life are more important than your values – because they accept the moral code of altruism.

The author claims to feel no guilt. If that is true, then the author has rejected morality so completely that breaches of morality no longer bother him. But it also means that morality gives him no guidance whatsoever. The author might be quite good at managing his time – but to what end? Is whatever he chooses to do with his time worth doing in the first place? That is a moral question and no amount of pragmatism will answer it. But the question does need to be answered. So how does the pragmatist answer it? By default. By allowing his emotions (instead of a moral code) to determine his value judgements. Emotions are the result of earlier value judgements. If you choose not to make those judgements yourself, then you pick them up from others – from the culture in general, from the dominant code of morality. The very code of morality that the pragmatist thinks he has rejected in his day-to-day work ends up determining the goals of his life. And since the moral code of altruism is impractical and therefore destructive, the pragmatist ends up destroying his own life, values and goals – efficiently.

Deep rooted altruism

Plenty of work coupled with a lack of motivation to spend time on editing has meant that its been quite a while since I last wrote a proper,  thought-out post although I do have plenty of accumulated material to write about. While the lack of motivation hasn’t changed, I thought I should just put this down.

In a short conversation over lunch, one of my colleagues talked about how hedge funds are now back in business after all the losses they made recently (probably based on a report from bloomberg.com). He then went on to say that there should be some protection – government regulation – for the consumers. As I resisted, the discussion went on to the food and drug industries. I mentioned how regulations against drugs prevents people from using new drugs even if they sorely need them and are willing to take the risk. He countered by saying that it is not possible for any individual to take responsibility for evaluating all the available goods (be they drugs or foods) and so a government agency is needed. I replied that doctors should certainly be capable of doing the required evaluation. He replied “saare doctors bike hue hain” – all the doctors are mercenaries and have been bought over (presumably by drug companies). I asked “And how about the employees in the government?” and that was the end of the conversation.

Note the reason given to justify the existence of regulation – the people who are competent to evaluate are mercenaries and so, will not act in the interests of consumers, whereas a neutral government body not motivated by profit, will. There is plenty of evidence – living in India, I will not bother to write about it – about how “neutral” government bureaucrats – known, not so fondly as babus – act. How then does an intelligent guy offer such a reason? The short answer is altruism. Just a week back we had a discussion about altruism in which I argued that it is for moral reasons and not economic ones that people accept socialist ideas. My colleague is well aware of my views and probably does not explicitly believe in altruism himself. But he has not explicitly rejected it as evil either. The deeply rooted morality of altruism makes him look with implicit suspicion at the profit motive and – by extension – at all private activity. It seems safer to trust a faceless bureaucrat working in a non-profit organization than to trust a doctor who stands to profit by selling you unproven drugs regardless of all the corruption that the bureaucracy is famous for. After all, by the altruist morality, the non-profit government organization has a noble aim – to serve others. The private doctor is just a lowly human driven by his own profit (which tends to morph into greed). According to the altruist morality, the doctor would have to make a sacrifice to forego the quick cash that he could make by being unscrupulous. And as everyone knows, very few people make sacrifices. So the altruist morality implicitly implies that private individuals will tend be more unscrupulous than public organizations. The facts do not bear this out. And it is simple to see why. Once one assigns a face to a bureaucrat instead of referring to a convenient collective called the government, it is clear that the bureaucrat is also working for profit. And unlike the doctor, whose career depends on his reputation, his career depends on – as Ayn Rand eloquently described in Atlas Shrugged – the aristocracy of pull. If a doctor makes a mistake or even if he is simply thought to have made a mistake by the public, his career is ruined. The faceless bureaucrat has no such responsibility. The profit motive cannot be abolished just by choosing to think of a certain group of individuals in terms of a collective – government. Within a framework of voluntary trade, the profit motive is not evil but good. It is what makes individuals want to prosper. It is what motivates them to work. Within a coercive framework of government regulation, the profit motive produces what is called “corruption”. A bureaucrat has nothing to gain by being scrupulous and a lot to gain by being unscrupulous at little risk. So he chooses to be unscrupulous. If his actions ever get traced back to him, the altruists have a field day damning his greed and the profit motive. But what is it that is corrupt? An unthinking bureaucrat doing what everyone around him does? Or the ethical system that invariably sets up men in situations where they stand to gain by duping others?

One should also look at the secondary consequences of oppressive regulations (take a look at other pages on FA/RM too). Regulations enormously raise the cost of compliance to standards – both directly in terms of the costs of running a regulatory agency and indirectly through the aristocracy of pull (lobbying is a nice euphemism). This effectively puts local small-scale industry at an enormous disadvantage and gives an unfair advantage to the bigger players. It also converts local, easily correctable problems such as occasional food poisoning into large systemic problems (in the same way as centrally controlled money supply creates systemic problems in the financial sector). The first strengthens the aristocracy of pull. The second creates even more demands for its continued existence.

At the end of the discussion, another colleague with whom I recently had a long discussion about the concept of sacrifice (note the reference to sacrifice above) mentioned that it will take another 50 years for people to reject socialist ideas. Today people look to the government for a solution to every problem. That is true. But socialist ideas will never be rejected until one first rejects their basis – the altruist morality – and discovers the alternative – egoism. The history of the U.S. which is now descending into just the sort of socialism that India is coming out of is proof of this fact.

Charity

Just as I began writing this post, I saw this short piece by Kendall J.

There is an idea that I’ve heard repeated at various times in my life, that there is not enough charitable feeling in naturally “self-centered” man to be of meaningful help to those in need. When I respond that there is ample benevolence in man, and in a capitalist society, ample surplus of productive resource (time, money, etc) that  we should not make it a forced duty to be charitable, but rather allow man’s natural benevolence to take its course, most people tell me that resources have to be aggregated and centrally directed to be effective.

Here at least a is small demonstration that this thinking is completely wrong.

This idea usually comes from people who want the state to step in and force everyone to be charitable. A case in point is the recent discussion I had with T.R. who was arguing for free public education so that poor people can afford education. The ironic part is that we already have a free (and broken) public education system for precisely this reason, indicating that there are many people who are concerned that poor people would not be able to afford education and don’t mind getting taxed to “solve” the problem. So why do these people need the state to intervene? As I see it could be two reasons:

1) They think their donations would not be enough to run an adequate system and so they want to coerce others.

2) They think they themselves would not donate if the state did not force them to.

Since there are very few people who ever advocate the scrapping of subsidized education, reason 1 is not credible. What about reason 2? Clearly reason 2 is paradoxical. Why would they not spend money voluntarily when they themselves think it is important to do so?

The answer can be found in the morality of altruism. Altruism creates an artificial line between actions that help you and actions that help others and claims that only actions that help others are noble. So if Edison invents the electric bulb and sells it for a profit, his action is called selfish (and at best amoral) even though it has benefitted innumerable people much more than it has benefitted him. On the other hand, when Bill Gates donates a large part of his wealth to charity, his action is called selfless (and noble) even though much of those donations will be ineffective (Africa’s biggest problem is not disease). Note how actions are being judged not by their rationality but by their (intended) beneficiaries. So Mother Teresa, who never produced any wealth in her life is judged to be incomparably nobler than Dhirubhai Ambani, who established a large business empire that created wealth for so many people (including himself). By this absurd standard, man is certainly not noble (and that is a very good thing – just imagine everybody spending their whole lives with a begging bowl with the intention of helping others with the proceeds).

The proper standard for judging actions should be – does this action actually benefit the actor? Is this a rational, workable, sound idea or is this a stupid idea that will cause harm? Since most men use both standards, the altruistic standard in the domain of morality and the rational standard in the domain of practicality, they carry over the obvious conclusion from the moral standard and apply it to the practical standard. Thus they reach the conclusion that man (not this or that individual, but man as a species) is incapable of acting for his own long term interests and has to be forced to do so.

But the domains of morality and practicality are not separate. Proper moral principles are <i>derived</i> from practical experience. The moral is the practical. Applied to charity, charity is just another action like investing in a company or buying a work of art and like any other action it can be good or bad. It is only the absurd morality of altruism that claims that charity cannot be in one’s self-interest and then exhorts one to engage in it nevertheless. The proper way to judge it is to balance the costs with the rewards (not necessarily in terms of money). The Mother Teresa kind of charity (redistributing wealth created by others in the prime of her life and sinking into a depression at the end of it) is bad charity because it is incredibly stupid. The Carnegie kind of charity (establishing libraries and universities when he might have lacked the energy to engage in directly productive work) is good charity because it brought him great satisfaction at little cost while also helping others.

Fear of commercialization and the malevolent universe premise

In my previous incomplete post (published by mistake), I quoted a news report on the one year bar on architect Hafeez Contractor for appearing in an advertisement and asked why some professionals are not allowed to advertise. In a comment, Aristotle The Geek explains:

Most professions in India are regulated by so called autonomous bodies brought into being by various acts of parliament – the Bar Council of India, the Medical Council of India, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India and so on. They thus have a charter that grants them absolute power to decide who is allowed to practice and who isn’t, who’s qualified and who isn’t, and to frame rules to “regulate” the profession. And so the regulations, most of them political in nature, start flowing. The ban on advertising, is one such regulation, because it helps those who are already entrenched in the profession (most clients come though word-of-mouth; this ban makes it the only option, except surrogate advertising through appearance on tv shows etc). And that is its main purpose. The “ethics” argument is just that – an argument. (emphasis mine)

Certainly a ban on advertising serves to “protect the establishment” (helping those who are already entrenched at the expense of newcomers). But is that all? I don’t think so. I think there is a deep fear of commercialization in most people’s minds that allows the establishment to create rules that prevent commercialization. The “protecting the establishment” is merely a consequence, though perhaps a welcome one for some in the establishment. There is a belief even among “liberals” (in the classical sense) that some professions like medicine, law, media etc are special and cannot be left to market forces. This belief is rooted in a distrust of the bania (merchant) and more generally the profit motive. As an example, anytime we happen to get an inferior product from some shop, my mother says: “He is a bania, after all”, refering to whoever the product was bought from. But why is the profit motive distrusted? Because it is selfish and the morality of altruism says that selfish motives are amoral at best. The profit motive is therefore viewed as an inevitable but unfortunate aspect of human nature, to be regulated by force for the general welfare. This leads to the perverse paradox of people believing that every individual is driven by an ignoble profit motive to perform harmful actions, but that these same individuals as a part of a collective can overcome these ignoble motives by force. In essence, this is the argument that man is too depraved to be left free. In practice, the creation of collectives to “temper” the profit motive always results in providing a platform for those who actually believe they can prosper by cheating others to set the rules. This is inevitable because when force is accepted as a proper way to produce desired outcomes, the winners are necessarily the most ruthless and unscrupulous.

The distrust of the profit motive and self interest is probably the result of a malevolent universe premise  (I have yet to reach a conclusive position about this, but I am sure they are linked), specifically the idea that man is short sighted, irrational and immoral by nature. But even among some who do not view self-interest as immoral and regard force as wrong, a variant of the malevolent universe premise applies. Consider Aristotle The Geek’s comment for example. If the main purpose of the ban on advertising is to unfairly protect the establishment, then, given the fact that similar rules in one form or the other exist in most of the world, evil can win (and has won) on its own strength. This is just another side of the malevolent universe premise, specifically the idea that immoral men can win through their immorality. If this is so, any attempts to change the status-quo are necessarily doomed, and posts such as these are merely cathartic. But it is not so. The universe is not malevolent in any way. Laws such as the ban on advertisement are a result of a bad ethics (altruism) and bad premises. The crooks who cash in on such laws are merely parasites, not the originators. Their power stems not from their ruthlessness or lack of scruples but from the willingness of the establishment, most of which actually believes it is protecting their profession from destructive commercialization.

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