Thoughts on economics and liberty

Gandhi, a liberal during illiberal times

Here are some thoughts on Gandhi and his inclination towards liberalism – despite Nehru's persistent insistence that India must have socialism. This blog post is a direct cut and paste from BFN. This post does not evaluate his enormous contributions to India and the world which I talk about at length in DOF in a number of places.

       Gandhi’s philosophy was the most compatible with the ideas of freedom among Indian thinkers of his period. He placed great importance on individual freedom and independent action. In his mind, the individual remained the maker of his own destiny, with the state having only a very limited role in an individual’s affairs. His views were based on a combination of his interpretation of Hindu ideas mixed largely with the ideas of the liberal American philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817–62). Thoreau had said, ‘That government is best which governs least’. Gandhi repeated that like a mantra on many occasions. In fact, Gandhi merged the concepts of accountability from classical liberalism with those of the karma theory of Hinduism. His can be said to have been an eclectic synthesis of Hinduism and liberalism. Despite its indifferent contribution to liberty in the past, once an effort is made, it appears that just as Christianity can get along with liberalism, Hinduism can also get along with liberalism quite well, arguably even more so. I have little doubt that Islam can also be interpreted likewise given a broader understanding of its message. Turkey shows us that it is possible to do so. 

      Gandhi opposed the collectivist and centralized approaches of communism not on intellectual grounds but because of his ‘intuitive’ grasp over the concepts of accountability and justice. Quotations from Gandhi in the table below tell us about his liberal credentials. The page numbers at the end of these quotations are from Fisher.[i] My comments on Gandhi’s views are in the second column.

[i] Fisher, Louis, op. cit.

Government that is ideal governs the least. It is no self-government that leaves nothing for the people to do’ (p.196).

The government has a minimal role in a free society – a key message of classical liberalism.

‘I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear because, although while apparently doing good by minimising exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality which lies at the root of all progress’ (p.304).

Here Gandhi is reiterating the most fundamental principles of a free society. The individual is the hub of the society; the individual must be allowed to develop self-knowledge, self-respect and become responsible and accountable.

 ‘Submission […] to a state wholly or largely unjust is an immoral barter for liberty […] Civil resistance is a most powerful expression of a soul’s anguish and an eloquent protest against the continuance of an evil state’ (p.165).

Liberalism resists tyranny, and nothing is generally more tyrannical than a state that barters liberty for immorality, as socialist governments have, in India. Gandhi’s chosen method of protest was supremely ethical and persuasive. There was no secrecy involved, no deception. Attacking people, as terrorists do, never changes the beliefs that people hold.

‘[The] means to me are just as important as the goal, and in a sense more important in that we have some control over them, whereas we have none over the goal if we lose control over the means’ (p.305).

Liberalism focuses almost entirely on the process, or the means. The ends are seen as a natural consequence of the means. There is no coercion, only persuasion.

‘I hope to demonstrate that real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be attained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority’ (p.202).

Liberalism requires the active participation of each citizen in the regulation and control of their government. In a free society the best of its citizens come forward as representatives. There is no better way to prevent the abuse of authority than for freedom loving people to form the government.

     Let me add that Gandhi was not a ‘full-fledged’ liberal given his lack of intellectual rigour about why he advocated what he did. He had strong liberal inclinations and intuition but no vision for human freedom as a whole (at least not one in which the proper mechanisms of freedom were fully defined). He was clearly not a Hayek and did not even understand the great moral character of capitalism. This is evident from his theory of trusteeship through which he sought (in his mind) a ‘compromise’ between freedom and economic equality. Gandhi did not grasp that these objectives are mutually contradictory. And so he needlessly hit out against capitalism. He wrote, ‘I desire to end capitalism, almost, if not quite, as much as the most advanced Socialist or even Communist. But our methods differ, our languages differ’,[i] his difference being that he did not like using coercion. He also diluted his concept of equality somewhat by saying, ‘Economic equality of my conception does not mean that everyone would literally have the same amount. It simply means that everybody should have enough for his or her needs’.[ii] He then proposed a via-media of sorts – the theory of trusteeship, whereby the rich (‘capitalists’) would use their ‘wealth […] for the welfare of the community’.[iii]

   Unfortunately, this view seriously misrepresents the foundations of liberty and capitalism. For Gandhi to even imply tangentially that capitalists were not using their wealth for the welfare of the community was wrong. Businesses contribute to the welfare of society in many ways:
  • First, they do so through the services they provide. By applying their mental energy to combine natural and human resources with capital, they generate products and services that would not have existed without their efforts. These products and services increase our knowledge and improve our health and longevity. That is their most important contribution.
  • Second, businesses generate employment for thousands, if not millions, of families, taking each such person employed out of the quagmire poverty. This is their second most important contribution.
In this manner, those who achieve wealth through their own initiative have already contributed so disproportionately in comparison to ordinary people that we should be ashamed of asking them to further look after the ‘welfare’ of society. Are we beggars that we can’t stand on our own feet? In the second chapter I will show how a free society readily delivers on things like the removal of poverty without requiring charity from anyone. Anyway, whether or not trusteeship was a good concept, it did not go anywhere. Nehru ignored it and no one else cared to pick it up. 
Also, Gandhi was not a ‘systems’ thinker and was unable to elaborate the design of institutions by which governments of free India would be held accountable. It is not enough to say that a ‘government is best which governs the least’. It is important to specify how this will happen. This inability to think at the systems level, i.e. by building from the level of individual incentives right up to the social level, is perhaps a cultural trait of most Indians. We prefer to tinker with things at the margin or to appeal to the good intentions of people, rather than think about systemic incentives which will give us the results we want. On the other hand, the West has been very competent in this area. And so, given Gandhi’s rather limited understanding of systemic processes, we still need to look to the advances of Western economic theory such as the theory of public choice for a more complete picture of governance.

[i] From the Harijan, 3 June 1939, p.145 (or Harijan, 4 May 1947, p.134).
See [].

[ii] Harijan, 31 March 1946, cited in Swarup, Devendra, ed, Deendayal Upadhyaya’s Integral Humanism, Deendayal Research Institute, New Dehi, 1992, p.126.

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4 thoughts on “Gandhi, a liberal during illiberal times
  1. Harsh Vora

    Like it. In this sense, can be categorize Chanakya as a 'systemic' thinker, since he wrote the elaborate Arthashastra — a detailed guide for an efficient ruler? Any views?

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Harsh

    Chanakya’s Arthashastra should definitely be one of the hundreds of good books we must read and understand. He had some brilliant insights to offer, but also some extremely (!) stupid ideas. If you read his book, you’ll note that he did not understand wealth creation even at the most elementary level: he recommended a severely controlled labour market.

    In my mind, Chanakya does not qualify as a “systematic” thinker for he did not teach us to think, and he did not show us the way to success. He gave his own structured solutions to us in a bottle. These are mostly relevant for his time when petty kings where constantly fighting with each other, but are mostly useless today and have therefore not been adopted by anyone anywhere.

    The one who teaches us to think is the greatest teacher of all.

    In that sense Charvaka was FAR greater than Chanakya even though we have little left of what he said. People like Charvaka influenced the Greeks, who then influenced the entire Western civilisation, who then have become 40 times richer than us.

    Socrates was a great systematic thinker. The systematic thinker is the one who can make others think for themselves and who doesn’t force his solutions down their throat. He asks a lot of questions and exposes false assumptions.

    Today even an ordinary college student knows MORE than what Isaac Newton learnt in his whole lifetime. Learned political scientists today have access to 100s of times more useful information than Chanakya knew about. Hayek is definitely 1000s of times more useful for the world than Chanakya is!

    Personally I have moved on well beyond Gandhi and Chanakya. I read them, admire them, learn from them, but I also learn from 100s of others, and from my own experience.

    We need to go WELL beyond our ancestors else what is the point of education? We might as well become sheep, in that case.


  3. Harsh Vora

    Hmmm. Makes sense. Now, its clear to me what you mean by a 'systemic' thinker. I appreciate your time in explaining me Sanjeev! Definitely, Chanakya has thoughts that are outdated in this era, even though some are still relevant. Either way, we have to move ahead and study thinkers that promise something "provable" for this era (21st century).

  4. vivek
    Dear Sanjeev,
    The above is the address of a page on Ambedkar's criticism of the failure of the Indian Liberal party.
    I must admit, I continue to find your soft spot for Gandhi puzzling.  I suppose it would be too radical a break for someone weaned (as was I) on the Gandhi-Nehru ideology (why not Paris Hilton- Vandana Siva ideology?) to repudiate both of these deeply complacent wind-bags? (Vide
    Edmund Burke, a great opponent of the East India Company (a monopoly that could corner State resources to further its own ends) wrote '
    "Our Government and our Laws are beset by two different Enemies, which are sapping its foundations, Indianism, and Jacobinism. In some Cases they act separately, in some they act in conjunction: But of this I am sure; that the first is the worst by far, and the hardest to deal with; and for this amongst other reasons, that it weakens discredits, and ruins that force, which ought to be employed with the greatest Credit and Energy against the other; and that it furnishes Jacobinism with its strongest arms against all formal Government".[119]
    The I.N.C was set up and supported by British ex ICS officers like Hulme, Wedderburn and Cotton for what could have shaped up to be a Liberal purpose if only the British could have been sure of the loyalty of the Indians and if the Jesuit like passion for information and informed discussion typified by Ranade, Gokhale and the Servants of India society had not been crowded out by shrill agitators. However, the I.N.C as a rent-seeking body became the new 'Indianism' Burke complained of which we now see openly collude with the 'Jacobinism' of the Naxals for purely tactical, short run, gains.
    This is a link to a short piece on 'deshtyag' (voluntary exile) one of Gandhi's less well known spiritual weapons- we N.R.I's want the prestige of Gandhi to keep us warm at night but the fact is Gandhi-Nehru 'Indianism' is what made us leave the country in the first place.
    Mind you, I'm not criticising you Sanjeev- just venting my spleen- jab tavakko he uth gayi Ghalib/ kyoun kisi se gila kare koi?


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