Thoughts on economics and liberty

Review of Sagarika Ghose’s book, “Why I am a Liberal”

Sagarika has put in her heart and soul into an excellent book that I strongly commend to every Indian. The book is an engaging attempt to educate a country that has understood liberty only imperfectly through sporadic literary flourishes but has never really grown out of its feudal mai-baap mindset towards government. Gurcharan Das’s India Unbound was perhaps the first popular book to promote liberty but in many ways Sagarika’s book is more urgent.

Sagarika doesn’t pull punches. All political parties get their dues. Some people on social media seem to think that Sagarika supports Congress. I couldn’t find any such evidence or any single-minded opposition to BJP. People should read the book before passing judgement on Sagarika’s political preferences.

The book starts with enormous clarity of thought. “The argument of this essay is in favour of social and economic liberalism in the belief that the two cannot be segregated”, she says. This is correct. Freedom is indivisible. We can’t be free in thought without being free in action – in all our actions. The only restriction to action that is acceptable is when someone physically harms another.

Sagarika is widely read. I am almost jealous that she has met and interviewed Isaiah Berlin. (I assume she must have read his Four Essays on Liberty although these are not specifically referenced.) She has also studied Rajaji and Masani and believes that Gandhi is the best example of a liberal leader that India can offer. “For the purpose of this essay I have chosen to emphasize the Gandhian definition of the term ‘liberal’. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was, in many ways, the most successful liberal politician of all time”. This view is largely correct and I recognised this in my 2008 book, Breaking Free of Nehru, when I contrasted Gandhi’s small government ideas with Nehru’s grandiose ambitions for the state.

But after scouring Gandhi’s complete works (a million words, now digitally available) I’ve become increasingly clear that Gandhi’s economic ideas were wrong. He tried to invent a “new” economics in ignorance of the marginal revolution or even Kautilya’s Arthashastra. And he badly misrepresented Adam Smith without reading him. He wrote: “What Adam Smith has described as pure economic activity based merely on the calculations of profit and loss is a selfish attitude and it is an obstacle to the development of khadi …the tactics … adopted in a profiteering business have no place in khadi activity. For instance, cheating, fraud, falsehood, adulteration, exploiting people’s addictions or their baser feelings things practised in mill industries and ordinary trade—are to be completely shunned in khadi activity.” This is almost a Marxian diatribe but its origin lies in Gandhi’s ignorance of economics, even though many of his intuitions about individuals were right.

The best and most passionate sections of Sagarika’s book relate to freedom of expression and social liberty. And she has superb sections on the liberation of farmers and women. In these matters her position regarding reforms is almost entirely consistent with our party’s declared positions.

The liberal concept has, however, evolved significantly over the past fifty years into ever more market-friendly directions. When I met her for the first time in October 2018, I suggested that she explore economics in some detail. My book on economics for children from age 10 to 100, Seeing the Invisible, could provide a helpful introduction. I’ve particularly recommended James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree – a book that develops Gandhi’s insights about school education and opens one’s mind to the brilliant world of accountability that the private sector has built. In this process of future study, I hope Sagarika can accept our party’s position that the government should not only get out of managing education and health but even things like water and roads (wherever that is possible).

On her own volition, Sagarika has recognised the gurukul system and asked in the book: “the liberal must also raise the question: isn’t first nationalizing education and then expecting that the autonomy of those nationalized (or government-controlled) educational institutions will be respected a bit of a pipe dream?” The answer to this question will show her (and India, through her) the way forward if we want to educate our crores of ill-educated youth.

There is one particularly valuable contribution Sagarika has made – through her research on the Indian origins of liberalism. I’ve been trying to jointly write a paper on this topic along with fellow liberal Sanjay Sonawani. Sagarika’s book will add significant value to our research.

Her section on women’s liberty is very powerful. She notes, “Illiberalism towards women … cuts across political parties” and that “[by] imprisoning women in the ladies’ compartment or ‘zenana dabba’ of sarkari feminism, patriarchal tradition is only perpetuated and strengthened”. Therefore, alarmingly, and“[p]erhaps because of the rising tide of conservatism, Indian women are increasingly choosing not to work. Contrary to global trends, women’s participation in the workforce in India has been declining in recent decades, making it more difficult for women to seek independence. Today, India has one of the lowest rates of women’s participation in the workforce in the world.”

There is one difference with her approach to women that I must note. She believes that “allowing … women into Sabarimala by the Supreme Court is an important reaffirmation of Hinduism’s inherent spiritual democracy”. Our party believes that it is not the job of a court to reaffirm any spiritual matter. The government and courts must stay strictly out of all religious matters unless physical harm is involved.

The book’s sub-title claims it is “A Manifesto for Indians Who Believe in Individual Freedom”. Perhaps I have a different notion about this and consider that a manifesto should involve a structured set of ideas for reform. I have been a liberal manifesto writer for over twenty years now. I began in February 1998 when I determined to build a liberal political party for India. This led to the 1999 People’s Manifesto, in consultation with around 500 people (this document is available on the India Policy Institute’s website). In 2008 I wrote Breaking Free of Nehru which provided a clear action plan for India. In 2013 I used all this knowledge as well as Sharad Joshi’s work to write the Sone Ki Chidiya reform agenda. All this work then fed into the Swarna Bharat Party’s manifesto. I suggest that the book is a great essay but is probably not a manifesto. Or maybe it is a different type of manifesto.

I have another comment to make. The book educates and exhorts but stops short of proposing a vehicle to take this forward.

In 2004 I wrote that a liberal is one who politically fights all his life for liberty. No great liberal merely wrote books. Therefore, exhorting corrupt socialist parties to adopt liberalism is not the way out. And it is not as if people haven’t tried to guide them. I personally explained these matters and handed over the Sone Ki Chidiya agenda in July 2014 at Delhi’s Ashoka Hotel to Jitendra Singh, Minister of State for Prime Minister’s Office. I also corresponded and spoke with Vinay Sahasrabuddhe who held the pen on BJP’s 2014 manifesto. But the BJP is not interested in reforms. It is a political beast for self-aggrandisement of its leaders, with absolutely no concern for the people. The same goes with Arvind Kejriwal whom I met in 2012, with similar results. The socialists will not change their spots.

India wont’s become free unless a national liberal party comes to power. It is time for action. I hope Sagarika will join politics and directly take India forward in the direction she has outlined.

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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