What does freedom mean to you?
The word “freedom” means that one has the space to act, speak and think as one wants without hindrance. However, this freedom cannot be absolute. The freedom of an individual or a group cannot expand till it impinges on the freedom of others. Tolerance cannot extend to the tolerance of intolerance or it will be itself destroyed. This much is simple at least in theory.
[su_pullquote]I am an advocate for a strong but limited State.[/su_pullquote]
The more complicated issues arise when people need to do things collectively. This may require imposing rules and obligations on citizens who may not want to comply. The collective good cannot allow “free riders” and “dissenters” to opt out at will from many activities (say from paying taxes or following traffic rules). The problem is to determine the limits of where the collective good overrides the individual’s freedoms. There is no hard and fast rule for this and most ideological debates boil down to where this line should be drawn.
My preference is that the “collective good” is restricted to framework issues like defense, infrastructure, policing and so on. In these matters the State should be given strong powers. For other things, the individual should be allowed to lead their lives unhindered. In short, I am an advocate for a strong but limited State.
Is there anything holding you back from achieving that kind of freedom?
I grew up in a communist-ruled city in a socialist country where economic, social and intellectual freedoms were routinely violated, sometimes violently, in the name of the common good. Things have significantly improved since 1991 but we have a long way to go as India’s “deep State” remains intrusive by default. The old attitudes remain embedded in the political elite, the bureaucracy, academic institutions and so on. There are just too many laws, rules and regulations. Not only are the laws often unclear and contradictory, their enforcement is also patchy and arbitrary. This is what is holding back Indians from being truly free.Sanjeev Sanyal is also the author of The Ocean of Churn | Picture Courtesy: India Today
What do you think is the greatest challenge to freedom in society?
The exact nature of the problem varies from society to society but the goal is broadly one of creating a framework that balances individual freedoms with collective needs. Democracy is a good way to arrive at a consensus on the nature of that framework and change it according to the times. In India, however, we have two additional problems. First, we need to make the framework itself transparent. The opaque mesh of laws and rules means that the average citizen is never really clear what is expected of him/her. Second, the application of the framework is patchy. This is the source of a lot of corruption and injustice in our society.
If given a choice, what is that one way you would think a government can make its citizens more free?
[su_pullquote align=”right”]Perhaps the single biggest change needed by India is the reform of the legal system.[/su_pullquote]
Perhaps the single biggest change needed by India is the reform of the legal system. Without a functioning judicial process, no form of freedom is possible. Without enforcement of contracts, economic freedom is not possible. Without timely application of the Penal Code, we cannot be free from criminal acts and violence. With 33 million cases stuck in the judicial pipeline, the system is clearly broken. Until it is made to function, Indians cannot be free.
What would your ideal society be like?
My ideal society is one run by a strong but limited State — as opposed to the weak but all-pervasive Nehruvian State we have now. On one hand, the State should have strong powers to implement framework issues such as defense, internal security, infrastructure, monetary policy, delivery of justice and so on. Most importantly, it must have complete monopoly over the use of violence in its territory and must be willing to act strongly against anyone violating this monopoly.
What is important is that choices are made while being conscious of the tradeoffs.
On the other hand, the State should not normally intrude into the daily lives of people. Having said this, I understand that the exact contours of this ideal society would change with the times. Different tradeoffs make sense at different points in time. This is why I do not present my ideal as a static Utopia.
Who do you think holds the key to bringing such a society about?
Ultimately every citizen is responsible for this but the intellectual class — thinkers, writers, policy-makers, academics — need to present them with honest alternatives. In turn, this requires a vibrant intellectual ecosystem bubbling with different ideas. Sadly, this is difficult in a society where the intellectual class has been ethnically cleansed over three generations of almost all voices that did not conform to so-called “progressive” views. Even the reforms of 1991 were forced by a serious economic crisis rather than a change in mindset. Quarter of a century later we still have to debate basic changes. In short, we need a more diverse intellectual class.
Sanjeev Sanyal is a noted economist, historian, and environmentalist, and author of The Ocean of Churn: How human history was shaped by the Indian Ocean.
This article was originally published on Spontaneous Order.
Featured Image Source: Buddy Mantra
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