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 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.

Civil Service and The Constitution (part 3)

Part 2 of this series examined the contradictions and ambiguities in the Indian constitution.

A contradictory and ambiguous constitution has direct effects on the functioning of the judiciary and the legislatures. With no firm principles to guide them, judges have no standards other than their own convictions. With no clear limits on the powers of the legislature, legislators succeed in enacting laws with the sole purpose of extending their hold on power.

However it is the indirect effects of the constitution on the functioning of the executive (the bureaucracy) that this post seeks to examine. Consider a bureaucrat who sincerely intends to do his duty. His duty consists of implementing rules and policies decided by the legislature. The policies decided by a legislature concerned only with extending its hold on power cannot be implemented without violating the rights of individuals. The bureaucrat is left open to charges of discrimination or improper implementation if the victims of the policies seek justice. This creates a motivation to delay any required action or to push responsibility for it on someone else. Moreover the policies of the legislature are subject to arbitrary change as the balance of power shifts. The bureaucrat is then forced to reverse any actions he may have taken. The bureaucrat simply has no way to do his duties honestly. Any principled action he takes will earn him enemies from people in positions of power. Now consider a bureaucrat who has no scruples in doing whatever it takes to advance his career. All that he has to do is to ensure that he remains in the favor of his superiors and take as little responsibility as possible.

The arbitrary and unlimited powers conferred on the legislative and executive branches by the constitution make it impossible for the bureaucracy to function honestly. It is futile to complain that the bureaucracy is ‘corrupt’. It is impossible to reduce ‘corruption’ in the bureaucracy or bring transparency to its functioning without a proper constitution. And it is impossible to have a proper constitution without a widespread recognition of the proper role of a government.



In a comment to Part 2 of this series Aristotle The Geek pointed me to this link to Ayn Rand’s essay “The Nature of Government” hosted on this page of The Center For Civil Society.

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)

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