Vantage point

Sunday, May 09, 2004


A few days back some people expressed surprise that I call myself a quasi-libertarian. This post explains the reasons.

I have been a part of the libertarian school of thought for as long as I can remember, without actually knowing the term "Libertarian". I remember during a history class in school I had argued with my teacher saying that the ideas of Marx and Engels don't make any sense. During a civics class I asked the teacher why there has to be so much civic machinery to complicate matters (as well as dull education :P). During Economics class, when the teacher read out "India is a rich country with poor people", I asked her if it isn't so because we make it so problematic for someone to even open a shop (an acquaintance of mine had been through the immense red tape to start a small bakery).

Later in school, when I read Ayn Rand's books, they struck a chord within me at one. During discussions with my friends I always supported the globalisation choice, when the WTO issue was a hot one. The idea of the government getting out of businesses like baking bread, made so much sense. Simultaneously stuff written by the Leftists in India disgusted me more because of their fallacious logic than their fallacious philosophy.

So as I joined IIM Lucknow, I was a firm believer in Capitalism, personal freedom and reduction in the role of the government. That was when I read a notice about the "Liberty and Society Seminar". I signed up for it and enjoyed the three day process. However I was not completely satisfied with the logical soundness or the articulation of these speakers either.

The first bone of contention came up minutes into the first speech. The speaker said something to the effect that "The greatest ruler of India in my eyes has been Sher Shah Suri. Why? because he built the Grand Trunk Road. It gave an impetus to the economy then, as towns and cities along the GT Road flourished. Even now you see some of the most productive cities in Northern India are those along the GT Road". Fair enough. Even I had always viewed the GT Road as one of the best things done in Indian history. But what the speaker said next was baffling "And now look at what this idiot, the Prime Minister of our country is planning. This dude has dreams of building highways across the countries. The Golden Quadrilateral, and the NSEW Corridor. This is such a stupid move and I am sure it is the poet in him which came up with this idea. Why is he spending our money on this?"

Had the speaker spoken about corruption or flaws in the proper completion of the project, one would have understood. Heck, the Dubey case would have vindicated him a year down the line. But he was attacking the very idea, while praising GT Road. I even confirmed this with him later during lunch. This sounded to me faintly similar to the "Green Cheese Syndrome" I had noticed among the leftists.

The Green Cheese Syndrome that aflicts the leftists is their tendency to criticise ANYTHING the government does. It can be ANYTHING, even remotely beneficial, and the leftists will lambast the government. So if the government says "Moon is made up of rocks and mud", the leftists will say "the moon is made of green cheese". The priority is not tobe right or true, the priority is to be anti-government.

Of all the uses that the government is putting our tax money to, the development of infrastructure is the most ideal one. And the government has gotten private companies involved in it. The project is as "libertarian" as is practically possible in India today, in the infrastructure sector. And yet instead of telling listeners that the government should take more such projects than subsidising kerosene, the speakers starts of by attacking the best tstep of the government?

There were several such bones of contention. The tendency was to attack the government and socialism, which I am fine with. But often the attack was not supported by logical reasoning.

Another thing that jarred a bit was the narrow-minded-ness of the speakers. I am not saying they should be open-minded towards leftists ideas. But even libertarian ideas which were different from their own were dismissed, that too very rudely. Here's an eample.

There was a group project given to us in which we had to give ideas about how to make a city better. Our team was supposed to give ideas related to sanitation. We suggested that since government employed servants are not doing a job good enough, it should be given to private parties. The city should express its desire to privatise sanitation so that it would encourage companies being formed in the sanitation sector. These companies could be goven the job of cleaning up a particular ward of the city, and in exchange, they can sell the public advertising space in the ward, like bus stops, street dividers etc. About how to decide which company gets responsibility for a ward, we suggested that there be elections every 5 years in which people vote for companies. So in a particular ward, companies would come and make promises like "We will keep your ward clean without erectign ugly billboards" or "We will make sure that footpaths are clean" etc. If the company doesn't live up to its promises, it would be voted out in the next elections.

The speaker however trashed (pun unintended) our idea. The only rounds for doing so was "Companies fighting elections? What a preposterous idea. It has never been done before".

When a Libertarian rubbishes an idea solely on the grounds that "It has never been done before", you find a Libertarian who is indirectly rubbishing his own philosophy.

There were a few more such issues on which we disagreed with the speaker. The speakers' approach to resolving disagreements was a very weird one. There were either ad hominem attacks or a tendency to repeat stuff without even acknowledging what was said. And this was with Libertarian-leaning people like me.

With such an attitude I don't see the LSS ever makin a real difference. It will remain an elitist phenomenon, and the few people it will win over will be again people with fallacious logic, perpetuating their mistakes. The LSS people had good ideas by and large, but like the Commies they were too caught up in their own rhetoric to give any importance to logic.

Fortunately later, on the LSS egroups I found other libertarians with a logical way of thinking and an awareness of on-the-ground realities. People with whom I could have conversations about social, political and economical issues without either side descending into rhetoric or ad-hominems. And I throw in my lot with the libertarians.

However if the speakers at the LSS in IIML were libertarians then I am a quasi-libertarian.