Thoughts on economics and liberty

Economic Principles in Ancient India by N. Kazanas, Omilos Meleton (1992) #1

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In the course of this discussion we have seen that the principles formulated by the classical economists (Adam Smith, Ricardo, Mill, down to Alfred Marshall) for a Free Economy are found in spermatic form in the Sacred Laws of the Indoaryans. Society was not then structured as it is today and, obviously, neither finance nor capital in the form of large complex machinery, buildings and/or means of transport and communication were available then. However, we do find – and very clearly – concern with justice and harmony with natural processes that make up civilization.

Although human rights as such are not formulated in any text of the Aryans, yet on the basis of the regulations in the Lawbooks and the philosophical systems, we can construct a simple table of certain natural human rights based on natural needs. In some philosophical systems formulated perhaps later than the Vedic period, the real nature of man – overlaid by many artificial elements – is said to be SAT-CIT-ANANDA. SAT is being, true, unchanging, imperishable; CIT is intelligence, consciousness, knowledge; ANANDA is bliss, happiness, beatitude.110 The needs and rights arise from this triad.

Observation and reason show that a man, in order to remain alive in this world, and to develop and manifest his full potential, must satisfy certain basic natural needs: undamaged natural bodily condition; space in which the body will exist and move; food with which to maintain life and so grow; expression of inner impulses through gesture and speech; movement in space; assembly, or company of other men (family, co-operators etc); individual possessions, or property; reputation or honour; peace and quiet, for study, prayer, meditation and whatever else.111

When people speak of human rights, they in fact refer to these basic needs and their satisfaction. The laws of the Aryas imposed duties (dharma) whereby people would respect these basic needs or rights in every other human being. The Aryan thinking can help us formulate 9 primary rights: three related to being and life, three to intelligence and free action and three to happiness. (To these could be related Jefferson’s formulation, in the American Declaration of Independence, of the rights to Life, Liberty and Happiness).112

BEING                   INTELLIGENCE               HAPPINESS

(Life)                     (Freedom, Action)             (Fullness)

1. Person             4. Expression                     7. Property

2. Land                  5. Locomotion                   8. Honour

3. Food                 6. Assembly                        9. Peace

1. Person is the embodiment itself with all its limbs (personality, mind, soul etc). Clearly without this there is no existence in this world: hence the importance of the Habeas Corpus (in Britain) and all prohibitions of assault, injury and murder.

2. Land provides the space, air and light, which are freely available and the man enjoys effortlessly and constantly. Here is the scene for man’s play and work, rest and movement, and the source of nourishment.

3. Food is mainly water and fruits of the earth (apart from air and impressions). Food at first comes to a man from others: from mother, when he is an embryo in the womb; from parents, when a child. Later man must seek it himself and for this he needs to move and act intelligently.

4. Expression is the movement of intelligence outwardly manifesting through facial expressions, speech and movement of hands and feet. From this arise mimicry, poetry, song, dance etc. With these a man may give enjoyment (food for the mind) and receive gross food in exchange.

5. Locomotion: without this man cannot, unless supported by others, obtain food. Furthermore he must move (act, work or labour) to produce all other things he needs – clothes, shelter, tools etc. In this he usually benefits with the cooperation of other men. Only some need to be food-producers. The others can produce other useful things and exchange them for food.

6. Assembly satisfies man’s need for companion-ship and family. In addition it facilitates a man in his work, amusement, act of worship etc. No man can live entirely by himself all his life. But once man lives in society he needs some things exclusively for his own use and consumption.

7. Property is what belongs exclusively to any one person (or group). A man has his inherent properties, i.e. his talents and weaknesses; also, the external possessions that are the products of his labour, or things exchanged thereby, or gifts, or bequests. (Land is No 2 and cannot belong here – except by defective or distorted thinking.)

8. Honour protects and promotes a man’s work. With a besmirched reputation, the teacher, lawyer, doctor, merchant and baker, cannot continue their occupation in the community as before.

9. Peace, finally, outer as well as inner, is needed for a man, if he is to enjoy the fruits of his work, study, worship or endeavour to attain supreme liberation (mokswa) of Spirit through Self-knowledge – which was the fourth and ultimate aim.

People today speak of "freedom of thought" or "of press" as a right. Rights are also considered to be the "freedom to work" or not work (i.e. strike, or "industrial action")113, free education etc etc. Clearly freedom of thought or press or conscience – all are included in No 4. Once there is a law that "No one shall be obstructed from expressing himself, provided he does no offend others" or simply "Be truthful", then people will, by extension, enjoy those liberties also. The modern "right to work" (or fair wages etc) arises automatically once all 9 rights are in operation – only then! If people understand and respect indeed these 9 rights in others, then all will enjoy political and economic liberty in a just society.

There is obviously, some gradation in these rights. Nos 4 and the rest are, in a way, though not absolutely, an unfoldment of the need for food, (No 3). Nos 7,8,9 come as a natural consequence (again not absolutely) of the "assembly", i.e. many men living communally and needing to distinguish food, clothes etc. A man can be gagged and bound but provided he gets fed, he will survive, however miserably.

If he is deprived of food, he will not survive long. If deprived of land, again he cannot survive in air and water. If deprived of person, that is his embodiment, he dies instantly. A man‘s life, action and fulfilment will be curtailed to the degree that the first three are restricted.

In any society, if people are to enjoy these rights, they must observe the duty to respect these rights where other people are concerned. Our freedom stops where that of others begins and we enjoy freedom only when, and to the extent that, others do not infringe our rights. Naturally we do the same. Ultimately it all amounts to avoid doing to others what we don’t want others to do to us. (This is a rule found in most religions, or ancient philosophies, from Confucianism to Christianity; in the Christian tradition it is known as the “golden rule” and is found formulated in Mathew’s gospel 7:12 and Luke’s gospel 6: 31.)

Through ignorance, insecurity and greed, some people seek to have advantages over others so as to obtain riches by not working or not working enough. They succeed in imposing a system of laws and institutions that forbid large numbers of men from satisfying these fundamental needs freely as Nature intends; for in any ancient small community it is obvious that all healthy people are capable of satisfying these needs quite freely and naturally. In ancient Sparta the helots, and in feudal times the serfs, were tied down to landowners’ estates having no freedom of expression, locomotion and the rest. In conditions of slavery the masters owned the person and could abuse, beat, maim or even kill him with impunity.

Today, all over the world, we ignore the second need – free access to land. Enormous numbers of people live and work in places owned by others and, to do so, have to pay a part of their income to the owners, thus being reduced to a subtle state of slavery. The vast majority of people everywhere, including those who suffer most from this deprivation, take this state to be natural: all economic activity proceeds under this delusion and oppressive restriction. It is not necessary.

In ancient times philosophers and law-givers provided their people both with common lands and individual holdings. Recognizing the truth that all land really belongs to and is given by the Supreme power, the Hebrews allowed every family its holdings:114 "The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine (saith the Lord); for ye (are) strangers and sojourners with Me." Plato, again, following Lycurgus of Sparta and Solon of Athens, provided all the citizens in his new State with sufficient land to live and work.115 And in ancient India, Naarada said: "A householder’s house and his field are considered as the two fundamentals of his existence. Therefore let not the king upset either of them."116

Of course, with increase of population the idyllic conditions of the ancient simple communities changed considerably. As communities became larger growing into towns and cities, people would have to move much farther to obtain fresh lands. As a consequence there now emerged much more productive sites at the centre of the communities (or towns), and these gave a much bigger advantage to their possessors. Who should hold these? By what new arrangement those on the less productive sites would not be at a disadvantage?

John Locke stated the problem succinctly in the 17th century. "As much land as a man tills… and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, enclose it from the common… Nor was this… any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough and as good left, and more than the yet unprovided could use".117 Locke offers no solution, because, perhaps, the problem was not so pressing: he had in mind the new colonies in America where land was plentiful.

A reasonable solution came in mid-nineteenth century in the USA from the self-taught economist Henry George. Plainly, it is the community Ð its very existence and development in numbers, sciences etc Ð that creates the difference between more and less advantageous (i.e. marginal) sites. This advantage, therefore, this difference, this "surplus" or "economic rent", should be rendered back to the community which generates it. Since the value of a site reflects its desirability and this indicates people’s expectation to enjoy the advantage (or surplus produce) of the site, a tax could be levied on that value, thereby collecting (at least part of) the advantage for the entire community; the tax should be paid whether the site is in use or not Ð so that sites would not be held idle for speculative profits or other reason. This tax could substitute eventually all others. Under this system nobody in the community, by virtue of holding land, would reap an advantage over other members.118

Although George’s measure has been half heartedly applied in some countries with good results, although many eminent economists (like M. Friedman) at times refer to it as "sound"119 and others recommend120 its implementation both in industrialized and less-developed countries, yet it does not enjoy much popularity. People, strangely, prefer the complex current taxation on income, capital etc, which acts as a brake on initiative and industry and, ultimately, perpetuates the unjust, inefficient and oppressive condition whereby people have no free or easy access to land while others make large profits in land-speculation.

Thousands of years before Henry George and the French Physiocrats who held a similar view and John Locke, the Aryan sages stated the same problem and the same solution. "The earth …is common to all beings enjoying the fruit of their own labour; it belongs…to all alike"; therefore, "there should be left some for everyone": so the philosophical system Pu~rva Mima~m~sa~ 121 of Jaimini.

How is this to be realized?

Very similar to the Land-value taxation is Gautama’s rule that the king "shall live on the surplus", which means levying a tax on the difference of the more productive sites over and above the less productive (i.e. marginal). Apastamba also is quite clear: "If any person holding land does not exert himself and hence bears no produce, he shall, if rich, be made to pay what ought to have been produced".122 Land, in other words, should not be held out of production – particularly the land of central sites which are the most wanted and thus command the largest rent or surplus value.

But Apastamba goes a little further than modern social and economic reformers. He indicates that justice will prevail only when people observe their duties towards all others and turn to the realization of their true nature, to the knowledge of their own inner Self Atman who is the same in all people and no different from the Self of the Universe, Spirit Absolute Brahman, (see chs 22-33 of his Dharmasu~tras). This implies the resuscitation of the four a~s~rama system in some form suitable to modern conditions and particularly the turn to moks~a. This is, of course, the basic teaching of the philosophical system Veda~nta but also an important element in the ancient Greek tradition, particularly the school of Plato and his teacher Socrates, the doctrine that was expressed in the Delphic maxim ‘know thyself’ (gno~thi s’heauton). Veda~nta stresses the identity of the inividual Self with the universal Self and provides guideliness for this realization in life. Many Gnostic christians of the first four centuries of the Common Era held similar views, probably derived from the Vedic Tradition. Without this effort for realization, which includes the practice of truth and non-injury to others and the other basic duties (all summed up in not doing to others what we don’t want others to do to us), even the finest economic formulations would, according to these ancient teachings, degenerate and fail eventually and lasting happiness would elude man.

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Sanjeev Sabhlok

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