Vantage point

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Some Problems Even Free Markets Can't Solve

I have always maintained that I am a libertarian and a free market supporter more from a philosophical point of view than a utilitarian point of view. What that means is my personal convictions about free markets and libertarian thought derive from what I think is right and wrong. In reaching my positions I have not given prime importance of the utility of these ideas, i.e whether they work for the society in general and all that. However even from a utilitarian point of view, I find that a libertarian solution, in some degree or the other, usually is the best, or should I say, the least worst solution which is practically feasible.

However that does not mean that free markets will usher in a utopia. There will still be prolems that free markets can't solve completely.

One example is that of Dalit women from Boudh Vasti. They came together to pitch their services for a catering contract for the village schools under the Anganwadi meal scheme. However the local Village Panchayat refused them the contract, apparently because the women were Dalit, and the villagers had problems with their children eating food cooked by Dalits. Plain and simple casteism.

Evaluating this problem from a libertarian point of view, there is no remedy that can be suggested. The women came together to form an organisation. The decision was taken by a small local government, and was reflective of the opinion of the majority stake-holders. So from a strictly philosophical point of view, there is nothing wrong with the women being denied the contract.

Yet I can't help but feel that a wrong has been committed. Woman who were apparently capable and competent in every other way have been denied the contract solely on the basis of their caste.

While this is very unfortunate for the women, I do believe that such an example is good because it shows us the mirror and can have the effect of causing some introspection. If news like this is splashed all over, and it becomes politically incorrect to discriminate against Dalits, then the panchayat will be shamed into awarding them the contract. It may not work in this case and women may still be denied the contract. But every such incident will go a long way in reshaping beliefs.

The short-cut would be of course for the government to step in and force the panchayat to award them the contract. But it goes against the very grain of decentralisation. Because though in this one case the government may step in and do the "right thing" according to most, it will still be riding rough-shod over the wishes of the villagers.