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My Friend Sancho

My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.

To buy it online from the US, click here.

I am currently on a book tour to promote the book. Please check out our schedule of city launches. India Uncut readers are invited to all of them, no pass required, so do drop in and say hello.

If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho

Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.

And ah, my posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.

Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Freedom

Adityanath’s rise marks the end of a 100-year-old battle

This is the second installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

There comes a moment in some lives when a sudden, unexpected event makes you look at the world with greater clarity than before. It could be a happy moment: a childhood friend proposes to you, or you stumble into parenthood. It could be a sad one: you are diagnosed with cancer and told you have six months to live. It makes you look at the world differently, and some things seem so clear that you wonder why you did not notice them before.

In the life of our nation, the rise of Yogi Adityanath to the chief ministership of Uttar Pradesh might well be one such unexpected yet clarifying moment. I was stunned when it was announced; and yet, it makes so much sense that any counterfactual now seems absurd. It was, I have come to believe, a decisive and inevitable event in a conflict that has been simmering in India for at least a century.

The great battle that took place on our peninsula was not between the natives and our colonial overlords, but between a new way of thinking and an old way of existing. While the Enlightenment swept its way across Europe and the USA in the 18th century, its influence was felt in India only in the 19th. Liberalism, however one tries to spin it, was an import from the west, and it is ironic that many of our finest freedom fighters were influenced by British thinkers. The great early figures of our resistance – heroes of mine such as Naoroji, Ranade, Agarkar and Gokhale – were essentially British liberals.

Until Mahatma Gandhi, the freedom struggle was a battle between the British empire on one hand, and Indian elites inspired by Western ideas on the other. Gandhi did catalyse it into a mass movement, but his intellectual influences weren’t Indian either. He was more influenced by Ruskin and Tolstoy than any Indian thinker, and VS Naipaul once called him “the least Indian of Indian leaders.” By the time the British finally quit India, the liberalism of the Gokhale years had been replaced by the soft socialism that was then in vogue. Do note that both these strains, the early classical liberalism and the socialism that is so antithetical to it, were Western imports.

The constitution, intended as an operating manual for this new nation, reflected this. The commentator Nitin Pai, in an essay in Pragati, a magazine I edit, wrote: “On 26th January 1950, the Enlightenment […] was injected into the veins of Indian society in the form of a written statute. We are still dealing with the shock of that moment.”

‘Into the veins of Indian society.’ It is worth reflecting here that the state and society are two different beasts. This difference is a cornerstone of conservatism, which the Encyclopaedia Britannica defines as a “political doctrine that emphasizes the value of traditional institutions and practices.” Who were the Indian conservatives who would lead the fightback of society against the state?

The biggest manifestation of conservatism in India is what we call the Hindutva right. I used to be sceptical of it, as I consider ‘Hindutva’ to be an artificial construct, an insulting caricature of a great inclusive religion. But even if that is so, Hindutva is authentically conservative because it arises out of a nativism that is inherent in human nature – and consequently, rooted in our culture. (Culture can both mitigate and reinforce human nature, which is the whole struggle right there.)

Early Indian conservatives were more interested in social rather than political battles, which is why they didn’t play much of a role in the freedom movement. After Independence, the Nehruvian big state seemed to have subdued the Hindutva social project – but this was temporary. The journalist Rishi Majumder, who is writing a biography of the conservative leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee, describes in a forthcoming essay in Pragati how “the RSS, as well as other right-wing groups, organizations and movements, have thrived and grown through many years when the BJP was not in power.”

Much modern politics is the battle between these competing visions of the state. Should the state be a superstructure that imposes certain values, decided upon by elites, upon society? Or should it be a servant to society, protecting its traditions without judging them from the prism of other value systems?

Narendra Modi’s rise to power was fascinating because he embodied the hopes of people on both sides of that spectrum. Some classical liberals dismayed by Nehruvian socialism backed him because they saw the damage Nehru’s ideas had done to India, and wanted their values imposed from above. And the whole Hindutva movement, obviously, fell in behind Modi because his ascent was the culmination of their century-long struggle.

These two strands are incompatible. And now, with the rise of Yogi Adityanath, there is no more ambiguity.

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 March, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | News | Politics | The Rationalist

The Return of Pragati

A few days ago, the magazine Pragati relaunched under my editorship. This was the editorial I wrote to mark its return.

One of my babies on that space: a section called Brainstorm, which aims to “create a space where diverse minds can discuss big issues in a respectful way.” The first such discussion, on ‘The Future of the Indian Republic’, is underway. Here’s my intro post to kick that discussion off. You can read all the essays in that discussion here

Watch that space!.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 March, 2017 in Economics | Freedom | India | Media | Personal | Politics

It Is Anti-National To Be Against Free Speech

This piece was published (under a different headline) in the Sunday Times of India today. It marks the start of a column for them called The Rationalist.

The other day, an internet troll sent me a love letter. “Why have you blocked me on Twitter?” he demanded to know. “You claim to believe in the freedom of expression. You are a hypocrite.” After that he said a few colourful things about my family. I think he wanted me to copulate with them.

I am an absolutist when it comes to free speech, and this friendly troll was wrong. Indeed, I find that there is no concept as deeply misunderstood today as the right to free speech. These misunderstandings exist on all sides of the political spectrum. Thus, I find myself duty-bound to write this brief primer on the philosophical origins of free speech, to illustrate what I understand it to be.

The earliest conception of individual rights came from the 17th century Enlightenment philosopher, John Locke. Locke held that the most fundamental right of all, the one from which all others emerged, was the right to self-ownership. After all, it is practically self-evident and beyond argument that, right from birth, all of us own ourselves.

All individual rights arise out of this right to self-ownership. The right to life. The right to our thoughts, and thus to our speech. The right to our actions, which also results in the right to property. And so on. Freedom, another misunderstood term, means a condition in which these rights are not infringed.

All of our rights are contingent to our respecting the corresponding rights (and thus, freedom) of others. My fist stops where your nose begins, as that old saying goes. Libertarians also call this the non-aggression principle, where aggression is defined as infringing someone’s rights. You may do anything as long as there is no coercion involved.

By this reckoning, all voluntary interactions between consenting adults are kosher, as long as they do not infringe on anyone else’s rights. This holds true, as I often point out, whether those interactions happen in the marketplace or in the bedroom. Both the left and the right are thus incoherent when they support one kind of voluntary exchange but not the other.

In accordance with the non-aggression principle, the core question I ask myself in any situation is: Where is the coercion? Looked at this way, many of the questions that keep getting raised about free speech answer themselves. Am I infringing on the rights of the troll I block? No, because there is no coercion involved. He is still free to say whatever he wants, but he is not entitled to my time and attention. Is a college within its rights to withdraw an invitation to a speaker? Yes, it’s their property, and the speaker can still express himself elsewhere.

If people have a right to free speech, though, it doesn’t mean that all free speech is right. Virender Sehwag had a right to mock Gurmehar Kaur for her courageous video earlier this week, just as I have a right to find his mockery tasteless, and my friendly troll has a right to call me names for it. We all have a right to be wrong, including the trolls who try to have a chilling effect on free speech with their constant abuse. The truth is, only the government can shut down free speech, and even trolls have a right to abuse. (Do note that Twitter would also be within its rights to ban trolls, who are using their property after agreeing to certain terms of use.)

When it comes to our actions, there is much that we can do that can harm others. But it is very hard to breach the non-aggression principle with words alone. As that old adage goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Recognising this, the first amendment of the US constitution protects free speech in absolute terms. Obviously, words can be used to incite physical violence, and that is a reasonable limit of free speech. The US Supreme Court, in a famous case (Brandeburg vs Ohio, 1969) set the standard as “imminent lawless action.”

The Indian constitution, sadly, does not protect free speech. Article 19(2) lays out caveats such as “public order” and “decency and morality”, which are open to misinterpretation and, thus, misuse. This is a pity, but our democracy is a work in progress, and is made healthier by a free exchange of ideas.

For that reason, I was alarmed when I read Arun Jaitley’s quote last week about free speech being “subordinate to the needs of the sovereign state”. That is the wrong way around, and I would argue that a healthy nation needs an open exchange of ideas, for which free speech is indispensable. That is why, if I were asked to compare Arun Jaitley and Umar Khalid, I would say that it is Jaitley who is anti-national, and a threat to our great republic.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 March, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | The Rationalist

The Landscape of Freedom in India

Here’s the video and transcript of a keynote speech I gave at the Asia Liberty Forum on January 11, 2017 in Mumbai.

Note: In this conference, the word ‘liberal’ was used in its classical, European sense, not in the American one. I’ve used it in the same sense in this speech, almost interchangable with ‘libertarian’, though I usually prefer not to use the word as it means so many things to so many people.

Before I start, I want to congratulate Parth Shah for 20 years of CCS. Parth, I’ve lost count of the number of young people I have met to whom you’ve been a teacher and a guide, and there is one thing common to all of them: not only do they respect you enormously, but they also love and adore you even more than they respect you. That’s remarkable. Thank you for existing!

I’ve started on a happy note, but I’m afraid that the rest of my speech will contain both sadness and anger, and maybe a little hope. The topic of my keynote speech today is “Freedom in India.” Now, I’m not going to talk about the history of what I call this ongoing freedom struggle in India: most of you know that story too well. Instead, I want to share my personal feelings about where we stand today.

I think the quest for freedom in India that all of us care about so much is at an important crossroads. We face challenges we did not face before. We have opportunities we did not have before. And to understand the road ahead, I think there are two things we have to do. One, we must come to terms with Narendra Modi.

Let me first lay the context for why Modi became such an attractive figure for many freedom-loving people before 2014. Eric Hoffer writes in his book The True Believer, which is a book about the rise of mass movements, that they are driven by frustration. Modi tapped into different kinds of frustrations during his rise to power. Among them were classical liberals who cared for freedom – both personal freedom and economic freedom – and were frustrated by nearly seven decades of state oppression that had kept hundreds of millions of people in poverty for much longer than they should have. The reforms of 1991, we must remember, were a product of circumstances, and were not driven by political will. They did lift millions of people out of poverty, but they were limited and half-hearted, and once the balance-of-payments crisis was over, they more or less stopped. We still remain largely an unfree country. In the 2016 Index of Economic Freedom, India was still at a miserable 128 – eight places lower than 2014, by the way. This is trivial – most of you know this.

Modi appeared, to many of my friends, as a beacon of hope. The Congress was – and is – feudal party ruled by a repugnant family that has harmed India immeasurably, and most regional parties were focussed on narrow identity politics. Modi is a master of optics, and as he built himself up as a national leader, he became a bit like a Rorschach Inkblot Test – you could see in him what you wanted to.

No wonder many classical liberals fell in behind him. They were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for the Gujarat Riots of 2002, and put that down to incompetence rather than collusion. They were sick of the status quo, and he represented a hope for change. As my friend Rajesh Jain put it, he was “a lighter shade of gray.” At least he made the right noises – his slogan ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’ was music to my ears.

Now, a party on the campaign trail is like a young man wooing a woman: he’s on his best behaviour, and he’ll tell her just what she wants to hear. But governance is like what happens after marriage: the girl find out the truth about the guy: he farts all the time, he snores like a hippopotamus getting dental surgery without anaesthetic, he surfs porn all night, he beats her up, indeed, he beats her up day after day after day – and very often, she rationalises this, because she made this choice, and there seems to be no alternative.

Let’s take a brief look at how the Modi government has performed. The first thing we learned about Modi is that he is no reformer. Under him, government has grown bigger and more authoritarian. The welfare schemes he once criticized have grown, and some of them have been renamed and he has pretended that they are his ideas. He has not carried out any of the reforms he promised to, including low-hanging fruit like privatising non-performing public sector units that no one would have fought for. Indeed, he has shown us that he is actually a true heir of the Congress party: he has the economic vision of Nehru, and the political instincts of Indira Gandhi. And I mean both of those as a criticism.

Like Nehru, Modi has a top-down, command-and-control vision of the economy. To him, society is a machine to be engineered: he considers himself a better engineer than his predecessors, but he is an engineer nonetheless. And like Indira, he uses power as a tool to oppress and harass his opponents, and to clamp down on dissent, and to reward his cronies.

For two years between 2014 and 2016, Modi carried out almost no reforms, despite making some noises in the right directions: remember, he is a master of optics. But then, in November last year, he showed his true colours as an authoritarian social engineer. There is a thought experiment that I sometimes throw to my friends: It’s the morning of November 8, 2016, and you are the prime minister of India for exactly one day. In that day, you have to enact exactly one policy which, without breaking the law or going against the constitution, harms the people of India the most. The maximum damage to the maximum people. What are you going to do?

Think about this and let me know if you come up with an answer better than what Narendra Modi actually did. Allow me to break down for you what Demonetisation actually did. Modi essentially took all 1000 and 500 rupee notes out of circulation. Now, a 1000 rupees is equal to around 15 dollars. It is not really a high-denomination note. Modi had perhaps not bought anything from a store in two decades, so he didn’t realise that these notes are not used mainly for as unit of storage, as high denomination notes are in some other countries, but as a medium of exchange. Common people use these notes. So much so that 86% of the currency in use consisted of these notes. 86%!

Let me share some more figures with you. Before November 8, 97% of the transactions in this country were cash transactions. Contrary to the blatant lies of the government, only 53% of all Indians had bank accounts. That’s 600 million people without bank accounts. How do you think they stored their money? Yes, you could notionally go to a bank anyway and exchange this money for new notes, but you need a government ID for this, and again, despite the lies spread by the government, 300 million people in India had no form of government ID at all. And even those who did have bank accounts could deposit their money after standing in a queue for hours, but had limits placed on withdrawals. Get this, they were not being allowed to withdraw their own money!

I wrote at the time that it was the largest assault on property rights in the history of mankind, a point that my friend Barun Mitra reiterated in his excellent speech yesterday. The opportunity costs were huge – people spent hours in queues begging for their own money, and could not use either their time or the money they had productively. Much of the economy is informal, because of structural failures of the state itself, and it came crashing down. Migrant workers across the country were laid off because there was no cash to pay them, and they went back home. Farmers could not sell their produce or buy seeds for the next harvest. Truckers lined up on roads with nowhere to go and nothing to carry. Thousands of businesses across the country shut down.

In all this, the rich got away. The government kept changing the goalposts for why they did this. First, they said it was to counter black money. But a finance ministry estimate, based on thousands of income tax raids in the past, shows that only 6% of black money is kept in the form of cash: the other 94% is in gold, real estate and foreign accounts. Even that 6% was laundered. You see a reflection of this in automobile sales. They have plummeted for two-wheelers and three-wheelers, but SUV sales are steady. The rich got away.

The government also said that Demonetisation would kill fake currency. Well, their own estimate showed that only one in 4000 notes was fake, a perfectly acceptable figure, and the usual way of tackling this, practised across the world, is to phase out old notes. The government also said that terrorist activity would be hurt by this, but cross-border attacks have actually gone up in this time. Yes, criminal activity has been affected, but that’s because ALL business has been affected. You do not cure a cold by cutting someone’s head off.

So there was no benefit, and the cost is incalculable. Some more figures: According to the All India Manufacturer’s Association, in a report released last month, employment is expected to fall 60% by March, and revenues will come down by 55%. And the IMF released a forecast that said that India’s GDP will grow by only 6.6% this year, a full percentage point lower than last year. Let me tell you what that number means. My friend Nitin Pai of the Takshashila Institution recently estimated that with every 1% rise in the GDP, 2 million people come out of poverty. Two million people. That is the opportunity cost of Demonetisation in just the short term: those two million people trapped below the poverty line because of one man named Narendra Modi. This is both a humanitarian disaster and a moral outrage.

Now, the question here is, all these classical liberals who supported Modi in 2014, have they seen the light now? This is a man who doesn’t give a damn about liberal principles, and is taking the country backwards. Friends of mine who are here tonight have invoked The Road to Serfdom to describe what is happening, and some talk of creeping fascism. But what do our classical liberals have to say?

My friend the economist Suyash Rai said an interesting thing to me a few days ago. He said, “Mujhe communist se dar nahin lagta, mujhe classical liberal se dar lagta hai.” (“I am not scared of communists, I am scared of classical liberals.”) There are too many people who pay lip service to freedom but support this oppressive regime. There are a number of reasons for this: Some of them invested too much emotionally in Modi, and will rationalise anything he does. Others have been co-opted into the establishment, with Padma awards or seats on the Niti Aayog or Prasar Bharti or the RBI Board of directors, and now that they are finally establishment intellectuals, they ain’t gonna give it up.

I met one of them the other day and said to him, “Isn’t modern technology wonderful?” He said, “Why?” I said, “Bro, this is the first time I’ve seen a man without a spine stand up straight.”

But leave aside the narrow compulsions of weak men without principles. What are the lessons I draw from all of this? Lesson number one: You can never depend on politicians to advance your principles. David Boaz once said, “There are only two political philosophies: liberty and power.” These are necessarily opposed to each other. Those who enter politics lust for power. If your ideas or your support seems useful to them, they will pretend to be on your side, but when they’ve gotten what they wanted, they will spit you out. Their incentives come firstly, from the special interests that fund them, and secondly from the people who elect them. And that brings me to lesson number two.

Lesson Number Two is that policy advocacy is mostly useless. If you want to make an impact on the political marketplace, you need to attack the demand side, not the supply side. You need to go to the people!

I said earlier in this talk that there are two things that people who care about freedom have to take into account today. One, we have to come to terms with Narendra Modi. Two, we have to understand this political marketplace. And the most important thing to understand about India is its changing demographics.

India is rapidly growing younger and younger. The average age in India today is 27, and 60% of the country is born after the liberalisation of 1991. This is both a problem and an opportunity.

Here’s the problem. These young people are growing up in an India that needs 1 million jobs every month – 12 million jobs a year – to accommodate this new workforce. These jobs aren’t there. One of the reasons Modi won in 2014 was that he promised to create these jobs. He hasn’t delivered; he can’t deliver The government can’t create jobs, it can only enable job creation. But the reforms that would make this happen – labour reforms, ease of doing business reforms – simply aren’t happening.

It’s no surprise then all the recent agitations in India have been centred around reservation in government jobs: The Jat agitation in Haryana, the Patidars under Hardik Patel in Gujarat, and so on. And this will get worse. Artificial intelligence will now decimate jobs in the service industry, where we’ve done relatively well recently. And automation will mean that the window for becoming a manufacturing superpower because of cheap labour will be closed to us forever. So there is a coming crisis.

Now, how are we to sell our ideas in times such as these. Classical liberal notions like spontaneous order and the positive-sumness of things are unintuitive and hard to sell in the best of times, but even more so in times of scarcity. I used to think that rising prosperity will end identity politics in India, but no, identity politics is on the rise, and we are becoming tribal again. No wonder populism is winning.

But there is also an opportunity here. These young people are not bound up in the dogmas of the past. They are not necessarily believers in the religion of government. If we manage to get out there in the marketplace of ideas, they will be more receptive than any generation before them. And that is the principle challenge before us. How can we get into the culture? How can our ideas be part of the discourse? Understand this: the prime minister of India in the year 2050 could be a 15-year-old girl who is sitting in a small town in India somewhere at this very moment, doing her boring homework. How can we reach her with our liberal ideas? Can we shape the way she thinks about the world? Can we package our ideas in an empathetic way that appeals to her emotions? Can we get her off Snapchat? Can we reach her on Snapchat?

In another two or three decades, this demographic tide will reverse itself, and we will become a rapidly ageing country. Will we still be poor or illiberal then, or will we be a beacon of freedom for the world? I can’t answer that – and I don’t even have any specific answers as to how we can get there from here, but I thought it important to highlight the challenges we face. Things are not rosy, freedom is not on the march. But we have to try, and I know this: just by the size of the battlefield alone, this battle for freedom in India will be the most significant freedom struggle in the history of humankind. And we can only win it on a full stomach. It’s time for dinner, guys, thank you for listening to me.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 February, 2017 in Economics | Freedom | India | Personal | Politics

Why Both Modi and Trump are Textbook Populists

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page.

As Donald Trump raised his tiny paw and took the presidential oath this Friday, I had just finished reading an outstanding book that, I thought, explained Trump as well as many other leaders on the world stage today. In ‘What is Populism?’ Jan-Werner Müller, a Princeton professor, lays out all the ingredients from which you can cook up a populist movement. I was struck by how closely our own prime minister, Narendra Modi, matched Müller’s definition. Consider the following characteristics that characterise populists, as defined by Müller.

One, they claim that not only do they represent the people, but that whoever does not support them is, by definition, not part of ‘the people’. Müller says this is “the core claim of populism: only some of the people are really the people.” As Trump put it in May last year, “the only important thing is the unification of the people— because the other people don’t mean anything.” Think of how the BJP treats Muslims and Dalits as second-class citizens.

Two, populists are not just anti-pluralism, but they’re also anti-elite. Müller writes, “Populists pit the pure, innocent, always hardworking people against a corrupt elite who do not really work (…) and, in right-wing populism, also against the very bottom of society.” Think of Modi’s railings against the “Lutyens elite” as an example.

Three, they portray themselves as victims even when they are in power. As Müller puts it, “majorities act like mistreated minorities.” Modi still rants against the elite even though he is now their leader, and paid BPJ trolls still call journalists ‘presstitutes’ even though they control much of the media. Trump, who has been a crony capitalist insider all his life, is a classic example of a pig calling the pigsty dirty.

Four, populist parties tend to become monolithic, “with the rank-and-file clearly subordinated to a single leader.” Trump decimated the Republican Party on the way up, just as Modi is now the Supreme Leader within the BJP, which once had multiple leaders of stature.

Five, populists pride themselves on their “proximity to the people.” Modi being a ‘chaiwalla’ is a key part of his narrative, and as that famous photoshopped picture of him sweeping a floor shows, the common-man element is important to him. As it is, indeed, to other populists. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez both hosted shows similar to Modi’s Mann Ki Baat.

Six, populism is simplistic, so populists can only think in simplistic terms, which leads to “an oversimplification of policy challenges.” Modi’s Demonetisation is an example of this, as is Trump’s attribution of America’s job losses to immigration and outsourcing.

Seven, they populists tend to believe in conspiracy theories, which “are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.” Indeed, the RSS’s view of history is itself a sort of giant conspiracy theory.

How do populists behave once in power? Müller outlines three things that they tend to do.

One, they “colonize or occupy the state”. They fill up all the institutions with their own people, co-opt those that are independent, and reshape the system to their will. Think of Modi’s appointment of incompetent cronies to the Censor Board and FTII, the replacement of the Planning Commission with Niti Aayog, and the recent virtual demotion of the RBI to an arm of the finance ministry.

Two, they “engage in mass clientelism: the exchange of material and immaterial favors by elites for mass political support.” Think of the sops Modi offered before the Bihar elections, or the ones expected in the next couple of budgets leading up to important elections.

Three, they shut down dissent in civil society, starting with NGOs. Müller writes, “rulers like Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and PiS in Poland have gone out of their way to try to discredit NGOs as being controlled by outside powers (and declare them ‘foreign agents’).” Sounds familiar?

Modi fits Müller’s populist template so precisely that he seems like a bot generated by a populism machine, and not an actual person. It made me wonder: if a near-identical form of populism persists through vast stretches of time and geography, does it then reflect something innate in human nature?

I’ll leave you with a pleasant thought, though. Here’s why I think both Modi’s and Trump’s populism will ultimately fail. The narratives of populism, based on some of the people being all of the people, only work in broadly homogenous societies. The USA will be a minority-majority country by the middle of the century (ie, whites will be less than 50% of the population), and a Trump won’t be possible then. As for India, our diversity is our greatest defence against creeping fascism. Populism might work at the state level, but nationally, we are too diverse. That puts a ceiling on how much support Modi can get, which I believe already peaked in 2014, when he could be all things to all people. I think he already senses this. How will he respond?

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 January, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics

Three Reasons Why A Cashless Society Would Be A Disaster

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page.

I am a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, but the man had some strange views. In Hind Swaraj, written shortly after he turned 40 in 1909, Gandhi tore into some of the symbols of the modern age. “Hospitals are institutions for propagating sin,” he wrote. “To study European medicine is to deepen our slavery.” He railed against the railways, saying “it is beyond dispute that they propagate evil.” He argued against lawyers, despite being one himself, saying they had “impoverished the country.” But here’s a thing to note: despite these personal views, he never once suggested that railways, hospitals and lawyers should be banned.

There is a notion being spread these days that is as absurd as the ideas above: it is the notion that there is something wrong with using cash, and that we should head towards being a cashless society.  This is nonsense. A cashless society would be a disaster for India. Here’s why.

One, a fully cashless society would mean the end of privacy. There would be a digital trail of every action you take through your purchases and transfers. If you buy AIDS medication or a porn magazine or book a hotel room for a romantic alliance, this information can be accessed by the government – or any hacker with the requisite skills – and used against you. India has no privacy laws, and data protection is also a big worry – every week we hear stories of some some big hacking or the other, from the Congress in India to the Democratic Party in the US.

Two, a fully cashless society could mean the end of dissent. The government can use any data it gathers against you. (Even if you commit no crime, there is much you may be embarrassed by.) What’s more, they could make any opponent a pauper with one keystroke, freezing your bank account while they investigate alleged misdeeds. Just the fact that they have this power could have a chilling effect on dissent. Those in government now may well salivate over this, but tables turn fast, and when they are in opposition, would they want their opponents to have such power over them?

Three, a fully cashless society endangers freedom. Cash is empowerment: ask the young wife who saves spare cash from her alcoholic husband; or the old mother who stuffs spare notes under her mattress for years because it gives her a sense of autonomy. Indeed, in a misogynist country like India, cashlessness would hit women the hardest.

It is a myth that an advanced society must necessarily be cashless. In Germany, a country which knows the perils of authoritarianism, more than 80% of transactions are in cash, as citizens safeguard their privacy and freedom. Even in the USA, 45% of transactions are in cash. Note that Germany and the USA actually have the banking and technological infrastructure to enable cashlessness. In India, 600 million people have no bank account, and less than 20% of all Indians have a smartphone. Internet penetration is iffy, as is power. (By ‘power’, I mean electricity, not the government’s control over you.) Trying to make India cashless is akin to putting a bullock cart in an F1 race, and whipping the driver because he’s too slow.

It is true that many technologies imperil our privacy, like any app we download on our phones, for example. But those actions are voluntary, and we can choose to avoid them. That is the crux of the matter. My objection here is not to cashlessness per se, but to the coercion implicit in the currency swap of November 8 and its aftermath. A cashless society would only be good if we evolve towards it, not if we are forced into it.

At the moment, the common Indian is wary, for good reason. Digital payments involve transaction costs, are unreliable because of infrastructure issues, and hey, who would trust an Indian bank after what the RBI just did? The beneficiaries of forced cashlessness are not consumers, but vested interests like banks and payment companies. Indeed, this might even be the largest redistribution of wealth from poor to rich in the history of humanity.

The BJP itself continues to take cash donations and shift goalposts. When the demonetisation was announced, they said it was meant to attack black money and counterfeit currency. Once it became apparent that those reasons were nonsense, the government tried to change the narrative into one about a cashless society. Within a fortnight of that, they are already backtracking and saying they meant ‘less cash’ when they said ‘cashless’. The truth is this: demonetisation was a humanitarian disaster that is crippling our economy, and no matter how many times Modi and gang try to rationalise it, it cannot be done. One day, these men will stop trying. When they cannot justify any more, they will distract.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 December, 2016 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Science and Technology

There Is Nothing As Unpatriotic In A Free Country As Coercion

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page.

Last Tuesday, I went to watch ‘Dear Zindagi’ at a movie theatre near me. Before the film started, two old men came and sat in front of me. One was a short bald man with John Lennon glasses who looked like Ben Kingsley, and was wearing a hoodie over what appeared to be a dhoti. The other was a white-haired man with a flowing white beard and a flowing white robe. The bearded man nodded to me as he sat down, and then turned and said to his companion, “Mohan, I’m really looking forward to seeing Alia today. Such a good actress. Almost as if she was trained in Shantiniketan.”

“Yes, Robida,” said Mohan. “I can think of all kinds of non-violent acts she and I could do together.” Both men chuckled.

Just then, the national anthem started playing. I stood up, as did everyone else in the hall – except these two men.

It was the morning show and the hall was half empty, which I suppose was good, otherwise some macho self-righteous fool would have wanted to display his patriotism by asking these two men to stand up. But no one said anything. The anthem got over and the screen went blank. As I sat down, the bearded man turned around and caught my eye. I couldn’t help asking him, “Hey, I don’t mean to intrude, but why didn’t you guys stand for the anthem? Aren’t you proud of being Indian?”

Mohan turned around and gave me a kindly look through his Lennon glasses. “It was an act of civil disobedience,” he said. “And we were showing our love for this country, and our patriotism, by sitting.”

“I’m sorry?” I said. “The patriotic thing to do is to stand. We must honour our country.”

“And what does it mean to honour our country, young man? First of all, ask yourself, what is our country? Is India equal to the national anthem? Or the national flag? Or are there certain values that our country stands for that are more important than these symbols?”

I didn’t know what to say, so like any young person in these times, I said something random. “Freedom. We would never had the chance to stand for a national anthem before 1947. So I stand today to celebrate freedom.”

Mohan giggled, as if the gorgeous Alia had just landed up beside him in a slinky leotard and started tickling him. “Freedom! And how do you define freedom? We did not become a free country when the British left. Yes, we got political independence, but that isn’t freedom. Oh no, the freedom we fought for was the freedom of individuals to live their lives without oppression. Basically, to not be forced to do anything. The Supreme Court has made it compulsory to stand, which is why Robida and I kept sitting just now. There is nothing as unpatriotic in a free country as coercion.”

I gaped at him as he continued: “All we did in 1947 was replace a British empire with an Indian empire. We retained most of the laws in the archaic Indian Penal Code which the British had framed to subjugate us, including laws against free speech, homosexuality and even women’s rights. The state censors films, bans books, as if we are infants and not adults. I have a friend who started a university in British times without needing a license,” – he glanced at Robida – “and today, to start or run a business, we need to beg or bribe brown babus. Robida once told me that the British occupation of India was the ‘political symptom of our social disease’. That disease is now terminal.”

“What is that disease?” I asked.

Robida gave me a sad smile. “That disease is having the mentality of subjects. What does a democracy mean? It means that the people are the rulers, and the government is there to serve us. But our governments rule us instead of serving us, and we are happy to be ruled. If we are going to play ‘choose your ruler’, what is the point of being free?”

“Look around you,” said Mohan, “and think of all the different kinds of coercion in your life. These days, I am told, you even have to queue up to withdraw your own money. You are even being forced into a cashless society, which will be the end of freedom, for the government will control all your money and can shut you down anytime. That would have been such a wet dream for the British.”

“Ouch” said Robida, “here comes the part of the film I really hate.” The censor certificate flashed on the screen.

“Alia!” exclaimed Mohan, and turned around. The film began, and I lost myself in the anaesthetic comfort of everyday pleasures.


Also read these earlier pieces by me:

The Anthem and the Flag (April 26, 2007)
The Real Issue Regarding The National Anthem (November 30, 2015)
The Republic of Apathy (August 11, 2007)

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 December, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics

The Rise and Fall of Emperor Modi

This is the 33rd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

November 2017. This is an excerpt from a screenplay of a musical play performed recently at the Kala Natak Academy, inaugurated by the prime minister Shri LK Advani. It stars Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley and a chorus of 30 cows. While reading it, please sing it in your head with a grand dramatic voice.

[Silhouette of Narendra Modi sleeping on a bed. Loud snores emanate. At the foot of the bed, a minion sits. Loud footsteps are heard. Arun Jaitley enters the room.]

AJ: Modiji, Modiji!

Chorus of thirty cows: Modiji, Modiji!

Minion, thrusting his arms out towards Jaitley: Do not wake him, Do not shake him. He is sleeping, he spent all of last evening weeping, for this nation, the creation of a Hindu god in a Himalayan location. Do not wake him! Please forsake him!

AJ: He must be woken! My spirit is broken! Forget the nation, I’m out of ration. I have no cash. The supreme leader has obliterated my stash, it’s all trash. He could have let me know at least. Oh, the beast!

[There is a loud grunt, and Modi rises, and then gets out of bed. He is wearing only his Modi kurta.]

Modi:  Oh here you are, my little one. I am lohpurush, you’re a brittle one. As for your notes, why don’t you… write on them? As for your notes… a blight on them! You have been rather slow, lately. Don’t you see the plan, Jaitley? Like me, you must learn to see far. What happened to my churidar?

30 Cows: Churidar! Churidar!

[Minion scurries off to fetch churidar.]

AJ: You say you want to attack black money. Are you being funny? This won’t hurt black money, truth be told. Hoarders keep their wealth in real estate and gold. In benaami investments and banks that are offshore. Why did you let go of the panama chors? The IT department found only 6 percent of black money is held in cash. So stop talking trash.

30 cows: Talking trash! Talking trash!

[A minion brings a churidar. Two burly bearded bare-chested men wearing harem pants appear and lift Modi by the armpits as he tries to peel on his churidar. Jaitley continues:]

AJ: More than 90% of the cash out there is white! Those who have earned it feel it is their right. Their right to spend as they please, to save as they please. It’s their money, not yours to seize! 600 million people have no bank accounts! 300 million have no ID, and this is tantamount to theft from the poor, into the pockets of the rich. A reverse Robin Hood displaying a kleptomanic itch.

[Modi has put on his churidar, and the burly bearded bare-chested men in harem pants disappear under the bed. Modi is tying the naada of the churidar. Jaitley continues:]

AJ: Modiji, I have to tell you, this will cost you votes. As much as 86% of the money in use was 500 and 1000 notes. Cash was used in more than 90% of all transactions. This has set off a series of destructive chain reactions. Farmers are screwed, workers are screwed, small businesses are shutting down. A recession is a best-case outcome, the worst is a meltdown. And after all this, you accuse me of not looking far. Modiji, how long does it take you to wear your churidar?

30 Cows: Churidar! Churidar!

Modi: Jaitley, you must understand, my churidar is tight. And you’ve missed the point completely, clearly you’re not bright. The poor do not matter: Let their blood splatter, let the economy shatter, ignore the presstitute chatter. I am the ruler of this nation, this is my domain, with a treasury to fill, an army of bhakts to maintain. This move is genius, such a lovely redistribution. The people’s wealth is now the government’s, a perfect solution. I don’t really care about a little collateral damage. If there are riots, well I’m sure, the army will manage. Besides, my PR is quite superlative. I happen to have complete control of the narrative!

30 Cows: Narrative! Narrative!

AJ: Modiji, you must remember, India is democratic. Right now the BJP feels much like the Titanic. We’re sinking sinking sinking! What on earth were you thinking? Optics has its limits, and no matter what you call it, the narrative won’t work when you hit people on their wallet. It’s clear that all this power has gone to your head. If we don’t get rid of you, this party will be dead!

[Rajnath and Sushma walk in, holding a chair on which Advani is sitting.]

Modi: What do you mean? What is this crap? I am the Supreme Leader. I’ll declare an Emergency, and put you all in a feeder. Forget the aam junta, they are all kambakhts. I’ll drown out their voices through my sweatshop of trolling bhakts. The people are an instrument, a way to feed my pride. I don’t give a damn how many poor folks have died.

Sushma: And that is why, Modiji, you have got to leave. Politicians should serve the people, not rule them till they grieve. You made a big mistake demonetising those notes. Now we have to dethrone you to somehow save our votes.

[The burly bearded bare-chested men in harem pants emerge from under the bed, put a bag around Modi’s head that says ‘Garbage Disposal’ and carry him off. Rajnath and Sushma lower the chair, and Jaitley helps Advani on to the bed.]

Advani: I’m so glad to be on top, this is my rightful place. Because of that fool Modi, I am now a moderate face! I saved his ass once, and that led to my downfall. The moral of the story: The higher you rise, the harder you fall.

30 Cows: Moo! Moo!


My other pieces on this subject:

Narendra Modi takes a Great Leap Backwards

Modi Goes to Daulatabad

The Humanitarian Cost Trumps Any Economic Argument

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 November, 2016 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

The Humanitarian Cost Trumps Any Economic Argument

So I put up the tweet above yesterday to illustrate a point I’ve had to make repeatedly about the demonetisation: When the humanitarian costs of a particular move are so huge, it is pointless to even discuss the economic impact. I often quip, if Modi killed the poorer half of the country, some ‘respectable’ economist in his pay would publish a sober, reasoned argument that hey, India’s GDP per capita just went up, this is good for the economy. (And they wouldn’t disclose their affiliation while doing so, but leave that aside for the moment.)

Similarly, if Modi was just to announce that all money in everyone’s bank account was to be confiscated by the government, no doubt certain economists would pop up to point out the long-term economic benefit of this: the fiscal deficit wiped out, more money available for infrastructure spending, and of course, an end to black money. But such a rationale would not just be besides the point, it would be immoral—for obvious reasons.

The thought experiments above are not very far from what is happening. The legitimately earned wealth of tens of millions of people has been eroded, businesses have shut down, the economy’s come to a standstill and the death toll is rising every day. It’s heartbreaking—and yet, we have sober economic arguments going this way or that way.

Frankly, I believe that a recession is inevitable, and that the economic costs of this will far outweigh any economic benefits, as is always the case with such social engineering. But that argument of mine is besides the point, because the moral costs make it moot. Lives are being lost, livelihoods are being destroyed, and taking a neutral stance, or making ‘balanced’ arguments, is, in my view, is as odious as actively supporting the butchery that is underway.

Some links:

My guest column in the Times of India last Sunday: Narendra Modi takes a Great Leap backwards

And Peri Maheshwar’s excellent FB post on this yesterday.

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 November, 2016 in Economics | Freedom | India | Politics

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Libertarian

Exactly one year ago, on November 17 2015, I sat opposite Steve Bannon in his NYC office as he asked me if I’d be interested in starting Breitbart India. I had won the Bastiat Prize (for the second time) a few days before, and a lady who was one of the funders of Brietbart, and of certain leaders in the Republican Party, got in touch with the organisers to ask if she could meet me. (It’s not fair of me to name her because she’s not really a public figure.) She’d been impressed by my speech, and thus this meeting.

I didn’t know much about Breitbart, though I’d glanced at it. I did not know they were alt-right—I didn’t even know the term then. All I knew was that they were a conservative site, and that was enough for me to say no. I was a libertarian, I said, pro-immigration, pro-gay rights, and it didn’t fit. Furthermore, I advised them that there was no point in Breitbart setting up in India.

‘It’s incongruent,’ I said. ‘There is no analog of American conservatism in India. The Indian right is driven by bigotry and nativism, with no deeper guiding philosophy behind it. [Consider the irony of these words.] You will not find any Burkean conservatives here. Don’t come.’

‘Well, we think that Modi is India’s Reagan,’ said Bannon.

I laughed, and told them that Modi was no Reagan. I explained why he was a statist, top-down thinker, someone who would only expand the power of government over common citizens, more like the Leftist Indira Gandhi than Reagan. They nodded. The thrust of my decision to not consider the option they were offering me, though, was that I was libertarian, not conservative.

The lady did try her hardest to convince. ‘I’m actually a libertarian,’ she said, and then launched into a diatribe on gay marriage, saying, ‘I don’t understand why they ask for marriage. We gave them so much. What’s wrong with civil unions?’

A little later she said again, ‘I’m actually a libertarian.’ And then launched into a diatribe against immigrants in America, and how the cultural fabric of Europe was being torn apart by their immigrants. It was kind of funny, though at the time I was more flattered than amused. Still, I had to say no.

Bannon is now the right-hand man of someone who has really small hands and will be the most powerful man in the world starting January. Now that I know more about the alt-right, that thought is scary. I’m still glad that I didn’t explore their offer further. I could have been somewhat richer, maybe even influential, if I’d taken it up—but I sleep well at night now, and that’s what matters.

I must point out here that my meeting with them was very pleasant, and they were warm and courteous despite my not coming on board. Also, unlike many from across their aisle (whom I deplore quite as much), they were intellectually honest. They had their priors and their first principles, and everything they said and did stemmed from there. One may disagree with those ideas, even find them repulsive, but they’re not hypocrites.

In another context, I also believe that no matter what happens, I’ll always be anti-establishment. There have always been but two political philosophies, David Boaz once wrote, liberty and power. Everyone in politics fights for power; every libertarian must fight for individual freedom. Until Modi became PM, I was the fiercest critic of the Congress and their ruling family, who kept India poor for decades longer than they should have. When Modi took over, I expressed cautious optimism at first, but get threatened almost daily now for my vehement opposition to Modi. (He is right-wing on social issues, left-wing on economics, and thus an enemy of freedom in every respect.) Whoever is next, I know, with a sigh, that I shall be against them too.

Sometimes, this makes me feel crushingly alone. I often joke that there are only three true libertarians in India, a number I have modified to two because one of them is not unequivocally against the social engineering of Modi’s demonetisation. (My friend Barun Mitra is the other true libertarian, my fellow holder of the flame!) If I am to be true to myself, I will always remain on the outside, ridiculed by everyone else, condemned to the eternal vigilance that Jefferson spoke of, which will always be the cross of libertarians to bear.

Of course, I also have my other passion, writing fiction, to sustain my spirit. I hope you didn’t read my shitty first novel. I hope you will read the one I’m writing now.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 November, 2016 in Freedom | Personal

The God Delusion of Arvind Kejriwal

A slightly shorter version of this was published as the 30th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

In theory, a devout politician is a good thing. A politician who believes in God seems to accept the existence of an entity more powerful than himself, and that should be a reassuring thought to Indian voters. We have plenty of devout politicians here, and while the ones in the ruling party are most vocal about it, opposition politicians aren’t far behind. Take Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, for example.

When he was sworn in as chief minister at the Ramlila Maidan, Kejriwal repeatedly thanked God for his newfound status. “I thank the Supreme Father, Ishwar, Allah, Waheguru,” he breathlessly proclaimed, trying to cover all bases. And in case the concerned gods missed it, he later said, “This victory is not because of us. It is a miracle, and I thank Bhagwan, Ishwar and Allah.” (At this point, I can imagine Bhagwan turning to Allah and saying, “Dude, any idea what he’s talking about? I thought I was Ishwar!” And Allah replies, “Dunno, man. I’m just a party worker.”)

Kejriwal’s stated piety isn’t restricted to the major religions. He recently came out in support of the Jain monk Tarun Sagar after the musician Vishal Dadlani made fun of him. Kejriwal tweeted: “Tarun Sagar ji Maharaj is a very revered saint, not just for Jains but everyone. Those showing disrespect is unfortunate and should stop.” (The last sentence is stunningly convoluted, and we all know what Orwell said about clarity in speech correlating with clarity in thinking.)

Now, Kejriwal was reportedly an atheist before he came to politics, and it is natural to suspect that this new-found piety is part of the populism he’s embraced. But let that pass. In this column I will argue that there is one religion that he truly, deeply, madly does believe in, and it is the most dangerous religion of all. It is the religion of government.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority religion in India is not Hinduism but the religion of government. We have been brought up believing that if there is any problem in this world, government can solve it. If there is a social ill, ban it. If prices are too high, pass a law demanding that they be kept low. If there aren’t enough jobs out there, create jobs by legislation so that people can earn an honest living. And so on.

I call this, with apologies to Richard Dawkins, the God Delusion of Government. Devotees of this particular religion believe, like devotees of any other, that reality is subject to the whims and fancies of their God. To change the state of the world, God needs to merely decree it, or government needs to pass a law, and boom, reality changes. Water turns to amrut, copper to gold.

This kind of God delusion isn’t restricted to India. A recent example of a country ruined by it is Venezuela, which has been ravaged by the socialist policies of Hugo Chavez. Venezuela was lucky to be oil-rich, but unlucky to have Chavez as a leader, who tried social engineering on a vast scale. One of his pet schemes: price controls on all essential commodities. (If something should be cheaper, let’s make a law mandating it.) This led, as econ 101 would predict, to shortages, so much so that Venezuela’s queues became legendary. The current government, perturbed that these queues were embarrassing the country, hit upon an innovative solution. It banned queues.

I’m not kidding. They really banned queues, and when I read that news, I thought of Kejriwal, because that’s exactly what he would do.
Kejriwal thrives on finding the simplest possible solution to every problem through the Godlike intervention of government. He has no grasp on reality, though, and no understanding of how such interventions typically play out. Most tellingly, like Chavez and other socialists, he simply doesn’t understand how the price system works.

Left to themselves, prices are determined by supply and demand. If the demand for a product or service outstrips supply, the price goes up. This rising price acts as a signal to potential suppliers, and they are incentivised to fill the gap. Similarly, if demand goes down, the price goes down, and suppliers start moving their efforts to where they would be more valued. We can only make a living by fulfilling the needs of others, and the price system gives us the information and the incentives to do this most efficiently. But for this, it has to be left to itself. If these signals are distorted, the system falls apart.

Now, Uber’s surge pricing is a fantastic mechanism to speed up the process of price discovery. But Kejriwal decided that people were being fleeced by high prices, and decided to ban surge pricing. The ban didn’t last long, because there was an immediate shortage of cabs, just as econ 101 would predict.

What happens when you put a price cap on something is that it becomes first-come-first-serve, and after the first lucky bunch get it, it doesn’t matter how urgent your need is, it’s not available at all. More crucially, the rising price that would act as both information and incentive now no longer does so, and other suppliers don’t rush to fit the shortfall.

While that experiment didn’t last long, Kejriwal moved from price ceiling to price floor. He announced an increase in the minimum wage in Delhi, to Rs 14k a month. Now, this sounds most compassionate, but is a government diktat enough? If it was, why not, say, make the minimum wage in Delhi Rs 10 lakhs a month? Wouldn’t Delhi instantly become the richest city in the world?

The answer is obvious. Such a law would merely put everyone whose work was worth less than 10 lakhs out of a job, and most businesses would shut down. Similarly, if the minimum wage set is Rs 14k, it effectively renders everyone whose labour is worth less than that unemployable by decree. Businesses are forced to discriminate against anyone they’d pay 13k a month or less, and it is the poorest of the poor who would bear the brunt of this. The law would hurt those it purported to help. (Being the country of jugaad, all workers below the minimum wage level will simply be shifted to the informal sector, and government inspectors will get a higher hafta than before. But it is no defence of a bad law to say that peeps will find a way to work around it.)

For anyone who isn’t economically illiterate, these effects are predictable. A price cap (or ceiling) inflates demand relative to supply, and a shortage in supply is inevitable. A price floor inevitably decreases demand and leads to excess supply—or, in this case, more unemployment.

The laws of economics, such as that of prices, and supply and demand, are as immutable as those of physics. So why are such interventions so popular then? A key reason is that the laws of physics can be tested and proved in controlled environments, but you can’t do that with the laws of economics. Data is noisy, other variables abound, and all sides can point to ‘evidence’ with spurious correlations. So those who believe in such simplistic interventions continue with them, because it makes them feel (and seem) compassionate.

Kejriwal has a record of taking the high moral ground with self-righteous positions, and strikes a chord with common people by identifying many problems correctly. But his suggested solutions usually make the problems worse, as in the case of his anti-corruption crusade, or the different price controls he has championed. A good question to ask here is, Does he actually believe that such interventions work, or does he not give a damn about that, only wanting to take a position that gets him most votes from the economically illiterate masses? In other words, is he a devout fool or a devout scoundrel? Hanlon’s Razor states, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” In Kejriwal’s case, I’m not so sure. But he’s devout all right, so God help us.

*  *  *

For more on minimum wages in general, I find this explanation by Milton Friedman to be particularly lucid. Linda Gorman’s piece on it at Econlib is also a decent short primer on the subject.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 September, 2016 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

Two States

This is the 9th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page


Once the Congress seemed rather smug.
‘Gandhi’ was their designer drug.
Do they now realise
That the Gandhi franchise
Is not a feature but a bug?


A wise man said, ‘An eye for an eye
Makes the whole world blind.’ Those who decry
This circle of violence
Must speak through the silence.
We’ll fall too far if we don’t aim high.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 July, 2016 in Freedom | India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

Politics and Money

This is the second of two limericks from the 7th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India edit page.


A neta who loves currency notes
Told me what his line of work denotes.
‘It is kind of funny.
We steal people’s money
And use some of it to buy their votes.’

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 July, 2016 in Freedom | India | Politics | Rhyme and Reason | Rhymes

In Defence of Tanmay Bhat

I have four quick comments to make on the Tanmay Bhat controversy. (The first two are trivial but need to be repeated, I think.)

One: Our laws are still screwed up. The repeal of 66(a) of the IT Act was rightly celebrated as a win for freedom, but there are already laws in the IPC, like 295(a) and 153(a), which can also be used to strike out against Free Speech. (Here’s an ancient piece of mine on the subject: Don’t Insult Pasta.) The last I heard, people were planning to file a case against Bhat using those laws. I hope they don’t. And those laws should really not exist. As long as he is not directly inciting violence, Bhat should have the right to say whatever he wants, however offensive, however obnoxious.

Two: By the same token, others have a right to react to his comedy in whatever way they please, as long as they’re not trying to force him to shut up. So someone who says his comedy is disgusting is not attacking Bhat’s right to free speech unless he follows up by filing a case or trying to get him banned or whatever. And we can react to their reactions in the same way, and so on recursively. That’s what social media is for, isn’t it?

Three: The quality of Tanmay’s humour is less important to me than the context of it. Standup comedy in India is relatively young. (We have a great, centuries old tradition of humour, actually, but not this specific form, so don’t hit me with history and tradition, please.) And we are too quick to get offended. So it’s important to keep pushing the envelope, to keep stretching those boundaries. Nothing should be sacred. No holy cows.

Now, because our standup ecosystem is nascent, all the stuff that floats to the top won’t be of the highest quality. But that doesn’t matter. I didn’t enjoy all the humour in the AIB Roast, but boy, am I glad they did it. These guys are putting themselves out there, unlike many of us armchair observers. That is admirable in itself. And while doing it, they’re also taking giant steps forward for Indian standup comedy. (In these early days, all steps are giant steps.) That, in itself, deserves applause.

Four: Sit back and think for a moment about the nature of comedy itself. When Bhat says that Mangeshkar’s face looks like it has been kept in water for eight days, or he invokes the bitterness of a notional Sachin Tendulkar, is he really talking about just them? I don’t know Bhat personally, but I’m pretty sure he is under no illusion about his own good looks, or his mortality, or his importance to this world. Very few comedians are. If anything, comedians are people who’ve realised the essential tragic nature of the world, and certain fundamental truths about the human condition, such as a) our mortality, b) the huge role of dumb luck in our lives and c) the self-delusions which we need to survive, and with which we convince ourselves of our own importance. (I’m sure Bhat doesn’t think about it in these precise terms, but you get the drift.) Once you figure this out, the only appropriate reaction is laughter.

So when Bhat subverts the notion of Sachin and Lata as hallowed figures who cannot be made fun of, he is really just telling us to laugh at ourselves. ‘Look at us, we’re so funny and pathetic. Hahaha.’ I think he does it really well—that Mangeshkar ‘face in water’ joke is observational genius—but even if you don’t, it should not matter. More power to him regardless.

I just hope, after all this, he doesn’t end up apologizing.

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 May, 2016 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News

Uber and the Auto-Driver

As readers of this blog would know, I’ve long argued in favour of Uber’s surge pricing as an excellent mechanism for matching supply and demand. In a column from last year, I warned against the perils of banning surge pricing:

The most efficient way of allocating resources is to let things find their own equilibrium, their own prices. Price controls are foolish and never work. And the demand for them is based on a sort of a fantasy. Fixing the price of a product at a base price below what the market would pay does not mean that everyone gets it at this price—it just means that a lucky few get it and the others don’t. The fundamental truth about the universe is this: everything is scarce. You can’t wish this scarcity away by agitating or legislating against it.

Now, these fundamental laws of economics apply to everything, not just to Uber. And so Mukul Kesavan, in a column for NDTV, makes the pertinent point:

[S]etting aside Kejriwal’s motives and rationality, the larger question is this: should Uber or Ola be allowed to vary their per kilometre rate at will when yellow cabs and auto-rickshaws are stuck with fixed rates? If, as Uber’s defenders never tire of saying, the app’s algorithms represent the invisible hand of the market, frictionlessly matching supply and demand, why should the individual auto-driver be punished and maligned for asking for more than the metered price?

Shoaib Daniyal makes the same point on Twitter:

Both Mukul and Shoaib are right, though it seems to me that they might both be indulging in whataboutery and creating a straw man at the same time. No one who defends Uber’s surge pricing could possibly support the way the government regulates taxis and autorickshaws. And some of us have written about it in the past—I found this 11-year-old post by me ranting about the licensing of cycle rickshaws in Delhi, citing Parth Shah and Naveen Mandava’s excellent book, ‘Law, Liberty and Livelihood.’ Rather than search for more old posts, though, let me sum up my position here.

In a nutshell, here is how the market for taxis and autos works in Indian cities. The government gives out a limited number of licenses for taxis and autos. This quota does not increase in response to demand. Thus, as demand goes up in relation to supply, you would expect either prices to rise or the supply to rise. The supply is artificially constrained. And the government imposes price controls, so the prices can’t rise either. In other words, if the auto and taxi drivers stick to government-mandated prices, you should expect scarcities. Or you should expect an informal system to develop, where drivers don’t charge the meter rate and instead negotiate with their clients. Both of these are true, to varying degrees, and each of our own cities has developed our informal cultures in terms of dealing with this.

So when an auto guy demands Rs. 400 for a journey that the government mandates should cost Rs. 80, what is the appropriate response? I know some people who will argue that the auto driver, in exchange for his license to drive an auto, has signed a contract with the government that includes those price controls, so he should abide by them. This is a short-sighted argument. I would argue that both the licensing and those price controls are wrong. And I sympathise with the auto driver’s lament that ‘Hey, I’m not allowed to charge a surge price, why should Uber have that privilege?’ How can that not be a valid complaint?

The best way to create a level playing field, though, is to remove those restrictions from all parties, not to impose them on everyone.

Part of the reason Uber and Ola have thrived in India is that they benefited from a need that was created partly by the controls imposed by the government on taxi and auto drivers. The solution is to remove those controls. But removing government controls on the taxi-and-auto industry is higher hanging fruit because of the interest groups involved, and it’s easier to target Uber and Ola, which is what the governments of Delhi and Karnataka are doing. Who suffers in all this? The consumers do. We’re the fish at the table.

The bottomline: Kesavan is right that if we support surge pricing by Uber, we cannot in the same breath curse the local auto-driver for charging ‘extra’. That doesn’t compute.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 April, 2016 in Economics | Freedom | India | News | Politics

Once There Was A Mini-Skirt

Once there was a mini-skirt.
A playful child that liked to flirt.
One day it got banned,
A measure that was planned
By a group of petticoats that felt hurt.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 April, 2016 in Freedom | India | News | Rhymes | WTF

Once There Was A Beautiful Cow

So I wrote some limericks for Twitter, and I suppose they’re fun enough to share here:

Once there was a beautiful cow
Whose tastes were kinda highbrow
And then one day
Bharat Mata ki jai
She became a dog and said ‘bow-wow.’

Once there was a man of God
Who was ever so suitably awed
by a) the divine
And b) the bovine
When he saw a holy cow, he’d applaud.

Once there was a wife-beater
Who was a cad, a scoundrel, a cheater
He mastered the arc
of the venomous snark
Now he’s a famous Tweeter.

Once there was a central banker
Who seemed solid as an anchor
He lowered interest rates
opened the floodgates
To inflation. What a wanker!

Once there was a central minister
Who developed a desh bhakti blister
On his big fat palm
& the only balm
was some grease. How sinister!


(Previous posts on cows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 , 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111, 112, 113, 114, 115, 116, 117.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 April, 2016 in Economics | Freedom | India | Old memes | Cows | Politics | Rhymes

The Manner of Their Hanging

The Times of India reports:

In an incident reminiscent of the Dadri lynching, two Muslim men herding eight buffaloes on their way to a Friday market were beaten up and hanged to death from a tree by suspected cattle-protection vigilantes in Balumath forests in Latehar district, 100km from the state capital, early on Friday.

The deceased, Muhammad Majloom, 35, and Azad Khan alias Ibrahim, 15, were cattle traders and related to each other. Their bodies were strung up with their hands tried behind their backs and their mouths stuffed with cloth.

“The manner of their hanging showed that the assailants were led by extreme hatred,” said Latehar SP Anoop Birthary.

This feels like a nightmare, the use of the term ‘cattle-protection vigilantes’ in a news story about a lynching. What has been unleashed here? Who is responsible for this?

The people in power make responsible noises about reforming the economy and increased federalism and blah blah blah. That is all nonsense. Government is just getting bigger and more oppressive, and stealing more from us by way of taxes and cesses. This government is, in every substantive way, left-wing on economics. Many of my friends, who supported them in opposition to the family firm that ravaged our country for decades, are still in denial about this. On economics, on progress, on growth, these guys are as bad as the previous lot.

And in the social domain, they are worse.

It is natural for mass political leaders to draw on baser instincts of identity and tribalism for their popularity. Reason gets you only so far, so you appeal to the reptile brain. Behind the optics of ‘achhe din’, that is the double game the BJP is playing. But it has a cost. That cost includes ‘cattle-protection vigilantes.’

As Prem Panicker writes with regard to this incident:

This is what happens when you let the genie out of the bottle. People die.

For a proximate lesson from the neighbourhood, look at what Zia-ul-Haq unleashed in Pakistan.

Arun Shourie once memorably called this government ‘Congress plus a cow.’ He was almost right.I would call it ‘Congress plus cattle-protection vigilante.’

There is a difference; and it is a horrifying difference.

*  *  *

Also read: My column from yesterday speculating on the commonalities between the Trump wave and the Modi wave: ‘It’s Cascading Trump, It’s Cascading Modi!’

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 March, 2016 in Freedom | India | News | Politics

It’s Cascading Trump, It’s Cascading Modi!

This is the 25th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

We live in strange times. A few days ago, my friend and fellow libertarian, the writer Shikha Sood Dalmia, posted on Facebook: ‘Am I going mad or is the world? In America, I’m rooting for a Democrat and in India I’m defending a bloody communist!’

I was doing the same. In America, the bigoted, nativist, protectionist Donald Trump was dominating the Republican primaries, unleashing invective of the sort that usually only anonymous online trolls dare to express. In India, Narendra Modi’s government carried out a venal persecution of a few university students, based on doctored videos and a fake tweet. They arrested one of them for sedition, who was then beaten up by lawyers in the courthouse as the police looked on passively. My support, instinctively, went to the Democrats in the US; and to the beleaguered communist students in India.

What is going on here? How can a man like Trump be on the verge of leading the party of Abraham Lincoln? Why is Indian politics slipping back into crude tribalism just when India should finally be marching towards modernity? Could there be one answer to both these questions?

A few days ago, the American columnist Glenn Reynolds wrote a piece titled ‘A Trump wave is on the way.’ To explain the Trump phenomenon, Reynolds cited a book by sociologist Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification.

Say you are at a dinner party at your boss’s place. The food is terrible: the dal makhni has no salt, the butter chicken has too much tomato puree. Your boss asks how you like the food. You murmur your appreciation, as you’ve seen others on the table do. You are hiding your actual preference in order to fit in or avoid social awkwardness. This is ‘preference falsification’. Everyone at the table may have hated the food—but everyone may think that everyone else loved it.

Preference falsification can have grave consequences. Kuran cites the Soviet Union as an example. The Soviets used the strong arm of the state to clamp down on free speech, which made it hard for people to express their preferences. Even if 99% of the people hated Communism and wanted the government to fall, it would not do so because of preference falsification: these people would not know that so many others thought just as they did. Until suddenly, one day, the public expression of that preference reached a critical mass, and a phenomenon that Kuran called a ‘preference cascade’ took place. From the outside, it might seem that a regime toppled suddenly, overnight, without warning—as we saw throughout the former Soviet Bloc. But while the preference cascade may have been sudden, the preferences themselves were not new.

Reynolds invokes Kuran in the American context, and speculates that Trump’s surge could be the result of a preference cascade. Maybe Trump is articulating views that other would never do themselves in public. (‘I hate foreigners.’ ‘Mexicans are rapists.’ ‘All Muslims should be deported.’ Whatever.) Once they see a prominent man like him say these things, and others rush out in support, they are emboldened to vote for him. Now that they know there are others like them, they join the Trump wave.

Now, shift your attention to India. My view of the last elections until recently was basically this: the BJP got its highest voteshare ever because not only did it mobilize its traditional base – the Hindutva voters – they also attracted other voters who were sick of the UPA’s corruption, who wanted economic reforms, and so on. And now that the BJP was bound to disappoint some of them, it would lose voteshare, compunded by the opposition consolidating against it (as in Bihar). So a desperate party would double down on Hindutva to mobilise its core Hindutva vote.

But what if this is all wrong?

What if the rise of Modi is a result of sudden preference cascades following decades of preference falsification. In Gujarat, for example, what if the majority Hindus bear an unspoken antipathy towards the minority community? They may not express it openly because it’s awkward to do so. Then the 2002 riots happen, and Muslims are ‘put in their place.’ Modi, then chief minister, never openly takes credit for it, but he doesn’t deny his culpability either, and you can read between the lines. Boom, Modi wins the next elections in a landslide—and every state election after that.

Similarly, what if many Indians silently share notions of cultural or religious superiority that are not polite or politically correct to express publicly? (I am attempting dispassionate political analysis here, and this is not meant to be judgmental.) The rise of Modi at a national level could have led to a preference cascade, and though these voters might have come up with many policy reasons for voting for him—‘He will make GST happen’ etc—those may have been rationalisations more than reasons. (Note: I am not implying that all BJP supporters are like this.)

But why now? What suddenly enabled this preference cascade? I have an answer : social media.

Social media exploded in India over the last six years, just as Modi’s national ascent began. Social media lets you express your preferences far more freely than in real life, because you’re either anonymous, or you’re at a physical remove from whoever you’re talking to. So more true preferences get expressed—and more and more people see more and more opinions validating their own preferences. Cascade!

If this is true, then in both America and India, beneath the veneer of sophisticated political discourse, there lies a primal core that cares about more basic things, like race and identity and so on. In fact, maybe the exact same impulse explains both Trump and Modi: the instinctive attraction for a strong leader who will lead our tribe well and shit on all others.

But these are just theories, and they could be wrong, or merely partly right. And there could be other silent preferences out there waiting for their cascade. What could those be? Who will make it happen?

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 March, 2016 in Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

Rising Divorce Rates are a Feature, Not a Bug

The Times of India has an intriguing headline up today: ‘Marriages last the longest in north India, Maharashtra; least in NE.’

At first glance, you might think that is good news for North India. It is not. In my view, it shows how socially backward the North still is.

A few years ago, I’d written a column called We Should Celebrate Rising Divorce Rates In it, I’d expressed the opinion that divorce rates were “the single best statistical indicator we have of the empowerment of women.” If I may quote myself:

Rising divorce rates tell us one thing for sure: that more and more women are finding the means, and the independence, to walk out of bad marriages and live life on their own terms. If we judge ourselves as a society on the state of our women – and surely that must be a parameter – then this is good news.

So the ToI report seems to indicate that women are more empowered in the North-East than and North India. I’d love to see if data backs this up. What statistical indicators can stand as a proxy for women’s welfare? Do they show a geographical correlation with divorce rates? These are good questions to ask, though I don’t think ToI will do a follow-up report on this anytime soon.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 January, 2016 in Economics | Freedom | India | News

Looking Beyond Left and Right

This is the 23rd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

One of the things that most exasperates me about Indian political discourse these days is that we often speak in terms of ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’. This is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, this is not how politicians themselves actually speak (unless they’re humouring the English-speaking media). Voters in India vote for a myriad of reasons, mostly local, and they don’t frame issues in terms of left or right. Therefore, neither do politicians when they speak to their constituencies, or when they strategise among each other. There is, thus, a disconnect between politics and political discourse. Many political commentators, unable or unwilling to engage with the complexities of the political economy, insist on imposing simplistic narratives.

But this would not matter if a left-right prism was useful in evaluating the desirability of policies, or provided a compass to gauge the moral or instrumental value of the actions of politicians. But it does not, which brings me to my second reason, which is not a local one. Across the world, framing issues in terms of left or right misses the central principle at stake in any modern society: that of individual rights, and of freedom. I view the world through a classical liberal (or libertarian, if you will) prism, and my liberalism boils down to a respect for individual freedom. On moral grounds alone, if we come from first principles, we should respect individual freedom above all else. From a consequentialist perspective, also, we should defend freedom, for economic freedom leads to material prosperity, and personal freedoms, such as freedom of speech, enrich our culture.

As a true liberal, I see no difference between economic and social freedoms. As I am fond of saying, once we accept that two consenting adults may do whatever they want with each other provided they infringe the rights of no one else, it should not matter whether they are fucking in a bedroom or trading in a marketplace. Interfering with either is wrong. And here’s the thing: parties on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum support infringements on individual freedom all the time.

Parties on the right tend to want to impose their cultural values on others, and are suspicious of those they view as ‘outsiders’. They don’t care much for free speech or other personal freedoms. Parties on the left tend to oppose economic freedom. They do so stating noble reasons, but all infringements of economic freedom amount to a redistribution of wealth from poor consumers to a rich interest group, so they’re either hypocrites or delusional. They also tend to favour big government, which means more taxation, and therefore more coercion.

If you believe, as I do, that coercion is wrong, then it won’t make a difference whether you look left or right, you’ll see coercion everywhere. A classical liberal opposes both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, both Prakash Karat and Mohan Bhagwat. (I would give credit to those guys for at least stating their positions clearly, though. Politicians down the ostensible middle, slaves to special interests as they mostly are, tend to be equally coercive and far more hypocritical.) Looking at the political marketplace, you will find that the options available to you aren’t all that different from each other. And why should they be? Even when they cater to different segments of the population, they’re still reacting to the same inevitably corrupting incentives at work in the political economy.

Here’s the funny thing about India in particular. We have conveniently classified the BJP as a right-wing party and the Congress as a left-wing party—but they’re both practically the same party. In terms of economics, both are left-wing, and oppose economic freedom. It might surprise you to hear me say this about the BJP, but forget their campaign rhetoric and consider their actual policies: Modi I is basically UPA III. Modi has the same top-down way of looking at the economy as any Congress leader before him, and he’s trigger-happy when it comes to imposing new taxes and cesses.

Equally, on social issues, the Congress was as right-wing as the BJP allegedly is. They have a stellar record when it comes to banning books, and it was a Congress government that effectively banned The Satanic Verses. Censorship flourished under their watch, as did attempts at social engineering, which weren’t restricted to the Emergency: odious policies on sterilisation still exist, decades after the emergency was called off. Even in terms of attacking other communities, the Congress set the standards: more people died in the 1984 riots than in the 2002 riots. My friend, the political commentator Nitin Pai, once coined a term that describes this jostling between the parties perfectly: ‘Competitive Intolerance’. This is quite the kind of competition that makes the poor ol’ free-marketer in me cringe!

To sum it up, India’s political parties tend to be left-wing on economics and right-wing on social issues. In other words, they oppose freedom in every sphere. I would be no more disheartened by this than India’s freedom fighters were in the first half on the last century, when they gazed up at the monolithic British empire. They gritted their teeth, and hurled themselves into the battle for our political freedom. Likewise, we must keep fighting till we win these other freedoms, and emerge as a free country at last. Not a left country, or a right country, but a free country.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 December, 2015 in Economics | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

Arvind Kejriwal vs Santa and Banta

First Post has a headline right now that says: “Kejriwal speaks out against ‘Santa-Banta’, supports plea to ban jokes on Sikh community.”

Kejriwal is doing this, no doubt, because AAP intends to stand for elections in Punjab, and he’s taking what he hopes will be a popular line there. This illustrates what I’ve said all along about the man: he only cares about power, not principle, and will take whatever populist line gets him votes. His opposition to FDI in retail was one example of how he’s against economic freedom. (Such opposition amounts to redistributing wealth from poor consumers to a specific rich interest group, as I pointed out here.) And now we find that he doesn’t believe in free speech either. He’ll do whatever it takes to get votes.

In this, he is no different from any other politician. But he projects himself as being different, which is why pointing out this aspect of his character is important. The politician Kejriwal reminds me of most is the vile Indira Gandhi. And as I wrote recently, Narendra Modi also reminds me of Indira in some ways. Talk about picking a bipartisan role model!

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 December, 2015 in Freedom | India | Politics

Uber and Governance

Anant Rangaswami tweets:

I love Uber, as much for what it is as what it represents. But here’s the thing: Uber functions because its marketplace is competitive. When it comes to most of the services the government provides, though, the government has a monopoly. The greatest incentive for any organisation to function well comes from competition, and the need to excel in order to survive. In areas that the government has a monopoly, I predict, it will fail—as indeed ours has for 68 years. You cannot change the level of service until you change the incentives.

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 November, 2015 in Economics | Freedom | India

The Real Issue Regarding The National Anthem

There’s an interesting video that seems to have gone viral on social media showing a bunch of hooligans in a film theatre haranguing (and eventually ejecting) a couple who did not stand when the national anthem was played. Some people on Twitter appear to think that this is an issue of patriotism. Well, no it isn’t. It’s an issue of individual freedom and coercion.

In some jurisdictions in the country, it is compulsory to stand when the national anthem is played. This compulsion by the government is something I object to. People should be free to stand if they feel like; and to not stand if they don’t want to. Your patriotism should not be measured by your empty allegiance to a mere symbol; and in fact, it should be nobody’s business whether you are patriotic or not.

Also, when you watch the video linked to above, consider that the people being unpatriotic are not the ones who didn’t stand for the anthem, but the ones insisting that they should have. The idea of India that I subscribe to is one in which India being a free country means that all its citizens are free from the kind of coercion and goondagardi that we see in that video. The mob in that video pretending to be patriotic—they are traitors in my eyes. Whether they stood for the anthem or not.

In fact, it is a travesty that the theatre management did not intervene on behalf of the two ticket-paying patrons who were forced out of that hall. As for those hooligans, they should have been arrested for creating such a disturbance on someone else’s property.


By and by, I was a panelist on We The People, Barkha Dutt’s show, at the start of 2008 in which the topic for discussion was exactly this: national symbols, and whether there should be any holy cows. Towards the end of the show, Barkha asked each of her panelists for a response on whether India should have holy cows. My response, about 47:50 into the show:

The only kind of holy cow I believe in is one from which you get a divine steak.

My co-panelist Smriti Irani met me backstage after the show and told me that I’d better be careful about making such jokes about an animal that is the object of reverence for Hindus. I think she was educating me about the dangers of blaspheming publicly, and as such, her post as education minister in a BJP government seems quite apt.

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 November, 2015 in Freedom | India | Politics

On Winning the Bastiat Prize for Journalism

I was fortunate a few days ago to win the Bastiat Prize for Journalism for the second time. The prize is given annually to a writer whose work serves to “explain, promote and defend the principles of the free society.” I had also won it in 2007, and became the first person to win it twice.

Here’s the speech I delivered on receiving the award:

These are the pieces I won the award for:

The Kim Kardashian Liberals
The Great Redistribution
An Economic Message From God

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 November, 2015 in Freedom | Media | Personal

Your Father Too

So Anupam Kher gets booed at a literary event and calls the audience a “paid audience.” He follows it up by saying that “people have an agenda and cannot handle a chaiwala becoming a PM.”

This is the precise problem with our discourse. Anytime people disagree with you or oppose you, you attack them instead of their argument or their viewpoint. So they are a “paid audience” or they “have an agenda” or they are “ISI/CIA agents” or they are “sickulars” or “bhakts” or “libtards” or aaptards”. And they say, “your father too,” and we all get caught in an endless cycle of abuse and snark, egged on by the echo chambers we build around us. Messy.

As for Kher, he lost his credibility the day he accepted the chairmanship of the censor board all these years ago. If you’re against free expression, you’re against art. Shame on him.

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 October, 2015 in Freedom | India | News | Small thoughts

Ban on the Menu Card

Rediff reports:

The Modi government, under fire for rising intolerance and violence related to eating beef, has allegedly disallowed permission for the airing of a documentary on beef-eating practices made by students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

The film titled “Caste on the Menu Card”, about the beef eating practices in Maharashtra, was to be screened on Saturday at the Jeevika Asia Livelihood Documentary Festival 2015, in Delhi. However, the makers of the movie say that they were informed by the organisers that they would need a censor certificate.

Firstly, you should note that this is not a protest by some ‘fringe elements’ within the RSS fold, but a decision by the government. So that whole approach of saying ‘Hey, we’re focusing on development, these are fringe elements, nothing to do with us’ won’t work here.

Secondly, you should also note that it was a Congress government that first introduced censorship in India, and over the years have been quite happy to ban books, films, plays and even music albums. So the fault really lies with us. We’ve been tolerating these assaults on free speech for way too long.

It’s never too late to start being intolerant of intolerance.

Oh, and here’s the trailer of the film in question. I don’t know if watching the full film will make me angry, but it is guaranteed to make me hungry.

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 October, 2015 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | Politics

On Children

I have good news and I have bad news.

Good news: China has ended its one-child policy.

Bad news: Instead, China will now have a two-child policy.

This is surreal. Just when you thought, ‘Okay, maybe China gets it,’ you find that China doesn’t get it at all. If a one-child policy was bad, a two-child policy is also bad, because the thinking behind it is wrong. Firstly, contrary to what we taught in school, population is not something you need to control. People are a resource, not a problem. Putting an upper limit on people is literally like putting an upper limit on prosperity. We live in a positive-sum world, and on balance, every person brings more value to the world than they consume.

For more on this, read my essay, ‘The Evil of Family Planning’.

Secondly, the state doesn’t own the people that it decides what it should ‘allow’ them to do. But hey, am I so naive as to lecture China on individual rights? I have a better shot at provoking World Peace by singing bhajans at Wagah.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 October, 2015 in Freedom | Politics

Uber Regulation

Abhinav Singh has a good post up about how the Government of Maharashtra is proposing to regulate Uber. As you’d expect, there are vested interests behind this: the existing taxi industry, which feels threatened by the new operators, as indeed they should, because the new operators are proving more value to consumers. So they go to the government.

As I’d written here, all interventions in the free market amount to a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. Any regulations here will end up as exactly that. The value that consumers would have gained from the unhindered operation of Uber and Ola will be redistributed away to the older taxi operators. You really don’t need to ask what’s in this for the government, do you?

If this makes you angry, do go sign Uber’s petition. I’m usually skeptical of online petitions and candlelight vigils and so on, but this is a petition directly from one of the affected parties, and there is a non-zero probability that it will make a difference.


An earlier piece on Uber: The Price is Right.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 October, 2015 in Economics | Freedom | India | News | Politics

The Fatal Conceit of the Indian Politician

A shorter version of this was published as the 22nd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

‘I’m not conceited. Conceit is a fault and I have no faults.’ Imagine this quote on an internet meme, alongside a picture of Narendra Modi, looking dapper in that famous pinstripe suit, or maybe a trademark Modi kurta. It would surely get thousands of shares on social media, many from bhakts impressed by the prime minister’s modesty. Don’t rush to share it, though: as one tends to do on the internet, I just misattributed. Those words were not uttered by Modi, or even Oscar Wilde or GB Shaw. The man who said them is former Van Halen singer Dave Lee Roth, with his back against a record machine. But Modi could have said them, could he not?

Please don’t think I am picking on Narendrabhai alone. All politicians are vain. Indeed, one could argue that in politics, vanity is a feature and not a bug. Politicians come to power by selling specific narratives about their excellence; and they can sell it most effectively if they believe it themselves. Success in many fields often begins, comically and ironically, with self-delusion. But politicians have consequences, and there’s nothing comic about that.

One reason that India is still a poor country is the ‘fatal conceit’ of our founding fathers. Jawaharlal Nehru, and his minions and successors, believed that economies were best planned from the top down. An economy is a complex thing, the poor and ignorant masses of India surely could not be trusted to perform this task by themselves, and needed to be directed by wise and benevolent planners. Those who have studied economics or paid attention to history know that this was foolish and wrong.

Economies, like languages, are products of “human action but not human design,” in the words of Adam Ferguson. They function brilliantly on their own, with millions of individuals pursuing their self-interest, and thus increasing the value in the lives of others, for that is the only path to profit. Planning is not only not required, it is an impediment. A central planner can never get a grasp on the huge amount of dispersed knowledge in an economy, and any intervention is bound to lead to a loss in efficiency. This hurts the poor the most: as I illustrated in a previous column, every intervention in a free market amounts to a distribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.

Nehru suffered from a disease that Friedrich Hayek called the Fatal Conceit. His coining of that term was inspired by the following passage in Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “The man of system […] is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.”

People are not chess pieces, of course, and Nehru and his successors ravaged the economy with their well-intentioned interventions. I won’t recite the litany, but here’s the thing: 68 years after we became independent, 24 after the Soviet Union collapsed, we are still enslaved by a failed philosophy. And we’re still suffering because of the fatal conceit of flawed individuals.

It amuses me sometimes that Modi is considered a right-wing politician. He actually embodies the worst of both left and right. Like his party, and the ecosystem of religious nutjobs that sustains it, he is right-wing on social issues; and left on economic ones. Basically, he is against individual freedom in every domain possible, and thus the exact opposite of me. If you put Modi and me in a test tube, the resultant explosion could blow the earth off its orbit, or at least result in a good rap album. But that is a digression, and it is possible that you have your mouth open because I called him an economic leftist. Well, if a man is to be known by his actions and not his public image, what else can we call him?

I know many economic liberals, bald because of six decades of tearing their hair out, who thought Modi would be a free-market messiah. My ass. Tell me this: exactly what reforms has he carried out that increase our economic freedom? When Modi took over, India was ranked 140 out of 189 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index: it has since slipped to 142. He has not reformed the labour laws that, for decades, have prevented us from being a manufacturing superpower. The license and inspector raj remains what it was under his predecessors. A litany of what he has not changed would be the same as a litany of what was wrong with our country before he took over.

I have friends in high places who tell me that the system doesn’t allow him to act. But the truth is that Modi suffers from the same fatal conceit that Nehru displayed. He believes the economy needs a top-down manager. He would rather reform a public sector unit than sell it off. When he talks of ‘minimum government and maximum governance,’ as that catchy slogan went, he is speaking of making government more efficient and not at eliminating it entirely from areas where it has no business existing.

His conceit isn’t limited to his economic thinking, though. Look at how the man struts! He may not walk the walk in the sense of governance, but he certainly does in a catwalk sense. Once he was denied a US Visa; now he travels the world meeting the high and mighty. I wonder if he realises, though, that these global leaders give him importance because of the position he occupies, and not the man he is. I suspect he has actually drunk his Kool Aid, and believes the Modi Wave narrative of the last elections. He may be headed for a fall if so.

Look at the numbers from the 2014 general elections again. Our first-past-the-post system made it seem like a wipeout, as the BJP got 6.4 times the seats that Congress did. But they got just 1.6 the vote share of the Congress. It was 31% to 19%, and a 4% swing away from them next time could easily result in a hung parliament. They delivered outlier performances in states like UP, MP and Gujarat, which seem statistically impossible to repeat. And the following things are certain: Since the election, they have not won more supporters than they have lost; the turnout of their supporters is bound to be less the next time around; other parties, clear about what they are up against, will make smarter coalitions to consolidate the non-BJP vote; anti-incumbency will be a factor now that some of the Modi sheen is gone.

Modi behaves like the prime ministership was his destiny and he will win again easily in 2019. But if he doesn’t get his act together, reforming the economy and constraining the lunatic fringe in his party, he could be in for a surprise. India could choose another delusional politician over him, and 2014-2019 could be remembered as The Selfie Years.


Also read: ‘Lessons From 1975.’

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 October, 2015 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

Lessons From 1975

A shorter version of this was published as the 21st installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

In 1975, a Tamilian dressed as a sardar landed up in Ahmedabad Railway Station, in disguise to escape the might of the central government, for whom he was a wanted man. He was met there, and escorted to a safe house, by a 25-year-old who had once sold tea on the platform of that station. Freeze that moment in history – Narendra Modi escorting Subramanian Swamy to his safe house – and contrast it to today. What a long way we have come.

Or have we?

I got the above trivia from Coomi Kapoor’s excellent book, The Emergency: A Personal History. Kapoor was a journalist living in Delhi in those days, and though her book was timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, it is anyway a timely reminder of the damage that people drunk on power can do, and the threat that such untrammelled power can pose to a nation.

The Emergency began with the filling up of jails. “The number of those in Indira Gandhi’s prisons during the Emergency,” writes Kapoor, “far exceeded the total number jailed during the 1942 Quit India Movement.” This included not just opponents in the opposition parties but also potential ones within her own party plus whoever they damn well felt like. (“The entire Sanskrit department of Delhi University was sent to prison.”) Personal vendettas were quickly settled, and torture was common in the jails. Those close to power were more like despotic rulers than public servants. For example, Kapoor writes, “When an old and respected lawyer of Panipat denounced [Bansi] Lal’s corrupt rule, he was arrested and stripped naked, his face was tarred, and he was dragged all through the streets of the town.” Such behaviour was more rule than exception.

The exploits of Sanjay Gandhi and his coterie were particularly shameful. He wrongly believed that India’s population was a problem rather than a resource, and even more wrongly set about solving it through forced sterilisations. Millions of those took place, and the story of the village of Pipli is particularly illustrative of how they functioned. Hawa Singh, a widower, died there after a botched forced sterilisation, and the villagers refused to have anything more to do with family planning. On hearing that, the government sent “several hundred policemen” who “took up positions around the village.” Shots were fired, and “two women making cowdung cakes outside their huts were mowed down by the bullets.” The men surrendered, and hundreds of them were sterilized.

The press was silenced. Loren Jenkins of Newsweek wrote, “In 10 years of covering the world from Franco’s Spain to Mao’s China, I have never encountered such stringent and all encompassing censorship.” One of the leaders of the opposition, LK Advani, later said that the press “was asked to bend and it chose to crawl.” A permanent (and brutal) dictatorship seemed likely, and we owe much gratitude to the fact that power had made Indira delusional, for she actually called for elections only because she thought she would win. Had she not thought so, she would not have called for them. (Indeed, Sanjay was opposed to the decision.)

To be honest, a political leader does not need to suspend democracy to devastate a country. Even without the Emergency, the vile Indira Gandhi would count as one of the worst leaders in our history. Through a series of disastrous economic policies, many of which her deluded partymen still support, she kept tens of millions of people in poverty, and adversely affected all our lives. There are no counterfactuals, of course, and abstract economic arguments do not have the visceral impact of the kind of stories that Coomi Kapoor’s excellent book is filled with.

Let’s get back to the present. To many, the general elections of last year felt like a landmark event because Modi’s win seemed to mark a final, clean break from everything that post-Independence Congress stood for. However, Modi was not brought to power by a monolithic votebank, but by a collection of disparate groups, all of whom were desperate for change for different reasons. Modi was like a Rorschach test – he stood for whatever you wanted him to stand for, and what you saw in him revealed more about you than about him. Hindutva bhakts saw him as the former RSS pracharak who would finally make India a great Hindu nation; economic liberals saw him as the leader who would finally liberate India from the Leftist policies that had kept us backward all these years; and so on. Some of the expectations from him were contradictory; most were impractical, given the constraints of the way our political economy is structured. But Modi encouraged all of them by discouraging none of them. He didn’t say much on policy issues, stuck to safe bromides, and you never really knew to what extent he supported Hindutva or free markets or yada yada yada. He was strong and silent, and he remained strong partly because he remained silent. You could believe whatever you wanted about him – and because the existing government was so incompetent, you wanted to believe.

If campaigning was like courtship, governance is like marriage. You can’t be delusional about the object of your affection any more: you’re living with the fellow. And while it’s okay if he burps and farts in your presence, it is simply not okay if he beats you up just like the previous guy used to. So a year down the line, how is the Modi government doing?

If you’re an economic liberal like me, Modi has been a disappointment. It is with good reason that people are beginning to refer to this government as UPA 3. Modi has not instituted any far reaching reforms, and the rhetoric of ‘incremental reforms’ does not cut it for me. If a man has gangrene in his legs or cancer in his liver, you do not give him an aspirin and call it incremental reform. ‘Gangrene’ and ‘cancer’ do not need to be managed efficiently, but eliminated brutally. Anyway, this is a subject I’ll elaborate on a future column. For now, I will concede this: Modi’s government is no worse than UPA 2 was. And it’s fair enough to wait out the five years they have been given before passing judgement.

It is in the domain of personal freedoms, though, that Modi has let the country down. Much of this is due to petty vindinctiveness, straight out of the Indira Gandhi playbook. Consider how Teesta Setalvad has been harassed after Modi came to power, with the latest salvo being the cancellation of the license of her NGO. (Why should any organisation need a license from the government anyway? Wasn’t Modi the Messiah supposed to do away with this kind of nonsense?)  Consider the government’s harassment of NGOs like Greenpeace, and the offloading of Greenpeace campaigner Priya Pillai when she was on her way to England because officials felt she would give India a “negative image” there. Go online, search for videos of the recent Patel uprising in Ahmedabad, and see the brutality with which the police crack down on common citizens. (The Gujarat government also banned the mobile internet during this time, as well as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.) Consider all the nonsense the fringe elements on the Hindu right are getting up to, and the silence of the government on these issues – the same silence you would get from Indira very time she was confronted about the antics of her psychopathic son Sanjay.

Modi has not declared Emergency or jailed his opponents, but this approach to power does remind me of 1975, and make me wonder. Many of the prominent political actors of today played small roles in that particular production. Arun Jaitley spent the years of the Emergency in jail. In the hundreds of hours of solitary contemplation that he no doubt had, what did he think about? When the young party worker Narendra Modi guided Subramanian Swamy to his safe house, what did they talk about? Was it about how power always corrupts, the necessity to impose limits on it and the tragedy that politicians in India sought to rule rather than serve? Or did they simply say to each other, “Just wait. Just wait till we are on the other side, and we are the ones in charge.”

I suspect it was the latter. And what a loss that is.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 September, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

Profit = Philanthropy

This is the 20th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Never talk to me about profit,’ Jawaharlal Nehru once said to an industrialist friend of his. ‘It is a dirty word.’

Nehru’s sentiments were understandable in those times, and his sentiments were noble. India had just rid itself of the British, who had come to India ostensibly to do business and had left it impoverished. Nehru, who had played a notable role in the freedom struggle, had spent his formative years in England learning from the Fabian Socialists, as well as from Howard Laski, the Marxist professor at LSE who had a greater influence on modern India than Mahatma Gandhi, through students such as Nehru and VK Krishna Menon. The Soviet Union seemed to be a model to admire, America itself vastly expanded the role of the state after the Great Depression, and the top-down command-and-control economy must have seemed incredibly attractive to Nehru. The center had to hold. The profit motive was evil. Those exploitative capitalists had to be kept in check.

It is not fair to judge Nehru in hindsight, and he was right about other things that mattered. But he was wrong about this. Profit is the secret behind all prosperity. And it is a distrust of the profit motive that has kept this country poor.

The fundamental fallacy that Nehru committed was of looking at the economy as a zero-sum game. By that thinking, if someone is winning, someone else must be losing. If the industrialist makes a profit, someone else is getting exploited. But this is not the way the world works. All trade is a positive-sum game; and indeed, it is not possible for one person alone to make a profit in a transaction.

I am fond of illustrating this by citing what the writer John Stossel calls the Double Thank-You Moment. When you buy a cup of coffee at a Cafe Coffee Day, you say ‘thank you’ when you are handed your cup of coffee. And the cashier says ‘thank you’ when you hand over your money. This double ‘thank-you’ illustrates that both of you benefited from the transaction. Both of you profited.

This is, simply put, the root cause of prosperity. Every single voluntary transaction that takes place makes both parties better off, and increases the sum total of value in the world. Equally, every impediment that anyone places on the ability of consenting adults to trade freely with each other reduces the notional value in the world, and is an impediment to growth. It stands to reason, then, that trade should lead to prosperity, and that economic freedom should be correlated with a nation’s wealth. Does the data bear this out? You bet it does.

First up, I urge you to consider this chart. (Here’s the source.) It shows the wealth of the world as a flat line for centuries, until 1800. And then, boom, the world economy takes off in a spurt that economists call the Hockey Stick of Human Prosperity. It correlates perfectly with the explosion of markets across the world, of double-thank-you moments.

But it doesn’t take off uniformly across countries. Free markets are a necessary condition for prosperity, so let me now draw your attention to another chart. This one, from the Index of Economic Freedom 2015 brought out by the Heritage Foundations, shows a clear correlation between economic freedom and the wealth of nations. The freer you are, the wealthier you tend to be. (Also, the freer you are, the faster you grow.)

Forget the data, you say. Capitalists are exploitative. What about the low wages paid by Walmart? What about sweat shops run by large multinationals in third world countries like Bangladesh, where workers toil jn inhumane conditions? Isn’t that the profit motive at work?

Yes, it is. And I deeply admire Walmart and every company that runs a sweatshop in a poor country. That is because the people who work in Walmart and in those sweatshops do so because it is the best option open to them. They are not fools. They are choosing to work where they do because they deem all other alternatives to be worse, and those evil capitalist behemoths should actually be thanked for actually providing them an option that is better than the best option otherwise available to them. We condescend to those workers when we say they are being exploited. (Indeed, it is possible that we are exploiting them by using them to feed our sanctimony.)

This doesn’t apply to slavery and trafficking, of course, for by free markets I mean markets where consenting adults trade freely under the rule of law. Also, let us not conflate rent-seeking and profit-seeking. Many large companies get together with government to put restrictions on markets so that their market share is protected from competition. Such protectionism hurts the common consumer, and amounts to a redistribution of wealth from the poor at large to rich special-interest groups. Big companies are often the biggest enemies of free markets, and capitalism often unfairly gets a bad name because it is confused with crony capitalism – or ‘crapitalism’ as some call it.

To sum up, the profit motive is not something nefarious, but is actually noble. You can only profit in a free market by improving someone else’s life. And the more you profit, the greater the good you do in the world, the more the value you create. Profit, indeed, is the purest form of philanthropy.

I must admit here the very slight, teeny-weeny possibility that I am being unjust to Nehru. Maybe he had a mischievous glint in his eye when he said that profit was a ‘dirty word’. I can imagine him sidling up to Edwina Mountbatten at a party, gently putting his hand on her waist, and whispering to her, ‘Edwina, my dear, would you like to, ahem, profit with me?’ That certainly could have led to a double thank-you moment.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 August, 2015 in Economics | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

The Great Redistribution

This is the 19th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

India is a poor country. We were poor when we became Independent in 1947, and while other countries have lifted themselves to wealth in that much time, we’re still poor. And government policies are the reason for our continuing poverty. For the last 68 years, since a group of white-skinned rulers handed over power to a bunch of brown-skinned rulers, all the governments that have run India have done one thing incredibly effectively: they have redistributed wealth from the poor to the rich.

Yes, you read that right: I’m not talking about redistribution from the rich to the poor, which itself would be an ineffective way of fighting poverty, but from the poor to the rich. They have taken money from the poor in our country and given it to the rich, and, as if to troll us, they have done this in the name of fighting poverty. For that reason, while there are some very rich people in our country, on average, as our GDP-per-capita indicates, we’re still a third-world country.

Let me take a recent event to illustrate what I mean. A few weeks ago, the central government announced that it would not allow foreign direct investment in retail e-commerce. Business Standard reported: ‘Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Nirmala Sitharaman last month met executives of Flipkart and Snapdeal and representatives from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) to assess the impact of FDI on Indian e-commerce companies.’ The government then decided that it needed to protect the local players, and therefore did not allow FDI.

Do you see what happened here? Who benefits from competition? The consumers do. The greater the competition, the more value for money the common consumer gets. This is axiomatic. Our local retailers—all the people consulted by the ministers—were scared that their bottomline would be affected by this competition, so they successfully petitioned the government to block it. The result: the consumers will get less value than they otherwise would; the local retailers will make more money than if competition was allowed. In effect, it is a transfer of wealth from a large, dispersed group of consumers to a small, relatively wealthy interest group.

All tariffs have exactly this effect. Let’s say I like to buy widgets. Local manufacturers sell me widgets for Rs 100 each. Foreign manufacturers, for a variety of reasons from technology to labour, can sell me widgets for Rs 80. But the local manufacturers petition the government to put a tariff on imports, and the government puts a Rs. 30-per-widget tariff on the foreigners, so they don’t bother coming over. The net result: each of us loses a notional Rs 20. Who gets that money? The local manufacturers. What just happened? The government redistributed wealth from the relatively poor masses to a specific relatively rich interest group.

Governments that impose or continue tariffs will do so in the name of protecting the domestic industry. But at whose cost? The French economist Frédéric Bastiat once wrote a great essay called ‘What is Seen and What is Not Seen’, which speaks of the hidden effects of such actions. What is seen here is the good done to one specific group of people (with money usurped from a poorer group, which by itself is surely morally wrong). What is not seen is what the consumers would have done with that money. They would have spent it or invested it, and it would have gone back into the economy, creating growth and employment. But the potential beneficiaries of that are not even aware of what didn’t happen.

Subsidies are also redistribution of the reverse-Robin Hood kind, if in a more obvious way. The wealth taken from the poor is not in terms of marketplace prices or value for money, but is taken directly from your taxes. And while the poor may not file income tax returns, they pay taxes too. Every time your maidservant buys a bag of salt or the beggar at the nearby traffic signal buys soap, they are contributing to the Rich Interest Group Benefit Fund. This is not just poor economics –  it is morally wrong.

Here’s the upshot: All interventions in free markets amount to a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. Anything that reduces competition or artificially raises costs for the consumers amounts to just this. Restrictions on FDI, tariffs, licensing processes or regulations that make it harder to open a business or to run it, subsidies; and so on. The interest groups to benefit may differ in each case, and will often include rent-seeking forces within the government, but always, without exception, the wealth will flow, in relative terms, from the poor to the rich.

So why don’t we protest, you ask, given that we are a democracy? Well, think about the winners and the losers here. The costs of such redistribution are dispersed among more than a billion of us, and the benefits are concentrated to a few. If Rs 2 from the taxes you paid last year went as a subsidy to the widget industry, you won’t even know or care. The widget industry, making millions from the accumulated Rs 2s, will care, and will lobby aggressively, contribute to party coffers, buy off politicians and bureaucrats – whatever it takes. That is why government policy is not dictated by the people at large, but by the aggressive lobbying of hundreds of interest groups, out to make a killing at the expense of the poor. That is why government grows and grows, and so many constraints are placed on the only force that can make us wealthy: economic freedom.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 July, 2015 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

The Price is Right

This is the 18th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

A few days ago, I got ready for a meeting, switched on my Uber app, saw that there were no taxis available in my area, and remembered an earthquake.

More than two decades ago, when I was in college in Pune, an earthquake ravaged the region of Latur. I got together with some friends to collect money for relief efforts. We decided that we would go to the affected areas ourselves to figure out the most efficient way of using the money. We hitched a ride on an ambulance of paramedics headed there with medical supplies. While in the affected district, we stopped at a village where around half the houses had been destroyed, and only one grocery store was still standing. “They are the only place one can buy groceries from,” a resident complained to us bitterly, “and they have tripled their prices.” That made me very angry. “Exploitative bastards,” I thought to myself, “feeding off the misery of others.”

Today, I know that my reaction was misplaced – just like the complaints of everyone who’s taken issue with Uber’s dynamic pricing. In case you missed the controversy, cabs and autos in Mumbai recently went on strike to protest against the competition they got from the likes of Uber and Ola. Since people had to get to work, the ironic short-term beneficiaries of this were the very parties they were protesting against. So when demand for a particular product or service goes up and supply can’t keep pace, what happens? That’s right, the prices go up, and Uber uses a mechanism called dynamic pricing which is an incredibly efficient way of arriving at an appropriate price for their service based on demand and supply. So commuters who switched on their Uber apps in the morning were informed that the base price had gone up by as much as 5x. Naturally there was much outrage and shouts of ‘exploitation’ and ‘predatory pricing’, and Uber, rattled by the bad press, announced that they would suspend dynamic pricing for the duration of the strike, and operate at their usual base fare. They put this into effect, and I woke up the next day, switched on my app, and found that no Uber cab was available.

Do you see what happened here? When demand goes up relative to supply, two things can happen. The price can go up to reflect the growth in demand; or, if the price is fixed, there is inevitably a shortage of the product or service in question. In Uber’s case, with their dynamic pricing disabled, all their cars quickly got booked, and whichever customers switched on their apps after that found that there were no cars available. Their need could have been urgent: they may have needed to rush to the airport to catch a flight they couldn’t afford to miss; or take an aging relative to hospital; or head to town for a make-or-break meeting. But even if they were willing to pay more, too bad.

The most efficient way of allocating resources is to let things find their own equilibrium, their own prices. Price controls are foolish and never work. And the demand for them is based on a sort of a fantasy. Fixing the price of a product at a base price below what the market would pay does not mean that everyone gets it at this price—it just means that a lucky few get it and the others don’t. The fundamental truth about the universe is this: everything is scarce. You can’t wish this scarcity away by agitating or legislating against it.

*  *  *

Speaking of prices, another company that disrupted an industry, Amazon, has announced that it will pay authors on its Kindle direct publishing program according to pages read, not units moved. This is an opt-in program, applying only to self-published authors on their DP platform, but authors on my Facebook timeline have already reacted with horror. Their instinctive aversion to the idea is understandable: commoditization of art and all that. As in the movies, they can imagine a publishing executive in a suit telling them to clip their novel by 30% and have only one 8-letter-word-per-100,000 because more than that diminishes page-turning rate. The horror! But those fears are overblown. I think this development, like almost everything Amazon has done with regard to books, is visionary and good for authors.

Look, there isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a central politburo that decides how much authors get paid according to some high-falutin notions of literary merit. Authors get paid, quite simply, based on copies sold, and how many people want to read them. Literary authors accept that they will not make remotely as much as those who write airport potboilers. That’s just fine, because if they’re good at what they do, they’ll find an audience that appreciates their work anyway.

Amazon’s new system achieves the same end—paying writers according to the demand for their writing—with greater granularity. Good literary writers will still make money – I devour every word Alice Munro or Anne Tyler write—because their work is compelling. But if I get bored with a writer after reading ten pages of his work, I don’t see why he deserves any more of my money than those ten pages represent.

It’s somewhat silly for an author to have a sense of entitlement, and believe that other people should pay him money even if he can’t produce work they want to read. As silly, indeed, as for an Uber user to feel entitled to the service at a lower price than others are willing to pay, at the expense, therefore, of the service provider. Such arrogance is priceless.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 July, 2015 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse

Free Speech Does Not Mean Disruptive Heckling

This comment of mine was published a couple of days ago on Scroll.

Imagine Jerry Seinfeld is performing in India. A packed house is in attendance, getting rapturous as Seinfeld gets into his flow. And then, a bunch of hecklers from the Bajrang Dal disrupt the show. Seinfeld takes the interruption gracefully, but the hecklers won’t let him finish, and he eventually makes one last joke and then leaves the stage. What would your reaction be to this incident?

I would be aghast, and very clear on who was in the wrong: the hecklers. If the Bajrang Dal chaps protested that Seinfeld’s content was offensive to them, I’d say, “Ok, leave the premises then. And protest elsewhere by all means.” If they argued that they were expressing their right to free speech, and that protesting at their heckling was akin to censorship, it would be mildly ridiculous. To me, there would only be one guilty party here, the Bajrang Dal, and three wronged parties: the organisers, whose property rights were infringed upon by the hecklers; Seinfeld, who was not allowed to finish; and the audience, which did not get their money’s worth.

If you agree with my argument above, you would also agree, I suppose, that the principles involved hold regardless of the parties involved. So if I was at a Baba Ramdev show, and he expressed views repugnant to me, such as an attack on homosexuality, I would be disgusted, and the appropriate response to that would be to walk out and express my disgust elsewhere. But I would not have the right to disrupt his speech, and the organisers of that show would not have an obligation to offer me their platform for my views. In terms of principles, my heckling Ramdev off the stage would be exactly as wrong as the Bajrang Dal forcing Seinfeld to stop performing.

I write this, as you’d have guessed, in the context of the comedian Abish Mathew being booed off stage while performing at a Delhi college, and the subsequent defence of the hecklers in some quarters. Mathew is not Seinfeld or Ramdev, but the same principles that applied to their hypothetical hecklers apply to his. The hecklers in question were not expressing their right to free speech by disrupting the show. Free speech applies to one’s own space and to public spaces: I cannot enter someone’s house, abuse him, and protest when I am being thrown out that he is infringing upon my right to free speech. He is not; on the contrary, I am infringing upon his property. (In fact, as I argue here, the right to free speech is a property right.)

The hecklers should have protested outside the venue, or after the performance. To disturb the performance was graceless. To use another example, if I am at a Kishori Amonkar concert and am getting bored, I will quietly walk out. It would be incredibly boorish if I heckled her and made her stop. To argue that Mathew is not Kishori Amonkar, or that Seinfeld is classy and Ramdev is a bigot, is missing the point. The same principles apply.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 March, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | News

Marching For Salt

March 12 is a special day in India’s history. On this day 85 years ago Mohandas Gandhi set off on a walk from Sabarmati Ashram near Ahmedabad. His destination was 390km away: Dandi,  a coastal village near Navsari in Gujarat, where he intended to produce salt from the sea, in defiance of the salt tax levied by the British empire in India. Both the man and the cause were extraordinary.

I am writing a book that examines, in part, India’s intellectual history from 1857 to today. And Gandhi causes severe cognitive dissonance. The prominent 19th century figures in India’s freedom movement were all influenced by British liberalism, their ideas were shaped by Mill, Bentham, Morley, even Adam Smith. One can draw a straight line from Dadabhai Naoroji through Mahadev Govind Ranade and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar to the great Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who called himself “an intellectual grandson of Dadabhai Naoroji.”  These were the famed Moderates of the Congress party, aiming at incrementalism when it came to policy, seeking not to fight the empire but to be equal subjects within it. The Moderates dominated the Congress until the mid-1910s, despite skirmishes with the Extremists within the party, men like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal, whose preferred methods may have been different but whose aims weren’t all that different from that of the moderates. The Scottish statesman James Keir Hardie once described the Moderates as ‘extreme in moderation’ and the Extremists as ‘moderate in extremism’, and indeed, they weren’t really all that far apart.

Uptil this point, the narrative is coherent. Then comes Gandhi. It seems to me that Gandhi was a black swan event in the Indian independence movement: nothing that came before could explain his arrival; nothing that then existed seemed to demand his ascendance. Gandhi called Gokhale his political mentor, but ideologically the two men were poles apart.

Gandhi was not influenced by the British liberals who shaped Gokhale’s thinking, nor did his thinking have Indian antecedents. He arrived at non-violent non-cooperation through Tolstoy’s writings, later finding backup in Thoreau and the sermon on the mount. His luddite distrust of machinery and the idealisation of village life came from John Ruskin. He claimed the Bhagavad Gita as an influence, but some of this comes from finding post-facto validation of his prior beliefs in Indian texts. VS Naipaul once called him ‘the least Indian of Indian leaders’ – but his ideas weren’t part of the Western mainstream either. When a critic complained, in his South African years, that he was poorly read in modern philosophy, Gandhi responded, in the historian Ramachandra Guha’s words, that he “saw no reason to read more glosses of modern civilisation when he saw the thing itself unfold before his eyes.”

Shortly after Gandhi came back to India, his political patron Gokhale died, to be followed a few months later by another Moderate stalwart Pherozeshah Mehta. There was a tussle in the Congress between the Extremists, led by Tilak and Annie Besant, and the remaining moderates, men such as Motilal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Gandhi was a peripheral figure, considered somewhat eccentric by other Congress leaders, still on the margins and not yet a Mahatma. Indeed, in 1918 he spent some time trying to recruit soldiers to fight for the British in WW1, writing to the viceroy, Lord Chemsford, “I love the English nation, and I wish to evoke in every Indian the loyalty of the Englishman.” In this sentiment, he echoed the Moderates, and hardly presaged the uncompromising freedom fighter he would go on to become. A year later, as that decade came to an end, he shifted from the margins of the freedom struggle to its centre.

Gandhi’s first tactical masterstroke in domestic Indian politics was making common cause with the Khilafat movement. Muslim thinkers in India were often torn between loyalty to the qaum, the larger Muslim nation, and Indian nationalism. The Khilafat movement was an expression of the former, and was aimed at maintaining the supremacy of the caliph in Turkey in the aftermath of WW1, where Turkey was on the losing side and the British were the victors. Your enemy’s enemy must be your friend, and for Gandhi, this was as an opportunity in two ways: to reconcile the sometimes conflicting loyalties of the Muslims; and to widen the base of the somewhat elitist Congress.

Gandhi threw himself into the thick of things, turning the nominally transnational Khilafat movement into a nationalistic enterprise. “It is the duty of every non-Moslem Indian in every legitimate manner to assist his Mussulman brother, in his attempt to remove the religious calamity that has overtaken him,” he wrote in a resolution adapted by the Congress in a special session in Calcutta in 1920. His program of noncooperation was adopted by the Congress session later that year in Nagpur, from which Jinnah stormed out, never to return to the party he had expected to lead. “I part company with the Congress and Gandhi,” he said in an interview that year. “I do not believe in working up mass hysteria. Politics is a gentleman’s game.”

The coupling of Khilafat and Swaraj made no ideological sense – severe dissonance, again – but it was tactical genius. At a personal level, this support from a new constituency made Gandhi the undisputed leader of the Congress, and thus the Independence movement. At a national level, it helped make the Independence struggle a true mass movement. With the Congress under his sway, Gandhi launched a movement of noncooperation that animated the entire country. Satyagraha – the force of truth – was underway. The British had never seen anything like this in India – though Gandhi called it off in 1922 when protesters turned violent in the town of Chauri Chaura and killed 23 policemen, reportedly while shouting “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!” He even went on a fast, as penance for the crimes committed in his name. 30,000 people had already been imprisoned in the course of the movement, and the Khilafat leaders as well as his Congress colleagues did not take kindly to Gandhi’s unilateral decision to call off the Satyagraha. Soon, Gandhi was also arrested and sentenced to six years of prison – though he served only two, and the Khilafat movement wound up because, well, the Caliphate did. Swaraj was on hold.

Gandhi was on a hiatus for the middle years of that decade. “I am biding my time,” he wrote in a letter in 1928, “and you will find me leading the country in the field of politics when the country is ready. […] I have a plan for the country’s freedom.” When the Congress was next convened, it gave a deadline of a year to the British to grant India dominion status – failing which it would declare Independence. The year ended, the British ignored the demands of the natives, and on January 26, 1930, the Congress declared India’s Independence. But this alone was not enough. Another noncooperation movement, another satyagraha was required. What would be the focal point of this one?


In Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky relates a French folktale in which a princess tells her father “I love you like salt,” and is promptly banished by her father for insufficient adoration. But later, when he is denied salt, he realises “the depth of his daughter’s love” and repents. Salt is essential to humanity. Our bodies contain about 250gms of salt, but too many essential bodily functions rely on salt. “From the beginning of civilisation until about 100 years ago,” Kurlansky writes, “salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.”

The first war over salt was fought by Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor of China, around 2600 BC. Salt had geopolitical significance, and even gave impetus to empire building. The first of the great roads built by the Romans, the Via Salaria, was constructed for the express purpose of transporting salt. Mediaval trade routes were shaped by salt. Salt was even currency; Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt, and the worlds ‘salary’ and ‘soldier’ both evolved from sal, the Latin word for salt. Indeed, consider the origin of the phrase you must have heard in countless Hindi films, “Maine aapka namak khaaya hai.”

The first mention of a tax on salt dates back to the 20th century BC, in China. “During the Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907,” Kurlansky tells us, “half the revenue of the Chinese state was derived from salt.” Salt taxes were a certain way for any state to raise revenue, for even the poorest could not do without it. Salt was taxed in India from as far back as the reign of Chandragupta Maurya (340-298 BC), and the Mughals even charged differential salt taxes depending on religion. (Muslims paid 2.5%, Hindus paid 5%.) The British, starting with Robert Clive, the governor-general in 1765, raised it to unprecedented levels. To further compound matters, they killed off the domestic industry, and built a monopoly to the benefit of British salt manufacturers in Cheshire. By the early 1800s, only the British government could legally manufacture salt in India. A rebellion around salt in 1817 was quickly crushed, and by 1858, 10% of the British government’s revenues came from salt.

Gandhi wasn’t the first nationalist leader to protest about the tax on salt. SA Swaminath Iyer protested against it in the inaugural session of the Congress in 1885, as did Gopal Krishna Gokhale in 1890, and Dadabhai Naoroji called it “the most cruel Revenue imposed in any civilised country” in the House of Commons in 1894. The issue festered; the British ignored Indian fulminations; the salt tax was, in fact, doubled in 1923.

And so, Mohandas Gandhi’s Satyagraha hammer found a suitable nail in the salt tax.


Before the Satyagraha, Gandhi wrote in a letter to the Indian viceroy, Lord Irwin: “I regard this tax [on salt] to be the most iniquitous of all from the poor man’s standpoint. As the Independence movement is essentially for the poorest in the land, the beginning will be made with this evil. The wonder is that we have submitted to the cruel monopoly for so long.”

What happened in the Salt Satyagraha is common knowledge. Gandhi marched for 24 days and reached the coast of Dandi on April 6. C Rajagopalachari went on a similar march in Tamil Nadu. Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru had been arrested by the British, as was Gandhi shortly after the satyagraha. The British government made some minor concessions, but the salt tax remained in place until 1946. Gandhi had said that he would not return to Sabarmati Ashram until the tax was repealed. After March 12, when he set off on his walk, he never saw the Ashram again.

But here’s a thought, 85 years after that famous march to Dandi. There is a point of view that in 1947, all we did was replace a set of colonial rulers with a set of local rulers. We continued to be ruled; and we continued to be exploited. We gained political independence and the right to vote, but other freedoms, both in the economic and personal spheres, continue to be denied to us, just as the British denied them. Many of the laws that the British framed to suppress us, in the form of the Indian Penal Code, remain in place. If our freedom fighters, men like Naoroji and Gokhale and Rajaji and Patel were alive today, would they feel fulfilled at the India they saw around them? Would Gandhi?

When he reached Dandi, Gandhi picked up a fistful of salt in his hand as Sarojini Naidu, carried away by the moment, shouted “Hail deliverer!” She was right – and she was wrong: India still awaits deliverance.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 March, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India

The Kim Kardashian Liberals

This is the 13th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

You can hold a currency note up against the light, if you have been trained well, and detect whether it is real or fake. Is there a similar test that can help catch and expose a counterfeit liberal? Yes,  there is. It is the ‘but’ test. A counterfeit liberal is one who will espouse a liberal principle but then, immediately, before putting a full stop on the sentence, add the word ‘but’. And there’s always a universe after that ‘but’.

For example, a faux-liberal will say, “I believe in free speech, but…” Or “I believe in free markets, but…” That ‘but’ invalidates all that comes before it. Anyone who says he believes in free speech “but…” is not a liberal but a hypocrite. (And he doesn’t believe in free speech, obviously.) I have a term for these kinds of people, who abound in the Indian intellectual space. I call them Kim Kardashian Liberals. Too much But.

What is a true liberal then? I consider myself a classical liberal, and it disturbs me that the term is used so loosely these days. Our discourse has become muddy, and words like ‘rights’ and ‘freedom’ are used in such nebulous ways that conversations around these concepts often involve people talking past each other, with plenty of Buts swinging here and there. So, in a further effort to help you identify counterfeit liberals, beyond the simple but useful heuristic of keeping an eye out for Buts, let me elaborate upon what classical liberalism precisely means. Specifically: the first principles from which we arise at our support for freedom.

Many classical liberals arrive at their liberalism through natural rights. Are there any rights that we are born with? According to the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, the most basic right of all is the right to self-ownership. “Every man has a property in his own person,” Locke wrote. “This no Body has any right to but himself.” This is, to borrow a term Thomas Jefferson used in the Declaration of Independence, self-evident. When we are born, we own ourselves – it doesn’t make any sense that anyone else does, or that everyone communally does. Our right to self-ownership, of course, is contingent upon our respecting the corresponding rights of others.

All other rights emerge from the right to self-ownership. Our right to life, to start with, is a direct corollary of the right to self-ownership. The right to free speech, for we own our thoughts and their expression. The right to the fruits of our labours – or, essentially, the right to property. The right to freely associate with anyone we wish to, whether that interaction is social or economic. And what does freedom mean? It means freedom from an infringement of these rights.

Talk of rights often gets muddy because a new class of counterfeit rights has come up in the last few decades (created by counterfeit liberals, as you’d expect.) These are not really rights, but entitlements. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin helpfully coined the terms negative and positive rights to demarcate the difference. Negative rights are all rights that emerge from the right to self-ownership – like the right to life, to property, to free speech, to free trade and suchlike. To respect these rights of yours, people simply have to not infringe them. So someone not killing you is respecting your right to life, a government not censoring you is respecting your rights to free speech, and so on. This why they’re called negative rights. Positive rights, on the other hand, are not rights at all, but entitlements disguised as rights. The right to food, the right to education, the right to broadband etc are all positive rights. To honor these rights, someone has to actively give something to you. And as money doesn’t fall from the sky – if it did, there would be inflation, and God would effectively be taxing you – the only way to honor a positive right is to infringe a negative right. You have to tax Peter to give Paul his free broadband.

To a classical liberal, negative rights, which arise from the right to self-ownership, are the only kind of legitimate rights. All these rights, in a manner of speaking, are property rights, as they arise from the fact that you own yourself to begin with. Thinking in this manner, from these first principles, can bring clarity on a host of issues. People who want to suppress free speech for the cliched reason that “you can’t shout fire in a crowded theatre” are using a flawed example: a person shouting fire in a crowded theatre, whether he be the owner defrauding his patrons or a patron creating a disturbance on someone else’s property, is infringing on the rights of someone or the other in any case. All our rights are contingent upon respecting the corresponding rights of others, which this particular miscreant is not doing. You do not need to limit free speech to punish this particular troublemaker. (As you’d have guessed by now, I’m a free speech absolutist. No Buts.)

Seen through a prism of first principles, most public intellectuals in India do not have a coherent worldview. For example, a few years ago, a prominent columnist wrote about how he supported free speech when it came to MF Husain, because he was an artist, but not when it came to the Danish cartoonists, because, according to him, they were out to provoke. (So what if they were?) This position makes no sense. What are the first principles of this person here? Don’t ask him – he might put those Buts to good use and twerk you.

The hypocrisy that really staggers me regards free speech and free markets. A classical liberal supports both. Those on the left support only the former. Those on the right do it the other way around. This is bewildering. Once you have decided that two consenting adults should be able to do whatever they want with each other as long as they are not infringing on anyone else’s rights, what does it matter whether they are fucking or trading? But no, our Kim Kardashian Liberals will find something to object to, and there will be no coherence to their arguments.

Many classical liberals arrive at their support for freedom from a utilitarian standpoint. Free markets lead to economic prosperity; freedom of expression results in cultural growth; so they support both, without reference to natural rights. This is also a coherent way of arriving at liberalism. Kim Kardashian Liberals don’t show this coherence, and are soon unclothed.

*  *  *

Recently I came across Jim’s Rule of Buts, a creation of the blogger Jim Henley. The rule goes: “In any charged conversation, find any statements containing the conjunction ‘but’ and reverse the clauses.” This usually changes the meaning of the sentence completely. One example Henley gives is “the classic apology:” ‘I’m sorry I yelled at you, but what you said made me really angry’ means a completely different thing from ‘What you said made me really angry, but I’m sorry I yelled at you.’ If our Kim Kardashian Liberals had to follow this rule, a statement like ‘I believe in free speech, but you should not offend anyone’ would transform itself to ‘You should not offend anyone, but I believe in free speech.’ Now that second But is most pleasing, and one I would gladly caress.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 February, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Media | Politics

The Evil of Family Planning

This is the 11th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

It’s wonderful to live in the 21st century. I bought a new Android Phone the other day, and was fiddling with its apps, marvelling at how the world has advanced so much and we can hold in the palm of our hand wonders that would have been inconcievable just a decade ago, when I came across a news item on the internet which reminded me that, despite all you can pack into a mobile phone, the real world outside is a lumbering beast that’s hard to change. And much of India still lives in an earlier century.

The news item in question was about a group of women who died after a sterilization camp in Chhattisgarh. According to a Guardian report, “more than 80 women underwent surgery for laparoscopic tubectomies at a free government-run camp,” after which around 60 of them fell ill and at least 11 died. The doctors were suspended, a criminal complaint made, and compensation packages announced. (Consider the obscenity of that term. ‘Compensation package.’ Really?) But what came as a shock to me was not that the government botched something up, but that in 2014, there was something such as a ‘sterilisation camp’ in existence. I had assumed sterilisations as a government-organised activity ceased after the Emergency of the 1970s, in which the evil Indira and Sanjay Gandhi had made it state policy to forcibly sterilize their ‘subjects’, as it were. Three-and-a-half decades after that, why on earth is the government conducting tubectomies?

“Such camps,” the Guardian report informed us, “are held regularly across India as part of a long-running effort to control the emerging economic power’s booming population.” Indeed, the government sets sterilisation targets for their health departments, and offers financial incentives to both doctors and the women who come forward. (Anywhere from Rs 1400 to “cars and electrical goods” for the women.) In 2013-14 alone, 4 million such operations were conducted. The report says, “Authorities in eastern India came under fire last year after a news channel unearthed footage showing scores of women dumped unconscious in a field following a mass sterilisation.”

There are three things terribly wrong with this: One, the government has no business interfering with the private choices of its citizens. Whether a particular individual wishes to have no children or ten is no business of the government. And to spend taxpayers money to manipulate these choices is absurd.

Two, It is women who are victims here. Poor women. Manipulated women. Always women. It is never the man who hops over and says, ‘Chal bhai, nasbandi karva le.’ It is always the woman, because women in this country have a status somewhere between object and person, possession and loved one. This makes me ashamed. It is not something that fills me with patriotism and nationalistic gusto.

Three, all of this is based on a flawed premise. Right from school, Indians are taught that people are a problem. Or, to put it the conventional way, that ‘overpopulation’ is a great danger to our nation, and that family planning is its essential antidote, and individuals must sacrifice their desires for the nation. ‘Hum do, humaare do,’ and so on. But this is flat out wrong, and terribly outdated thinking. India’s growing population is not a problem, but a blessing. And the term ‘overpopulation’ makes no sense. Every human being is precious and wonderful, and there can never be too many of us.

Worrying about the population started becoming fashionable in the late 18th century, with the publication of Robert Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus made the seemingly sensible observation that population tended to grow exponentially while resources, in particular food supply, grew arithmetically. Thus, to prevent a catastrophe, population control was essential. A latter-day Malthusian, Harrison Brown, worried about the population growing unchecked “until the earth is covered completely and to a considerable depth with a writhing mass of human beings, much as a dead cow is covered with a pulsating mass of maggots.”

Well, we’re not maggots, and that hasn’t happened. Human beings are resourceful and ingenious, and the more of them you have, the more resourcefulness there is floating around. The economist Julian Simon, in his book The Ultimate Resource, pointed out that through history, spurts in population and productivity coincided with each other. (The ultimate resource the book’s title refers to is people, of course.) Had Malthus been correct, you’d expect to see that the places with greatest population would density would have the highest resource crunches. But the opposite is true. As Nicholas Eberstadt pointed out a few years ago in a study titled Too Many People?, there is no link between population density and poverty. Monaco has a population density 40 times that of Bangladesh. It’s doing fine. Ditto Bermuda and Bahrain, which are more packed than India.

Indeed, the story of humanity is a story of urbanisation. Why is land in a city sometimes 100 times more expensive than in a rural area? Because of demand, because everyone wants to be in cities, because that is where the opportunities are. People migrate to cities because of the economic and social networks they contain – and the more people there are, the more desirable it is to be part of these networks. Cities would not be such desirable destinations if Malthus was right.

Malthusian thinking is completely discredited today, and the last couple of centuries have been testimony to the folly of his thinking. (Indeed, ‘Malthusian’ is a pejorative today.) And yet India, the first country to take up ‘family planning’ in 1952, is one of the last to continue to use government machinery to promote something that is wrong on so many levels. (Coercion, pseudoscience etc etc.) Given the top-down, central-planning-kind-of thinking of Nehru and his socialist minions, it must have seemed that people were a problem, for the more of them there were, the harder it became to control them and to feed them. This attitude is condescending, and the consequences can be criminal, as we saw in Chhattisgarh. For 67 years, we have been tied down, mentally, to the concept of a mai-baap sarkar, at whose mercy we exist. It is about time we re-orient our thinking. Our government’s sole purpose should be to serve us, not to rule us; to empower us, not to enslave us; to protect our rights, not to strip them away. Abolishing this family planning nonsense would be an essential step in that direction.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 December, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | News | Politics

The Shame Game

This is the 9th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

One of the finest graphic novels I’ve read recently is Paying For It, a ‘comic strip memoir about being a john’ by the Canadian writer Chester Brown. In 1996 Brown’s girlfriend informed him that she had fallen in love with someone else. Brown took it well, and they even continued living together for a while, till eventually Brown moved on. But he saw no sense in seeking conventional relationships that involved ‘possessive monogamy’, and instead started seeing prostitutes. Paying For It is an account of more than a decade spent eschewing romantic love and instead satisfying his sexual needs with a series of paid encounters.

Brown treats his encounters in a matter-of-fact way, right down to his chapter titles (‘Carla’, ‘Anne’, ‘Angelina’, ‘Back to Anne’, ‘Edith’ etc). There are no seedy, cheap thrills to be had here, and Paying For It is more about the internal workings of Brown’s mind through these years than anything that actually happens.  He doesn’t try to sentimentalise or glamorise the lives of the women he sleeps with, and there isn’t much of their back story in the book.

The book would be worth your time for the appendices alone. In a series of clear, nuanced arguments, Brown lays down why prostitution should be decriminalised. He is a libertarian (as am I), and the basic premise of that argument is simple enough: what consenting adults do with one another is no one’s business but their own, as long as they do not infringe on anyone else’s rights while doing so. When a john sees a prostitute, it is fundamentally an economic transaction, with one party paying the other for services rendered. That’s it. There is no moral dimension to it.

One can argue, especially in a third-world context, that many prostitutes are forced into that line of work, and that there is always coercion involved. This is exactly why prostitution should be legal. Whenever the state outlaws victimless crimes, such as prostitution or sports betting, the underworld fills the resultant vacuum, and things get shady. Human trafficking thrives not because prostitution exists, but because it is illegal and we’ve left it to the mafia. (Ditto match-fixing in the context of sports betting in India.) If it was legal and transparent, trafficking and coercion would be vastly reduced, and easier to counter when they did happen.

There are those who hold that prostitution necessarily involves implicit coercion, because which woman would choose it willingly? This is just plain disrespectful to the women who make that choice. If someone deems it the best option open to them, who are we to pass judgment on their choices? Also, why is it frowned upon if you sell sexual services for money, but not if you sell other parts of yourself? One of my marketable assets, for example, is my writing ability, and I’ve sold my services to dozens of publications over the years. (Indeed, at the moment I write columns for both Hindu Business Line and the Economic Times.)  Am I a slut then? Do I become a slut if I sell my physical labour? If I work as a construction worker or a massage therapist? Why do we stigmatise sex?

You could look at that last question as either a rhetorical question or as an anthropological one. But here’s my point: if we look down upon sex workers for the kind of work they do, then that reflects badly on us, not on them. People who use the terms ‘whore’ or ‘slut’ as pejoratives are demeaning themselves.

That brings me to the sad, sad story of Shweta Basu Prasad, who was caught a few weeks ago in a ‘prostitution racket.’ Prasad is an accomplished national-award winning actress, who has also made a documentary on Indian classical music, and decided, at some point, to look at other ways of earning money. She was arrested during a raid at a five-star hotel in Hyderabad where she was, we are salaciously informed, ‘caught in the act’. She was sent to a government rehabilitation home for ‘rescued’ women. (She had no say in this.) And of course, she was named and shamed in the media.

Some of the people who spoke out in her defence were outraged that she was put in the spotlight and humiliated, and not the businessmen on the other side of the transaction. But why should even they be named and shamed? In my view, both Prasad and the businessmen were doing nothing wrong – there was clearly no coercion involved, just consenting adults getting together. Nor did the pimp involved do anything wrong in bringing them together. The people who should be ashamed here are the police, who spend time and effort busting victimless crimes instead of focussing on so many of the other duties they fail to perform. And it’s obvious why. Why do you think the raids happened in the first place and the businessmen weren’t named?

The police across the country act like a mafia engaged in extortion of those unfairly criminalised by our antiquated penal system, such as homosexuals, prostitutes and their customers, gamblers and so on. They are the ones who should be shamed, who should not be able to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning, whose families should feel embarrassed by them. And yet, poor Shweta Basu Prasad is treated like a criminal and humiliated in this manner. It’s a disgrace. She did absolutely nothing wrong, and is the victim here, not of the clients she was working with, but of the police, and of our hypocritical, repressed Indian society.

The last chapter of Brown’s book is titled ‘Back to Monogamy’. But unlike what that might indicate, he doesn’t realise the error of his ways and goes off and find a conventional girlfriend. Instead, he finds his comfort zone with one of the women he has had paid sex with, and decides to be monogamous with her while continuing their financial arrangement. This might seem unusual to you, but on reading the book, you’ll see why it makes perfect sense for Brown. We all stumble through life, trying to understand what makes us happy, making compromises, negotiating with our destinies. Whatever works, works. There is no right or wrong in this.


Also read:

Laws Against Victimless Crimes Should Be Scrapped
The Matunga Racket

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 October, 2014 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Media

I Have Something To Ask You

This is the fifth installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Writing a column is an act of hubris. When you present a column to the world, you are essentially saying, before whatever you say in the column: ‘Listen to me, my opinions have value.’ No writer will deny that this is the implicit premise of the very act of writing columns. This is both arrogant and delusional, but we choose to be in denial of this, for if we were not how could we write, in the same way that we choose to be in denial of our mortality, for if we were not how could we live? Anyway,in today’s column, I shall not present my views before you. Instead, I will ask you a few questions, to which there are no right or wrong answers. These are just difficult questions, even if some of them have seemingly simple answers, and I present them in the hope that you might find some of them stimulating. I have just one request to make: Instead of just skimming over the piece, please pause at the end of every question and formulate an answer in your mind.

Question 1: Do you support the rights of two consenting adults to do whatever they wish with each other provided they do not infringe on the rights of anyone else? Q2: Why? Q3: Do you support gay rights? Q4: Do you believe in free markets?

Q3 and Q4 are related to Q1: If you believe that no one should interfere in what two consenting adults choose to get up to with each other, as long as they mess with no one else, then that should apply to both sex in a bedroom and commercial transactions. The moral case for not interfering with free markets and homosexuality is, thus, exactly the same. If you support gay rights because you believe in freedom, it would seem hypocritical to then condemn free markets. Or vice versa. If you support either of these because of a reason not based on your support for individual freedom, then that’s ok. But Q5, If so, what is that first principle you draw from?

Now, you might say that you support gay rights but not free markets, because much as you love freedom, you also have to look at the consequences of actions, and ‘unfettered’ free markets can have adverse consequences. (The same argument could be made from the other side about homosexuality and its impact of society.) Q6,  Do you believe that freedom should be subordinate to utility? That our attitude towards a particular behaviour should depend on the consequences of that behaviour? Q7, If so, who determines what the likely consequences of anything could be, and how we should therefore treat that act? A democratically elected government? Q8, If so, can you think of examples where a democratically elected government fucked up spectacularly? Q9, If so, might it make sense to instead enshrine certain principles in the constitution that even a democratically elected government cannot mess with? Q10, If so, should these include freedom? Q11, If so, what kind of freedoms should be included? Personal freedom? Freedom of speech? Freedom of sexual orientation and carnal intercourse? Economic freedom? Q12. If you value some of these over others, why so?

(To deviate a moment from questions and actually make an observation, allow me to point out that none of these are actually protected by the Indian constitution, although it pays lip service to a couple of them. But that’s neither here nor there.)

Moving further along the subject of freedom and consequences, here’s Q13: Do you believe that women should have the right to choose whether or not to abort a baby? I’m guessing that’s an easy one to answer, so here’s another easy one: Q14: Do you support the ban on female foeticide?

If your answer to both these questions is ‘yes’, then Q15, How can you resolve the contradiction inherent in supporting a woman’s right to choose whether to abort and being against female foeticide? If a woman has the right to choose to abort, aren’t her reasons behind this decision irrelevant to that right, and an examination of those reasons invasive to her privacy? You might personally find her reason for it repugnant, but should your feelings affect her rights? And as a general practice, should the feelings of some people be an excuse to abrogate the rights of some others?

Of course, if you are into consequences, you could argue that female foeticide should be banned purely because it skews the sex ratio, which is bad for society. But, to consider a thought experiment, what if in the natural course of things, 11 girls were born for every 10 boys, and the prevalent rate of female foeticide actually corrected this imbalance? Q16: Would it be okay then? If not, why not? (Apart from the rights of the foetus, which you already agree are subordinate to the rights of the mother if you answer ‘yes’ to Q13.)

I haven’t asked the questions above to show the absurdity in this position or that, or to bring you round to any particular way of thinking. These are thorny issues with many nuances. I’m a libertarian and a freedom fundamentalist, and I support both gay rights and free markets, with my support for the latter, though it stems from principle, being bolstered by the benefits of economic freedom. (Contrast the two Koreas.) But the first principles I draw upon are not the only ones you can construct a worldview from. And there are situations where even those first principles don’t lead me to a coherent answer. At times, one is left with more questions than answers. And that’s okay. We are feeble creatures, and don’t have to know everything.


Previously on Lighthouse:

The Minister’s Lament
The Language of Indian Politics
Politics and the Sociopath
A Godless Congregation

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 June, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

Seven Thoughts on Modi’s Mandate

All right, here are some quick thoughts on the election results:

One, I’m overjoyed that the Congress got hammered. We are close to seeing the end of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in politics, which is fantastic. This vile family has caused incalculable damage to our country with its destructive economic policies, which has kept our country poor for the seven decades since independence. It’s impossible to quantify the effect of this, but I believe that this family has orders-of-magnitude more blood on its hands than, say, a Narendra Modi would even if all the allegations against him were true. I’m glad to see them finished as a political force, though it is likely that they will continue to be a political spectacle for a while yet, which I welcome. Pappu provides much amusement.

Two, I’m ambivalent about Narendra Modi but I’m glad he has a decisive mandate. Here’s why I’m ambivalent: I’m classical liberal (or minarchist libertarian, if you will), and freedom matters a lot to me. I want a free society with free speech and free markets. In conventional terms, I’d be right-of-centre on economics and left-of-centre on social issues. The BJP is right-of-centre on both. So I worry about issues like freedom of speech—but remember that the Congress had a deplorable record on this front, and was, in fact, the party that banned the Satanic Verses. We have so far been a reasonably pluralistic society; that, and our (meagre and somewhat inadequate) constitutional safeguards should protect us if the RSS nutjobs get out of hand. One can only hope.

On economics, Modi can’t do worse than the UPA did. Yes, I worry about crony capitalism, but Modi has done a lot to create a conducive environment for small businesses in Gujarat, and his main campaign slogan, ‘minimum government and maximum governance,’ is music to my ears. But it will take a lot of doing, and this is why I’m glad his mandate is so overwhelming, and he is free of the constraints of coalition politics. He now has the power to get the job done, and no scope for excuses. He can carry out the measures that are essential if we are to be the manufacturing superpower that he has said he aspires to make India. (I’d start with labour reforms.) He can reduce the number of ministries at the centre, cut down on red-tapism throughout the country, and reform agriculture and education, moving from a culture of patronage to one of empowerment. He has the power to do all this; we will now see if he can walk the talk.

Three, this is a seminal moment in Indian politics, and the political landscape has changed forever. It is estimated that around 100 million people voted for the first time in these elections, part of a demographic shift that is going to continue. If these new voters alone were a country, that country would be the 12th largest in the world, bigger than Germany, France or the UK. This country is where the Modi wave happened.

While this nebulous wave might have been embodied in the figure of one man, consider what it stands for, and why so many first-time voters exercised their mandate: These people are shrugging aside considerations of identity and patronage politics: caste or the Gandhi family do not matter to them. They want progress, development and also, implicitly, the eradication of poverty, which goes hand-in-hand with the first two. For seven decades, parties have only paid lip service to that last aim, and followed policies that perpetuated poverty and nurtured vote banks. Modi embodies the hope that we can break away from this. Even if he doesn’t deliver, and these new voters, and other new voters to come next time, abandon him, we can see the parameters based on which they are making their choices. Those won’t change. The parties that don’t adapt themselves to this new political marketplace will be ejected with, as Pappu would say, ‘the escape velocity of Jupiter.’

Four, It will nevertheless not be easy for the BJP to replicate this performance the next time around. Consider that a big part of this wave was the party winning 71 out of 80 seats in UP, masterminded by their brilliant strategist, Amit Shah. Now, one can expect the BJP to also win the next UP assembly elections. So at the next Lok Sabha elections in 2019, they’ll face double incumbency in UP. They’ll be fighting on the basis of performance, not promises, and perceptions of the former will depend not just on Modi’s governance, but also extraneous factors like the last monsoons and the state of the world economy. A few percentage points could lead to a huge swing in terms of seats.

Five, Consider the percentages. In terms of seats, the BJP did 6.4 times better than the Congress. In terms of vote share, they did 1.6 times better. (31% to 19% of vote share respectively, nationally.) The Congress is moribund, relying on feudalism, led by morons, and I expect their vote-share to drop. But note that relatively small swings in terms of votes can lead to much bigger swings when it comes to seats in parliament. Don’t take anything for granted in 2019. A 4% swing away from the BJP, for whatever reason, would almost certainly result in a coalition government.

Six, AAP has shown itself to be the political economy’s equivalent of candlelight vigils and online petitions, both futile gestures made by self-righteous people who want to feel good about themselves and lack an understanding of how the world works. Leave aside its constituency, the party itself was a meld of contradictions, defined only in opposition to others. It articulated a faith in government and leftist economic policies that would take our country backwards, not forwards. It claimed to speak for the common man—but the common man chose the chaiwallah over the income-tax officer.

What really got my goat was the coverage given to AAP by our Delhi-centric media. This was a party expected to get at best 10 seats in a parliament of 543. (I expected them to get one [Rakhi Birla], they surprised me and got four [Punjab].) And yet, from the media coverage given to them, you’d think they were a major contender to form the government. William Dalrymple, in fact, referred to Arvind Kejriwal as one of ‘the three front-runners’ in these elections. Immense WTFness.

Seven, What about 2002? Was Modi personally responsible for engineering the riots? If he was, nothing else matters, and that would be enough to condemn him. But was he? I’ve spent a fair bit of time going through the evidence to implicate him (quite convincing) and the defences in his favour (also, weirdly, convincing). I know that almost all my friends will jump on me for saying this, but I no longer believe that it is possible for anyone on the outside to know, for sure, whether he engineered those riots. The facts are such that what you choose to believe will be what you want to believe, and will reveal more about you than about him. This is an epistemological position, not an ideological one; and I therefore have no choice but to consider him innocent until proven guilty, though he can be proven neither innocent nor guilty, but I know where the burden of proof lies.

In any case, as I’ve written before, I believe that Modi acts purely out of self-interest and not ideology. At the centre, he will do whatever he believes will increase his political capital. I don’t think communal violence will be part of that equation. I think development will. That gives me hope.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 May, 2014 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | News | Politics

The Minister’s Lament

This is the fourth installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

I love group photos. All the ministers of this new government had gathered to be shot, and I was dressed in my finest khadi. My party wasn’t originally part of this coalition, which consisted of one national party and 16 regional ones, and ended with 269 votes. It needed three seats, and I had four, mostly thanks to biriyani and fractured votebanks. They promised to make me a minister. ‘Actually we’ve run out of ministries,’ I was told, ‘but we’re creating a few new ones to keep up with demand.’ I took my place in the group portrait. The photographer stood a long, long way back.

The next day I showed up at the newly built Secretariat 3, was shown into my office, and met my secretary, Mr Batra. As we waited for word from the PMO about what we were supposed to do exactly, he showed me what Twitter was. Who knows, he said, it might come handy sometime.

Who woulda thunk? That evening, word reached us that I was now the first ever Minister for Social Media (MSM). I was asked to go to the PM’s office within an hour, where I would be handed a statement that I would read out at a press conference. We duly headed off. We could have walked, but I chose to be driven in my official Honda Accord with a red beacon on top. Sitting inside, siren blaring, beacon flashing, I remembered the village where I had been born.

‘The Ministry for Social Media,’ I read out, ‘will empower the youth of our country by ensuring the smooth functioning of social media. We will make sure that poor and disempowered people everywhere have access to it. Everyone will have a voice. Thank you.’

‘Minister,’ a voice piped up behind the many television cameras, ‘social media functions well enough on it’s own, and already gives a voice to the disempowered. What more will you do? Will you censor social media?’

‘No questions,’ barked Rameshwaram, the secretary from the PMO, and ushered me backstage. As I left he told me, ‘Good luck minister. And a word of advice: keep a low profile.’ I pondered on this as I was driven home, siren blaring, beacon flashing, trying my best to be low key in the car. People stared.

When I reached office the next morning, Batra was exultant. ‘I’m already at work on budgets, sir,’ he said. ‘We’ll need new departments. One each for Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, YouTube. Hahaha, Yummy!’ I wasn’t quite so happy. The ministry did not give licenses for anything. No one had to come to me for permission to do phallana dhimkana. I controlled nothing; and therefore had no sources of revenue. All these years of building my political career and this was my reward: a cow without teats. But I did have power. Now, how would I use it?

Soon enough I started getting phone calls from ministers. A sex tape of Ram Lakhan Yadav had just been uploaded on YouTube. (‘It’s doctored, of course, but even then, my good name is being besmirched, samjhay na?’) The PMO called to say that there was a fake Facebook page up purporting to be the official PMO page. Mrs Goel, minister of women’s welfare, informed me that some people on Twitter were abusing her. And so on. I was asked to get these pages removed, the users banned, and in one case, arrested. (He had threatened to attack Mrs Goel.)

We couldn’t go through with the arrest because the culprit turned out to be a 65-year-old professor of anthropology in the US, but YouTube videos and Facebook pages were removed, Twitter users banned. I even assigned a few minions to edit and monitor the Wikipedia pages of my fellow ministers. My ministry grew; we were never short of work.

And yet, policing social media felt like trying to empty out an ocean with a bucket. By the end of the first month, there were six Facebook pages pretending to be the PMO’s official page. We’d ask for one to be taken down, two more would pop up. Ram Lakhan Yadav could have started a TV channel, there were so many different clips of him engaging in carnal contact with members of both sexes. (‘All doctored, this is a conspiracy against me. I think the CIA is involved, samjhay na?’) Mrs Goel had a fan club bigger than Scarlett Johansson, and horror of horrors, there were even people attacking me on Twitter, the audacity of it.

It got worse. Three big corruption scandals broke out via social media in month 2 of the government. I felt a certain schadenfreude at that, and was secretly gleeful that they happened at ministries I was denied. Meanwhile, the PMO was frantic. I told Rameshwaram that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube all complied with our requests: but there was only so much they could do. ‘Can’t we just stop the internet itself?’ I asked. ‘Let no one in India access it?’

Rameshwaram sighed. ‘I set up a committee to examine the matter,’ he said. ‘But the only thing the bastards on the committee did was surf porn. No, we’re stuck with the internet, I’m afraid. Find another solution.’

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I sat with a glass of my favourite single malt at 11pm in my office when I got a new email. The subject: ‘Your naked pictures are now on Twitter.’ I instantly clicked through to the link provided, but Twitter didn’t open, some other site did, and then my computer went blank. So did I. You have seen the video by now on YouTube: I stood up, punched the monitor off the desk, threw my glass of single malt across the room, slammed my phone down on the ground and banged the wall saying ‘Shit, Shit, Shit.’ (All this while my peon was shooting the action like he’s Govind Nihalani.) Yes, I banged that wall, till my fists bled and I was sobbing. I never thought it would come to this, that I would be a minister in the biggest democracy in the world, and I would. Feel. So. So. So. Helpless.


Previously on Lighthouse:

The Language of Indian Politics
Politics and the Sociopath
A Godless Congregation

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 May, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

The Bombzooka Question

I have three hypothetical questions for you guys. Humour me and try and read all the way through.

One. Knives can be used to kill people. They can also be used to cut vegetables. But because they enable murder, to users so inclined, should they be banned? Or is that an abrogation of individual freedom?

Two. Guns can be used to kill people. They can also be used for self defence. Should they be banned, or is that a violation of your rights?

Three. Bombzookas are a new invention of mine. I’ve created an easily mass-produced semi-nuclear device that can be sold over the counter in retail outlets everywhere, like knives. A Bombzooka destroys everything within 20 square km of it. It’s easy to use—you can place it somewhere and activate it via mobile phone—and obviously lethal. Like knives and guns, it can be used to kill people. Should Bombzookas be banned, or is that a violation of your rights?

The answers to my first and third questions should be uniform, regardless of what ideology you believe in. Even the most ardent libertarian would surely agree that Bombzookas should be banned. The strongest supporter of gun control would agree that knives should be legal. The inevitable dispute over the second question, of gun control, thus seems to me to simply be about where we draw the line between a knife and a bombzooka? It hinges on the quantum of damage the instrument can cause. In other words, it isn’t about principle at all, provided we accept that Bombzookas should not be sold over the counter.


*  *  *

As for where I personally stand on gun control, well, I’m a libertarian but I’m happy that guns aren’t sold over the counter in India. If they were, someone would have put a bullet through my head in some underground poker game or the other at some point in time. ‘You busted my aces again. Blam!’ Or suchlike.

I can probably construct an elaborate argument for my position, but I’m feeling too lazy right now. So shoot me.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 December, 2012 in Freedom | Small thoughts

A Tale of Two Cities

I was on a CNN-IBN show earlier this evening, where the topic under discussion was the arrest of two girls over a Facebook post one of them made (and the other one ‘liked’) about how the city should not be shut down just because Bal Thackeray had died. The channel seemed to be treating it as if the event was out of the ordinary. It wasn’t. It was same-old, same-old, in two distinct ways.

One, it illustrates the legacy that Thackeray has left behind. In my mind, Bombay and Mumbai are two separate entities: Bombay is a thriving cosmopolitan city which embraces immigrants and the entrepreneurial energy they bring with them, and is a harmonious melting pot of cultures. Mumbai is an intellectually repressed place, the creation of a divisive demagogue that thrives on intolerance. These two girls were arrested in Mumbai, the city that Thackeray built. Bombay is the city some of us cherish and are trying to save. And even though Thackeray might himself now be dead, his dangerous legacy clearly lives on.

Two, while in the studio they kept discussing Section 66 of the IT Act, the truth is that the problem is a broader one than just social media and the IT Act. The Indian Penal Code contains sections that are just as draconian, such as Sections 295 (a), 153 (a) and 124 (a), and Article 19 (2) of the Indian constitution lays down caveats to free speech, such as “public order” and “decency and morality”, which are open to interpretation and, thus, to misuse. It’s sad, but our constitution does not give free speech the same kind of protection that, say, the First Amendment of the US constitution does, and our laws, many of them framed in colonial times, allow authorities to clamp down on free speech whenever they so desire. (For more, read: ‘Don’t Insult Pasta.’) It’s not just the IT Act that is a problem here.

So Thackeray is dead, and free speech is ailing. Such it goes.

Also read

Bal Thackeray’s Poisonous Legacies—Rohit Chopra
Fear and Loathing in Mumbai—Vinay Sitapati
Why I can’t pay tribute to Thackeray—Markandey Katju
Thackeray could have done so much more for Marathis—Aroon Tikekar

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 November, 2012 in Freedom | India | News

The Gathering Birds

‘Before anyone else was interested in the ornithology of terror he saw the gathering birds,’ Salman Rushdie writes about himself in Joseph Anton.

Something new was happening here: the growth of a new intolerance. It was spreading across the surface of the earth, but nobody wanted to know. A new word had been created to help the blind remain blind: Islamophobia. To criticize the militant stridency of this religion in its contemporary incarnation was to be a bigot. A phobic person was extreme and irrational in his views, and so the fault lay with such persons and not with the belief system that boasted over one billion followers worldwide. One billion believers could not be wrong, therefore the critics must be the ones foaming at the mouth. When, he wanted to know, did it become irrational to dislike religion, any religion, even to dislike it vehemently? When did reason get redescribed as unreason? When were the fairy stories of the superstitious placed above criticism, beyond satire? A religion was not a race. It was an idea, and ideas stood (or fell) because they were strong enough (or too weak) to withstand criticism, not because they were shielded from it. Strong ideas welcomed dissent. “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill,” wrote Edmund Burke. “Our antagonist is our helper.” Only the weak and the authoritarian turned away from their opponents and called them names and sometimes wished to do them harm.

It was Islam that had changed, not people like himself, it was Islam that had become phobic of a very wide range of ideas, behaviors, and things.

Read the full thing. I know people who are turned off by the stylistic flourishes of his novels, but Joseph Anton brims with clarity and insight, and is well worth your time.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 October, 2012 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom

First Lessons

The quote of the day comes from Thomas Sowell:

The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.

I got the quote from an excellent piece by David Boaz on the fallacies in many arguments for a bigger role for the state: The Empty Case for Big Government. Read the full thing.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 October, 2012 in Economics | Freedom | Politics

Small Brother is Watching You

Some people demonize CCTV as something as a threat to our privacy, as a tool for ostensible Big Brothers everywhere to potentially be watching us. But in many ways, I think they can do just the opposite: they can empower common people, and act as a check on oppressors, who thrive on controlling the flow of information. As an example, check out this video below, which compiles CCTV footage to show the following sequence of events:

1] Rabia Imran, daughter of Shahbaz Sharif, visits a bakery in Lahore on a Sunday morning. The bakery is closed.

2] One of her minions gets it opened. There’s a sweeper inside, who informs Rabia that the shop will open in the afternoon, and he obviously can’t sell her anything right away.

3] But Rabia needs her sugar kick. She needs it now.

4] She calls another minion. The two minions take the sweeper aside and slap him around. They leave.

5] A few hours later, three more minions, accompanied by uniformed cops, come to the bakery.

6] They take the sweeper outside and thrash him.

7] Then, with the police watching, they bundle him into a van. A few hours later, we are informed, he is dropped off bearing marks of severe assault.

And all this is on CCTV, undeniably there. They can’t even deny it.

Of course, you could argue, so what, we all know this happens, this is hardly a revelation. True. But I think there is a possibility that if Big Brother knows that Small Brother is watching, he might be inclined to behave just a little better. So thank goodness for all the tools of surveillance and of spreading information that empower all of us.

*  *  *

I hardly need to add that even though this particular footage is from Pakistan, this kind of attitude and behaviour is endemic in India as well. We’re also a developing nation with a feudal mindset. No?

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 October, 2012 in Freedom | Politics

Ban Nudity! Ban Nightlife!

Our right-wing lunatics are so funny sometimes that it’s hard to hate them. Balbir Punj has a bizarre (but typical, so maybe not so bizarre) rant up on the New Indian Express about how Western values are ruining our country. His arguments are so priceless that you have the read the whole thing, I can’t just excerpt for WTFness. Among other things, he thinks that ‘nudity’ and ‘nightlife’ are “Western aberrations”, and rants against same-sex unions on the grounds that they only take place for ‘pleasure’, which, in his opinion, is a bad thing. Punj has it exactly the wrong way around: the rising divorce rates he rails against are, in my opinion, something to celebrate, and the decline of family values is a damn good thing.

Ooh, I can imagine Punj choking on his coffee if he reads this. But wait, coffee must surely also be a Western aberration, no?

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 February, 2012 in Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF

India’s Second Freedom Struggle

This is the 37th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on June 23.

It was both ironic and poignant when, a few days ago, Anna Hazare remarked that his crusade for the Lokpal Bill was akin to a second freedom struggle for India. Hazare is fighting against the right things in the wrong way: as I wrote a few weeks ago, corruption arises from an excess of government power; creating an alternate center of power, as the Lokpal Bill attempts to do, which is neither accountable nor democratically elected, solves nothing. That said, Hazare’s rhetoric, borrowed from the likes of C Rajagopalachari from decades past, was correct: India does need a second freedom struggle.

Every nation is a work in progress, but India is more so because our independence was a job half finished. In 1947, we gained freedom from the British—but not from oppression. As the country heaved a long sigh of relief at gaining political independence, a new set of brown sahibs took over from the white ones. The great hope of this new democracy was that it would lead to a government that would serve us—but we found ourselves with one that continued to rule us, with laws either directly retained from the British, or even more oppressive than those that existed before. We were colonized by our own people, and eventually enslaved by ways of thinking that saw a mai-baap government as the solution to all our problems—even when it was often the source of them.

There is no Mahatma Gandhi to lead this second freedom struggle, and most Indians, complacent with how things are, would not even think it is required. But if it was to take place, what would its aims be? What would it fight to change? The goal of that first freedom struggle was to free ourselves of a colonial power; the aim of this notional second freedom struggle should be to drastically reform the system that denies us freedom in so many areas of our lives. From the classical liberal/libertarian perspective, here are a few things I’d love a second freedom struggle to strive to achieve.

One: Limit the power of government

As things stand, we are ruled by a government as oppressive as the British were. Ideally, the function of governments should be to protect our rights and provide basic services. But our government is a bloated behemoth whose tentacles, like a modern-day Cthulhu, extend into every area of our lives. This is hardly surprising: those in power are always looking for ways to extend their power, and government, if adequate safeguards are not in place, just grows and grows and grows. This is exactly what has happened in India—our government functions like an officially sanctioned mafia, controlling our lives and curtailing our freedom. It’s all a bit of a scam.

Two: Unleash Private Enterprise. Remove the License and Permit Raj

The liberalisation India carried out in 1991 was a half-hearted one, forced upon us by a balance of payments crisis and not out a genuine desire for change. The reforms halted once the crisis eased, and the License and Permit Raj largely remains in place. It has stopped us, in the past, from being the manufacturing superpower we should naturally have been, given the abundance of cheap labour in this country. It continues to act as a huge shackle on private industry: I’ve pointed out earlier the abominable fact that you need 165 licenses to open a hotel in India, including ““a special licence for the vegetable weighing scale in the kitchen and one for each of the bathroom scales put in guest rooms.” Every businessman in India has to go through surreal hurdles to go about his work, and given that businesses exists to fulfil the needs of the people, for how else can they make profits, it is doubly criminal of an inept government to stand in the way of private enterprise. In the areas where it has been allowed to operate, look at the impact private enterprise has had: consider how many years it took to get a telephone from the state-owned MTNL in the 1980s, and how quickly you can get one today. We are a resourceful people, and every problem of India can be solved by private citizens—if they’re allowed that freedom.

Three: Reform the Indian Penal Code

The IPC is an abomination created by the British in the 19th century to make it easier for them to rule us, and to impose their Victorian morality on us. That it still exists is a disgrace. It contains ridiculous laws like Section 295 (a), which makes it a crime to “outrage religious feelings or any class” and Section 153 (a), which criminalizes any act “which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility”: both of these have been used to clamp down on free speech in the country. So has Section 124 (a), which aims to punish anyone who “brings or attempts to bring or provoke a feeling of hatred, contempt or disaffection towards government established by law,” and could be applied to this column, as these laws are open to interpretation and discretion. Section 377, which effectively criminalised homosexuality, has thankfully been overthrown in a court of law, but other archaic laws remain on the books, including some that punish victimless crimes. Many of these threaten our freedom directly.

Four: Ensure Free Speech in India

The IPC alone cannot be blamed for the absence of free speech in India. Our constitution itself does not protect it, and while Article 19 (1) (a) pays lip service to it, Article 19 (2) introduces caveats to it under the guise of “public order” and “decency and morality”. Practically anything one says could be a threat to public order, depending on how it is interpreted, which makes it easy for those in power to clamp down on those without. If we don’t even have freedom of expression, how can we call ourselves a truly free country?

Five: Respect Taxpayer’s Money

I run a series on my blog called “Where Your Taxes Go”, chronicling the various absurd ways in which our tax money is spent by government. These including paying the salaries of 22,800 fake employees of the Delhi Municipality, a Rs 42 crore mansion for Mayawati on “a sprawling 1,00,000 sq foot area”, a school for monkeys, the sponsorship of second honeymoons for people who delay having children, and, most recently, on a newspaper advertisement where the chief minister of Karnataka challenges his predecessor to do ‘God promise’ on certain allegations he made. (Yes, you can’t make this stuff up.) Governments need taxes to exist, but if you strip our government down to its necessary functions, you might find that we will pay a miniscule percentage of what we actually pay now.

It’s ironic that Mahatma Gandhi’s famous Dandi March was held in protest against an unfair tax; most taxes today are far more draconian. Sit down sometime and calculate what percentage of your income goes into taxes: if you pay 33%—chances are you end up paying more, if you include indirect taxation—it means that until the end of April every year, you are effectively earning for the government. This is freedom?

Six: Treat the Right to Property as Sacred

In 1978, the 44th amendment removed the right to property from our list of fundamental rights. Even had this not happened, the poor of India are habituated to having their property snatched from them: eminent domain has long been used by corrupt governments in a crony capitalism system to line their own pockets. One of our biggest problems is that even after so many decades of independence, clear land titles do not exist in many parts of the country. (My fellow columnist, Mohit Satyanand, wrote about this a few weeks ago, as did Devangshu Datta in an old piece.) This makes it ridiculously easy for a ruling government to infringe on the rights of its poor people—and it stands as a huge impediment to economic growth.

Seven: Reform Schooling

The state of education in this country makes for black comedy: the government pours more and more money into education, and after decades of this, the results remain dismal. There are various complex reasons for this government dysfunction, but a huge one is that the private sector is hugely constrained from entering this area. As I wrote in this old piece, even desperately poor people have shown a preference for those low-cost private schools that do manage to exist, despite governmental hurdles, than inefficient government ones. It is ironic and tragic that while private enterprise is allowed to flourish in trivial areas of our lives, like the production of shampoos and potato chips, it is constrained from competing with the government in this most crucial field. I am not recommending that the government stop spending money on education: just allow private enterprise to flourish as well. Consider the cost and quality of air travel in India when we only had Indian Airlines at our service—and look at what it has become today. Isn’t education far more crucial to our progress as a nation?

Eight: Reform Agriculture

We romanticize the farmer, and we want to keep him poor. It is shocking that 60% of our countrymen work in the agricultural sector: the equivalent figure for most developed countries is in single digits. There are various reasons for this, one of many being that farmers are not allowed to sell agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. This prevents an escape route for many farmers, and also hampers industrial growth in many parts of the country, which would automatically provide alternative avenues of employment. More industrialisation would lead to more urbanisation and greater economic growth, but we hamper this process right at the start. It is a vicious circle that traps poor farmers in poverty. As Manmohan Singh once said, “our salvation lies in getting people to move out of agriculture.” He is right, which is ironic, given that he is our prime minister and is doing exactly nothing in terms of reforming that sector. Words come so easy.

I can think of many other worthy aims, such as making government more local and less centrally directed, so that it is more responsive and accountable, and reforming our legal system. I’m sure you can add to this list. But at one level, India’s second freedom struggle remains a pipe dream. We are a nation colonized by the religion of government, and we display a lazy reverence for it. We look for specific quick fixes to problems, instead of recognising that many of them emanate from structural issues with our system of government—and from how we think about it. What is worse is that we largely do not even think of ourselves as unfree—so who needs a freedom movement then? Do we? What do you think?

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Also read: this similar wishlist from another time.

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My thanks to Shruti Rajagopalan, Parth Shah, Arun Simha, Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan, Salil Tripathi, Deepak Shenoy and Gautam John for providing inputs to this piece.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 June, 2011 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics | Viewfinder

To Hell With Family Values

This is the 35th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on May 26.

As news items go, this one is both absurd and sad: the authorities in Bhakti Park, a 90-acre-complex in Wadala consisting of 24 buildings, have banned its residents from going to the terrace. The reason for this is two separate incidents, in different parts of the city, of housewifes pushing their kids off the building, and then jumping themselves. By cutting off access to the terrace, these authorities presume, they can prevent such copycat suicides.

I’d assume that if someone wanted to pop themselves, they could easily find other ways of doing so, like jumping off their own balcony. But leave aside methodology: while these recent incidents are tragic and poignant, and unusual in that they involved the murder of children, they are not an anomaly. Almost every day, you can open the newspapers and read about some housewife somewhere killing herself. (It is so commonplace that I wonder if it should be even considered ‘news’.) A week ago, in fact, my fellow Yahoo! columnist Deepak Shenoy pointed me to a rather telling statistic: going by data for 2009 (pdf link)—there’s no reason it should be any different today—around 20% of the people committing suicide in India were housewives.  Indeed, many more housewives commit suicide every year in India than farmers, despite all the hoo-ha around the latter.

For all this, I blame ‘family values’.

We Indians tend to pride ourselves on our family values. The typical middle-class Indian is brought up with the default programming that they’ll get married in their early-to-mid 20s, have kids within a few years of marriage, and have steady settled careers in conventional professions. This default programming is horrible for women. Many of these women who killed themselves no doubt grew up daydreaming about the domestic bliss that lay ahead of them. They did not try—or were subtly discouraged from trying—to turn themselves into proud independent women who did not depend on others for subsistence, and whose self-esteem did not need validation from a man and his family. They duly got married, some of them had kids, and when the marriage went bad, when the man turned out to be an ass, they could not find a way out. Even if they could have supported themselves, what about the social stigma of a broken marriage? And so, in dispair, they walked up to the terrace.

A few years ago, I’d written a piece titled ‘We Should Celebrate Rising Divorce Rates.’ I continue to get more hate mail for that piece than any other I’ve written, but I couldn’t stand by it more strongly. As I wrote then, rising divorce rates are “the single best statistical indicator we have of the empowerment of women.” If divorce was easy and socially acceptable, and if every father in the country brought up his daughter to be independent, we’d have far fewer housewives committing suicide. Indeed, we’d have far fewer men taking their wives for granted and treating them like shit. Marriage would not, then, be the prison it is for so many women.

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I know many couples, married and otherwise, who have decided not to have any children—much as I have. It exasperates us all a little to be questioned about this. Being a parent transforms your life, and limits the options open to you in terms of career and lifestyle—especially for women. The question ‘Why?’ to my mind should really be asked to those making this huge choice, rather than to those who choose not to have kids. Not having kids should be the default.

Of course, this will never be the case as natural selection has programmed us to be procreating machines, and too many of my friends go oooh, how cuuuute when they see a noisy, messy baby I would be glad to deposit inside a mixie. But that’s okay. We’ve all got a right to make our choices—just don’t look at me as if I’m nuts when I tell you I don’t want to be a father.

Indeed, speaking of producing kids, you could say that I enjoy the journey but never want to get to the destination. Natural selection, go screw yourself!

Also read: Philip Larkin’s great poem, ‘This be the Verse’.

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I’d also love to see the day when marriage is no longer so sacrosanct in India. If two people are in love, what is it between them that a piece of paper can change? Either they’re committed to each other, in which case who needs it registered in a government office, or they’re not quite that committed, in which case why trap yourself? And why marry someone without living with them first to see if it works? Would you buy a car without test-driving it, or a pair of headphones without checking out the sound first? Isn’t selecting a spouse a far more important decision?

The only plausible reason to get married is if you want to have kids and being married makes it easier for them in a society like India’s. Otherwise, as an expression of love, it seems a bit overblown to me. Is it insecurity, and a need to assuage it, that drives some of us to marriage? Is that a good reason?

My arguments aren’t prescriptive, of course. You have to do what works for you. Just think about it first, is all I’m saying.

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A final thought on that database of suicides that I linked to earlier in the piece. If you go through it carefully, many interesting narratives come up. One of them is this: despite more than 60% of our population being involved in the agricultural sector, only about 14% of people committing suicide are farmers. That would indicate that, despite the rhetoric of the likes of P Sainath and Pankaj Mishra, there is less average misery among farmers than among non-farmers. So however many anecdotes they may come up with about farmers driven to kill themselves by unscrupulous moneylenders, the fact remains that the plural of anecdotes is not data. And the data tells quite a different story.

But that’s a subject for another column on another day, so I’ll let it pass for now.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 May, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Viewfinder

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