Trip to Mangalore: Reflections

Visited a manufacturing unit for diamond polishing machinery belonging to a business associate from my first venture. The unit contained several lathes, shapers, milling machines, a CNC machine and some other machines I could not identify, some of which were designed/assembled in house. There was nothing extra-ordinary about the machinery but it was difficult not to feel a sense of awe at the complexity of the machines. The owner of the unit is not even an engineer. His father, who apparantly has designed some of the machines hasn’t studied beyond class 8. I am supposedly a mechanical engineer with a masters degree from one of the most reputed colleges in India. What a waste of everyone’s time these degrees are!

Also visited the father of the owner of the unit, 79 years of age and a self-made man who came to Bombay at the age of 16, worked at several places in various jobs, set up a factory with all his savings at the age of 55 and still visits it everyday. The only advice this man had to give us was:
1) Everything comes from god
2) Take care of your parents, don’t make them cry!
I was quite bewildered. The world is a strange place.

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Government and education

A while back I came across this infuriating story (via A Little Lower than The Angels) of a man who did not send his children to a public school against the law of his state and so was shot dead by the agents of the state. Since I have written a bit lately on the moral and political implications of public education, this is a good time to relate this story to that debate. The legal murder of John Singer is the logical conclusion to any arguement that advocates public education. Here’s how.

a) The state has the power to tax me to provide public education.

b) Therefore I have a legal responsibility to the state for the welfare of others.

c) Therefore the state may decide that my children’s education is essential to the welfare of others (free and compulsory education)

d) Therefore  the state may decide what this education must consist of.

e) Therefore the state may punish me (ultimately by death if I resist) if I refuse to accept the state’s requirements.

Do you agree with (a) but not with (e)? Examine your premises. Logic has a way of catching up with people even if they do not choose to be logical.

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.

If you make x private…

T.R. asks a question that begins with “If you make education private”

The question should be the other way round, “if you make education <i>public</i>…”
Education is just a service rendered by some people (teachers, school administrators) for others (students). Like any other service, it has to be paid for in some form. The default is (should be) for the service beneficiaries to pay the service providers. The default is <i>not</i> to have a service public. My point is that you are starting from a socialist framework (where everything is public). But that is not a natural framework to start with. A framework (when it is explicitly created by interactions of men) needs justification. Your question already assumes that there is some justification to have education be public.
You should start from the natural state of affairs, where education like other services is a private service. Now ask “Should this service be made public?” Immediately several questions arise: How is this service (education) different in principle from other services? What sort of differences require a service to be public? Who decides what these differences are? What happens in the case of a disagreement? Note that none of these questions arise when the service is private. Individuals make all the decisions themselves, with no physical force being used.

Suppose, for the moment, that you find the answers to these questions. Several other questions now arise. What constitutes a proper education? Should mathematics be a part of this education? Should astrology be a part of this education? Should religious teachings be a part of this education? What sort of clothing is acceptable for students (or teachers)? What costs are acceptable? What compensation is acceptable for the service providers? Should parents who do not accept the public answers to these questions be allowed to teach their own children? Should they then still be taxed? Note that I am not making up any of these questions. They are all actual issues that have come up at one time or the other. There have been petitions claiming that maths should be optional. There has been a court case regarding the inclusion of astrology. The issue of teaching creationism (or intelligent design) keeps coming up in the U.S. There are court cases in places like France, U.K and Turkey about scarves, turbans and burkhas. There are teachers unions in some places in India. I remember reading about a teachers association in the U.S. that does a lot of lobbying in the government. There is an active homeschooling movement in the U.S. I remember there was a proposition about tax credits for homeschooling parents (I don’t know if it was passed). Again, note that none of these questions arise when the service is private. If a parent does not like a particular school, he can choose another one or maybe not choose any school at all.

Once you think it through, it is obvious that any answers (no matter what political process is used to arrive at it) to these questions will involve the initiation of physical force against individuals. You might argue that I am mixing up examples from the U.S. (a developed country) and India (a developing country). That India needs public education (even if it involves some force) if it is to develop. Note that (in its somewhat credible form) this is a variant of the benevolent dictator arguement (For the democratic form, look at today’s frontpage of The Times of India). The problem with that arguement is it ignores man’s nature and the conditions required for progress. Why is India a developing country (despite decades of public education) while the U.S. achieved near universal literacy with mostly private schools (according to this article in Wikipedia – “The school system remained largely private and unorganized until the 1840s. In fact, the first national census conducted in 1840 indicated that near-universal (about 97%) literacy among the white population had been achieved.”)? The benevolent dictator arguement mixes up causes and effects. Freedom is the cause, progress (of which education is an indicator) is the effect (look at the history of Europe for example). The two cannot be interchanged. India will remain a “developing” country until people realize the value of freedom. Just compare the results of 60 years of public education and 20 years of limited economic freedom. Which of the two have caused progress?

Moral Responsibility

Arguing that government should fund education T.R asks (somewhat rhetorically),

Isn’t it our social and moral responsibility to give equal opportunity to all?

Even if it were, that does not necessarily mean that government should fund education. Note that government funds come from taxation – they are not voluntary. Using the force of law to take my money and spend it without my consent can only be justified if I have a legal responsibility (such as the collection of a fine). A moral responsibility is not enough. For example, it is my moral responsibility not to spend all my money on drink. If I were to do so however, the government would not be justified in putting me in rehabilitation or preventing me from buying drinks. This is because I am not legally responsible for not spending all my money on drinks. However, I do not wish to get into the differences between moral and legal responsibilities. My point is that I do not even have a moral responsibility to “give” equal opportunity to all.

What does moral responsibility mean? The moral qualification restricts the scope of the term to those actions that are open to choice. Clearly that which is outside my power of choice cannot be a moral issue. Since it is individuals who have the power of choice, moral responsibility refers to the responsibility of individuals for the consequences of their choices. A collective can never have a moral responsibility. Only individuals can. Therefore the question should actually be “Isn’t it my (or your, but not our) moral responsibility to give equal opportunity to all?” (I have dropped social responsibility from the question. More on that later.)

Put this way, the question becomes much easier to understand. The simple fact is that it is not within my power to give equal opportunity to all. That men are born and live in different environments (geographical, social, political, economic) is an unalterable fact outside of my power of choice. Different environments necessarily mean different opportunities. Moreover the very concept of an equal opportunity is quite shaky. If A is taller than B, could they ever have an equal opportunity to succeed at basketball? Even if A and B are equally tall and are brought up in similar environments, suppose A works harder and becomes rich as a star player while B does not. Do A and B now have an equal opportunity to buy a house? Clearly not. You may say that this is not what you mean and A earned this so this is OK. Now take it further. Do A’s and B’s children have an equal opportunity in their lives? Would taking away part of A’s money and giving it to B make their childrens’ opportunities equal? No. A’s children would still have the advantage of being brought up by a hardworking and successful parent. There is no way to make the childrens’ opportunities equal. Equality of opportunity is merely a watered-down version of the concept of equality of outcome. As such it might appear more plausible on the surface but is just as unrealizable. Opportunities come from previous outcomes or from chance. Neither of those can be equalized.

You might argue that even if it is impossible to equalize opportunity, it is my moral responsibility to reduce inequalities as much as possible. But that arguement is worse than the previous one. A doctrine that holds the impossible as a moral standard is extremely destructive since it can never be successfully practiced. Consider what it means when put into practice. It means that I should redistribute values from the wealthy to the poor, from the hardworking to the indolent, from the wise to the foolish, from the talented to the ordinary, from the strong to the weak, from the fortunate to the unlucky – in short, from the “haves” to the “have-nots” – because the former have more opportunities than the latter. What can be more destructive than that? Most people realize (at some level) that putting the doctrine of equality into practice fully is destructive. And so they practise it inconsistently. But that is destructive too in another way. It destroys his self-esteem or causes him to reject all moral ideas as idealistic, leaving him with no moral guidance.

Where does this incredibly destructive doctrine come from? It comes from a misunderstanding of the difference between the metaphysically given and the man-made. That men are unequal is metaphysically given – outside the power of choice of any individual. It cannot be right or wrong, just or unjust. The metaphysically given forms the basis for concepts such as right, wrong, just, unjust etc. Labeling the metaphysically given as unjust is a perversion of all moral concepts. The existence of inequality, like the existence of the sun, simply is. It is neither right nor wrong, neither just nor unjust, neither fortunate nor unfortunate.

So, it is not my moral resposibility to give equal opportunity to all. What about social responsibility though? To me, it is an empty term, devoid of meaning. It is usually used to obfuscate an arguement rather than to clarify one. I have moral responsibilities (as long as I choose to live – moral responsibilities are always chosen) to act in a certain way. I have legal responsibilities to act in accordance with laws (atleast when the laws are just). Beyond that, I have no responsibilities to some nebulous collective.

Vision

In an email exchange (which has already produced two posts), a friend asked “What are the alternatives you suggest to taxing/ law and order maintainance / public healthcare/ public education etc?”  This is what I wrote as a response:

Education and healthcare are certainly not areas where the government needs to enter. Consider the private tuitions / coaching class business in India for example. They exist for all levels of education and almost everybody attends them. They are also quite profitable. And this is inspite of the fact that parents are forced to pay for both official schools and coaching classes.

I do not have any significant personal experience of the health care industry, so I will merely link to the website of Americans for Free Choice in Medicine

Law and order (Police, courts, army) is a government responsibility and the question of how it is to be funded is certainly a pertinent one. A fee for the protection of business contracts could be one way. Banks requiring tax payments from borrowers (as a proof of responsibility) could be another. Voluntary taxation does seem an unworkable idea today, but men do give to charities and spend time and effort on activism. If the government is restricted to the maintenance of law and order, the revenue requirement will be way smaller (of the order of a few percent) than the level of taxation today (more than 40% for corporates and top earners in most of the world). Since men will be freed from a big tax burden (much of which is wasted by the government today), they will have more to give voluntarily. Anyhow, if the kind of reforms I desire are ever to be realized, abolishing taxation will be one of the last things to happen. A society that genuinely respects self-interest (instead of denigrating it through mis-concepts like greed) and allows economic as well as political freedom will be very different from the society today. What seems (and is) unworkable today need not be unworkable in such a society.

What I am writing about is a vision, not just political but also moral. Taking just a part of that vision and considering it in today’s context will not work. This does not mean that we can dispense with the vision however. No one can live a directed, purposeful life without a vision. The same holds for a country. Atleast the older generations (in India) had a vision (socialism), misguided though it might have been. Today’s generation has no vision at all. Look at some of the recent campaigns for example. Against reservation, against corruption etc. Read this article in today’s Bombay Times as another example. All empty words, no content. What do these people want? They all say they will vote. For whom? “Somebody who sticks to his or her word”, “A young, educated and responsible leader who loves the country whole heartedly. Somebody who puts the country first while discharging his duties.”, “A person we can depend on and trust. A leader who will not just concentrate on one aspect of development, but look around and bring about a positive change in all areas.”, “A young, healthy leader to lead India.”, “A leader who has the vision of a great and young India.”, “A leader who can look after all classes and give young India a path to follow.” These are people who know that the ideas that have always been preached to them have failed miserably. And as a consequence they have rejected ideas as such. They think they are smart, pragmatic and energetic. But what are they directing their energies toward? They don’t think it is necessary to know that, as long as they are pragmatic. But they are only deceiving themselves. Without a vision, they won’t be able to change anything.

Advertising, coaching classes and education

In the same edition of the The Times of India that carried the news report on Hafiz Contractor, there was a report on a more interesting case. Titled “Coaching class ad leaves IIT dean red-faced”, the report states:

A newspaper advertisement for an IIT entrance coaching class had the campus in a flutter recently. Reason: The ad carried a photograph of IIT Bombay’s dean for student affairs, Prakash Gopalan, along with a note from him praising the coaching class.
    The ad … carried a handwritten note from Gopalan, … “Based on our experiences with our son, we very strongly recommend (this coaching class) to every parent and student in the process of choosing the best coaching class for JEE at Mumbai.’’
“I did not endorse the coaching class,’’ … “I had sent my son there and had written the note as a feedback. The note was written by me in good faith and in my capacity as a parent. I had not written the note as an IIT dean. I had no idea that it would be published in the newspapers. My permission was not sought for using my feedback in an advertisement,’’ Gopalan told TOI… 
   Praveen Tyagi, MD of the class, said he would not have used Gopalan’s feedback in the advertisement had he known it would have caused him so much trouble. Tyagi, however, felt there was nothing wrong with the ad. “If the dean’s son has studied at my coaching class and he is satisfied with the teaching he received, why should it not be publicised? I have the utmost regard for IIT professors and their feedback means a lot to me. I haven’t used this for personal gains. I just wanted parents to be aware of the calibre of my class. Many ads make false claims, but I was only telling the truth,’’ said Tyagi.

Apart from the issue of permission for using the feedback in an advertisement (a narrow technical issue that depends on how the feedback was given, privacy policies etc), just what is wrong with the advertisement? A conflict of interest between the dean’s roles as a parent and as a dean? How so? As Tyagi says, “I was only telling the truth”. Can the truth create a conflict of interest? Also note, how Tyagi feels it necessary to include the rather comic “I haven’t used this for personal gains” as part of his defence. How is it not personal gain? And what is wrong with personal gain anyway?

Part of the reason for the flutter over the incident is that most of the policy makers want to discourage coaching classes. But the coaching classes are there for a reason. The government-approved syllabus and examinations for the years leading up to undergraduate courses holds no challenges (and therefore provides no motivation) for students who aspire to join IIT Bombay. Nor does it prepare them for the highly competitive and challenging Joint Entrance Examination conducted by the IITs (Atleast it used to be challenging. Attempts have been made to lower the bar to make coaching classes irrelevant). The coaching classes (atleast the good ones) actually provide a much better education than the government recognized and mandated pre-undergraduate courses. Coaching classes are so prevalent that most students attend them in addition to regular (government-mandated) school. Indeed, there are government recognized colleges that allow students to take the mandated board examinations but do not require daily attendance (I do not know whether this is legal, but it is definitely widespread). The students attend coaching classes instead of the regular colleges, create fake records of laboratory courses which the coaching classes do not have and clear the board examinations with no trouble at all. All this because regular education is protected from commercialization by state decree. I do not know all the details of what is allowed and what is not but the end result is that any professional needs to hold a government recognized degree from a non-commercial government recognized and regulated organization, while the actual education that the degree is supposed to certify comes from parallel higly profitable commercial organizations. The parents (few students finance their own education) end up paying for both and the students end up wasting a lot of their time at useless institutions where they learn nothing.

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