Category Archives: The Rationalist
This is the 19th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
A friend of mine was very impressed by the interview Narendra Modi granted last week to Akshay Kumar. ‘Such a charming man, such great work ethic,’ he gushed. ‘He is the kind of uncle I would want my kids to have.’ And then, in the same breath, he asked, ‘How can such a good man be such a bad prime minister?”
I don’t want to be uncharitable and suggest that Modi’s image is entirely manufactured, so let’s take the interview at face value. Let’s also grant Modi his claims about the purity of his neeyat (intentions), and reframe the question this way: when it comes to public policy, why do good intentions often lead to bad outcomes? To attempt an answer, I’ll refer to a story a friend of mine, who knows Modi well, once told me about him.
Modi was chilling with his friends at home more than a decade ago, and told them an incident from his childhood. His mother was ill once, and the young Narendra was tending to her. The heat was enervating, so the boy went to the switchboard to switch on the fan. But there was no electricity. My friend said that as he told this story, Modi’s eyes filled with tears. Even after all these years, he was moved by the memory.
My friend used this story to make the point that Modi’s vision of the world is experiential. If he experiences something, he understands it. When he became chief minister of Gujarat, he made it his stated mission to get reliable electricity to every part of Gujarat. No doubt this was shaped by the time he flicked a switch as a young boy and the fan did not budge. Similarly, he has given importance to things like roads and cleanliness, since he would have experienced the impact of those as a young man.
My term for him, inspired by Rajat Kapoor’s 2014 film, is ‘the ankhon dekhi prime minister’. At one level, this is a good thing. He sees a problem and works for the rest of his life to solve it. But what of things he cannot experience?
The economy is a complex beast, as is society itself, and beyond a certain level, you need to grasp abstract concepts to understand how the world works. You cannot experience them. For example, spontaneous order, or the idea that society and markets, like language, cannot be centrally directed or planned. Or the positive-sum nature of things, which is the engine of our prosperity: the idea that every transaction is a win-win game, and that for one person to win, another does not have to lose. Or, indeed, respect for individual rights and free speech.
One understands abstract concepts by reading about them, understanding them, applying them to the real world. Modi is not known to be a reader, and this is not his fault. Given his background, it is a near-miracle that he has made it this far. He wasn’t born into a home with a reading culture, and did not have either the resources or the time when he was young to devote to reading. The only way he could learn about the world, thus, was by experiencing it.
There are two lessons here, one for Modi himself and others in his position, and another for everyone.
The lesson in this for Modi is a lesson for anyone who rises to such an important position, even if he is the smartest person in the world. That lesson is to have humility about the bounds of your knowledge, and to surround yourself with experts who can advise you well. Be driven by values and not confidence in your own knowledge. Gather intellectual giants around you, and stand on their shoulders.
Modi did not do this in the case of demonetisation, which he carried out against the advice of every expert he consulted. We all know the damage it caused to the economy.
The other learning from this is for all of us. How do we make sense of the world? By connecting dots. An ankhon-dekhi approach will get us very few dots, and our view of the world will be blurred and incomplete. The best way to gather more dots is reading. The more we read, the better we understand the world, and the better the decisions we take. When we can experience a thousand lives through books, why restrict ourselves to one?
A good man with noble intentions can make bad decisions with horrible consequences. The only way to hedge against this is by staying humble and reading more. So when you finish reading this piece, think of an unread book that you’d like to read today – and read it!
Posted by Amit Varma on 05 May, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 18th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
The man who gave us our national anthem, Rabindranath Tagore, once wrote that nationalism was “a great menace.” He went on to say, “It is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India’s troubles.”
Not just India’s, but the world’s: In his book The Open Society and its Enemies, published in 1945 as Adolf Hitler was defeated, Karl Popper ripped into nationalism, with all its “appeals to our tribal instincts, to passion and to prejudice, and to our nostalgic desire to be relieved from the strain of individual responsibility which it attempts to replace by a collective or group responsibility.”
Nationalism is resurgent today, stomping across the globe hand-in-hand with populism. In India, too, it is tearing us apart. But must nationalism always be a bad thing? A provocative new book by the Israeli thinker Yael Tamir argues otherwise.
In her book Why Nationalism, Tamir makes the following arguments. One, nation-states are here to stay. Two, the state needs the nation to be viable. Three, people need nationalism for the sense of community and belonging it gives them. Four, therefore, we need to build a better nationalism, which brings people together instead of driving them apart.
The first point needs no elaboration. We are a globalised world, but we are also trapped by geography and circumstance. “Only 3.3 percent of the world’s population,” Tamir points out, “lives outside their country of birth.” Nutopia, the borderless state dreamed up by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, is not happening anytime soon.
If the only thing that citizens of a state have in common is geographical circumstance, it is not enough. If the state is a necessary construct, a nation is its necessary justification. “Political institutions crave to form long-term political bonding,” writes Tamir, “and for that matter they must create a community that is neither momentary nor meaningless.” Nationalism, she says, “endows the state with intimate feelings linking the past, the present, and the future.”
More pertinently, Tamir argues, people need nationalism. I am a humanist with a belief in individual rights, but Tamir says that this is not enough. “The term ‘human’ is a far too thin mode of delineation,” she writes. “Individuals need to rely on ‘thick identities’ to make their lives meaningful.” This involves a shared past, a common culture and distinctive values.
Tamir also points out that there is a “strong correlation between social class and political preferences.” The privileged elites can afford to be globalists, but those less well off are inevitably drawn to other narratives that enrich their lives. “Rather than seeing nationalism as the last refuge of the scoundrel,” writes Tamir, “we should start thinking of nationalism as the last hope of the needy.”
Tamir’s book bases its arguments on the West, but the argument holds in India as well. In a country with so much poverty, is it any wonder that nationalism is on the rise? The cosmopolitan, globe-trotting elites don’t have daily realities to escape, but how are those less fortunate to find meaning in their lives?
I have one question, though. Why is our nationalism so exclusionary when our nation is so inclusive?
In the nationalism that our ruling party promotes, there are some communities who belong here, and others who don’t. (And even among those who ‘belong’, they exploit divisions.) In their us-vs-them vision of the world, some religions are foreign, some values are foreign, even some culinary traditions are foreign – and therefore frowned upon. But the India I know and love is just the opposite of that.
We embrace influences from all over. Our language, our food, our clothes, our music, our cinema have absorbed so many diverse influences that to pretend they come from a single legit source is absurd. (Even the elegant churidar-kurtas our prime minister wears have an Islamic origin.) As an example, take the recent film Gully Boy: its style of music, the clothes its protagonists wear, even the attitudes in the film would have seemed alien to us a few decades ago. And yet, could there be a truer portrait of young India?
This inclusiveness, this joyous khichdi that we are, is what makes our nation a model for the rest of the world. No nation embraces all other nations as ours does. My India celebrates differences, and I do as well. I wear my kurta with jeans, I listen to ghazals, I eat dhansak and kababs, and I dream in the Indian language called English. This is my nationalism.
Those who try to divide us, therefore, are the true anti-nationals. We must reclaim nationalism from them.
Posted by Amit Varma on 14 April, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 17th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
One of my favourite English words comes from chess. If it is your turn to move, but any move you make makes your position worse, you are in ‘Zugzwang’. Narendra Modi was in zugzwang after the Pulwama attacks a few days ago—as any Indian prime minister in his place would have been.
An Indian PM, after an attack for which Pakistan is held responsible, has only unsavoury choices in front of him. He is pulled in two opposite directions. One, strategy dictates that he must not escalate. Two, politics dictates that he must.
Let’s unpack that. First, consider the strategic imperatives. Ever since both India and Pakistan became nuclear powers, a conventional war has become next to impossible because of the threat of a nuclear war. If India escalates beyond a point, Pakistan might bring their nuclear weapons into play. Even a limited nuclear war could cause millions of casualties and devastate our economy. Thus, no matter what the provocation, India needs to calibrate its response so that the Pakistan doesn’t take it all the way.
It’s impossible to predict what actions Pakistan might view as sufficient provocation, so India has tended to play it safe. Don’t capture territory, don’t attack military assets, don’t kill civilians. In other words, surgical strikes on alleged terrorist camps is the most we can do.
Given that Pakistan knows that it is irrational for India to react, and our leaders tend to be rational, they can ‘bleed us with a thousand cuts’, as their doctrine states, with impunity. Both in 2001, when our parliament was attacked and the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee was PM, and in 2008, when Mumbai was attacked and the Congress’s Manmohan Singh was PM, our leaders considered all the options on the table—but were forced to do nothing.
But is doing nothing an option in an election year?
Leave strategy aside and turn to politics. India has been attacked. Forty soldiers have been killed, and the nation is traumatised and baying for blood. It is now politically impossible to not retaliate—especially for a PM who has criticized his predecessor for being weak, and portrayed himself as a 56-inch-chested man of action.
I have no doubt that Modi is a rational man, and knows the possible consequences of escalation. But he also knows the possible consequences of not escalating—he could dilute his brand and lose the elections. Thus, he is forced to act. And after he acts, his Pakistan counterpart will face the same domestic pressure to retaliate, and will have to attack back. And so on till my home in Versova is swallowed up by a nuclear crater, right?
Well, not exactly. There is a way to resolve this paradox. India and Pakistan can both escalate, not via military actions, but via optics.
Modi and Imran Khan, who you’d expect to feel like the loneliest men on earth right now, can find sweet company in each other. Their incentives are aligned. Neither man wants this to turn into a full-fledged war. Both men want to appear macho in front of their domestic constituencies. Both men are masters at building narratives, and have a pliant media that will help them.
Thus, India can carry out a surgical strike and claim it destroyed a camp, killed terrorists, and forced Pakistan to return a braveheart prisoner of war. Pakistan can say India merely destroyed two trees plus a rock, and claim the high moral ground by returning the prisoner after giving him good masala tea. A benign military equilibrium is maintained, and both men come out looking like strong leaders: a win-win game for the PMs that avoids a lose-lose game for their nations. They can give themselves a high-five in private when they meet next, and Imran can whisper to Modi, “You’re a good spinner, bro.”
There is one problem here, though: what if the optics don’t work?
If Modi feels that his public is too sceptical and he needs to do more, he might feel forced to resort to actual military escalation. The fog of politics might obscure the possible consequences. If the resultant Indian military action causes serious damage, Pakistan will have to respond in kind. In the chain of events that then begins, with body bags piling up, neither man may be able to back down. They could end up as prisoners of circumstance—and so could we.
Also check out:
Why Modi Must Learn to Play the Game of Chicken With Pakistan—Amit Varma
The Two Pakistans—Episode 79 of The Seen and the Unseen
India in the Nuclear Age—Episode 80 of The Seen and the Unseen
Posted by Amit Varma on 03 March, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 16th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
Steven Pinker, in his book Enlightenment Now, relates an old Russian joke about two peasants named Boris and Igor. They are both poor. Boris has a goat. Igor does not. One day, Igor is granted a wish by a visiting fairy. What will he wish for?
“I wish,” he says, “that Boris’s goat should die.”
The joke ends there, revealing as much about human nature as about economics. Consider the three things that happen if the fairy grants the wish. One, Boris becomes poorer. Two, Igor stays poor. Three, inequality reduces. Is any of them a good outcome?
I feel exasperated when I hear intellectuals and columnists talking about economic inequality. It is my contention that India’s problem is poverty – and that poverty and inequality are two very different things that often do not coincide.
To illustrate this, I sometimes ask this question: In which of the following countries would you rather be poor: USA or Bangladesh? The obvious answer is USA, where the poor are much better off than the poor of Bangladesh. And yet, while Bangladesh has greater poverty, the USA has higher inequality.
Indeed, take a look at the countries of the world measured by the Gini Index, which is that standard metric used to measure inequality, and you will find that USA, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United Kingdom all have greater inequality than Bangladesh, Liberia, Pakistan and Sierra Leone, which are much poorer. And yet, while the poor of Bangladesh would love to migrate to unequal USA, I don’t hear of too many people wishing to go in the opposite direction.
Indeed, people vote with their feet when it comes to choosing between poverty and inequality. All of human history is a story of migration from rural areas to cities – which have greater inequality.
If poverty and inequality are so different, why do people conflate the two? A key reason is that we tend to think of the world in zero-sum ways. For someone to win, someone else must lose. If the rich get richer, the poor must be getting poorer, and the presence of poverty must be proof of inequality.
But that’s not how the world works. The pie is not fixed. Economic growth is a positive-sum game and leads to an expansion of the pie, and everybody benefits. In absolute terms, the rich get richer, and so do the poor, often enough to come out of poverty. And so, in any growing economy, as poverty reduces, inequality tends to increase. (This is counter-intuitive, I know, so used are we to zero-sum thinking.) This is exactly what has happened in India since we liberalised parts of our economy in 1991.
Most people who complain about inequality in India are using the wrong word, and are really worried about poverty. Put a millionaire in a room with a billionaire, and no one will complain about the inequality in that room. But put a starving beggar in there, and the situation is morally objectionable. It is the poverty that makes it a problem, not the inequality.
You might think that this is just semantics, but words matter. Poverty and inequality are different phenomena with opposite solutions. You can solve for inequality by making everyone equally poor. Or you could solve for it by redistributing from the rich to the poor, as if the pie was fixed. The problem with this, as any economist will tell you, is that there is a trade-off between redistribution and growth. All redistribution comes at the cost of growing the pie – and only growth can solve the problem of poverty in a country like ours.
It has been estimated that in India, for every one percent rise in GDP, two million people come out of poverty. That is a stunning statistic. When millions of Indians don’t have enough money to eat properly or sleep with a roof over their heads, it is our moral imperative to help them rise out of poverty. The policies that will make this possible – allowing free markets, incentivising investment and job creation, removing state oppression – are likely to lead to greater inequality. So what? It is more urgent to make sure that every Indian has enough to fulfil his basic needs – what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in his fine book On Inequality, called the Doctrine of Sufficiency.
The elite in their airconditioned drawing rooms, and those who live in rich countries, can follow the fashions of the West and talk compassionately about inequality. India does not have that luxury.
Posted by Amit Varma on 17 February, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 15th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
It’s election season, and promises are raining down on voters like rose petals on naïve newlyweds. Earlier this week, the Congress party announced a minimum income guarantee for the poor. This Friday, the Modi government released a budget full of sops. As the days go by, the promises will get bolder, and you might feel important that so much attention is being given to you. Well, the joke is on you.
Every election, HL Mencken once said, is “an advance auction sale of stolen goods.” A bunch of competing mafias fight to rule over you for the next five years. You decide who wins, on the basis of who can bribe you better with your own money. This is an absurd situation, which I tried to express in a limerick I wrote for this page a couple of years ago:
POLITICS: 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.’
We’re the dupes here, and we pay far more to keep this circus going than this circus costs. It would be okay if the parties, once they came to power, provided good governance. But voters have given up on that, and now only want patronage and handouts. That leads to one of the biggest problems in Indian politics: We are stuck in an equilibrium where all good politics is bad economics, and vice versa.
For example, the minimum guarantee for the poor is good politics, because the optics are great. It’s basically Garibi Hatao: that slogan made Indira Gandhi a political juggernaut in the 1970s, at the same time that she unleashed a series of economic policies that kept millions of people in garibi for decades longer than they should have been.
This time, the Congress has released no details, and keeping it vague makes sense because I find it hard to see how it can make economic sense. Depending on how they define ‘poor’, how much income they offer and what the cost is, the plan will either be ineffective or unworkable.
The Modi government’s interim budget announced a handout for poor farmers that seemed rather pointless. Given our agricultural distress, offering a poor farmer 500 bucks a month seems almost like mockery.
Such condescending handouts solve nothing. The poor want jobs and opportunities. Those come with growth, which requires structural reforms. Structural reforms don’t sound sexy as election promises. Handouts do.
A classic example is farm loan waivers. We have reached a stage in our politics where every party has to promise them to assuage farmers, who are a strong vote bank everywhere. You can’t blame farmers for wanting them – they are a necessary anaesthetic. But no government has yet made a serious attempt at tackling the root causes of our agricultural crisis.
Why is it that Good Politics in India is always Bad Economics? Let me put forth some possible reasons. One, voters tend to think in zero-sum ways, as if the pie is fixed, and the only way to bring people out of poverty is to redistribute. The truth is that trade is a positive-sum game, and nations can only be lifted out of poverty when the whole pie grows. But this is unintuitive.
Two, Indian politics revolves around identity and patronage. The spoils of power are limited – that is indeed a zero-sum game – so you’re likely to vote for whoever can look after the interests of your in-group rather than care about the economy as a whole.
Three, voters tend to stay uninformed for good reasons, because of what Public Choice economists call Rational Ignorance. A single vote is unlikely to make a difference in an election, so why put in the effort to understand the nuances of economics and governance? Just ask, what is in it for me, and go with whatever seems to be the best answer.
Four, Politicians have a short-term horizon, geared towards winning the next election. A good policy that may take years to play out is unattractive. A policy that will win them votes in the short term is preferable.
Sadly, no Indian party has shown a willingness to aim for the long term. The Congress has produced new Gandhis, but not new ideas. And while the BJP did make some solid promises in 2014, they did not walk that talk, and have proved to be, as Arun Shourie once called them, UPA + Cow. Even the Congress is adopting the cow, in fact, so maybe the BJP will add Temple to that mix?
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” This election season, my friends, the people of India are on the menu. You have been deveined and deboned, marinated with rhetoric, seasoned with narrative – now enter the oven and vote.
Posted by Amit Varma on 03 February, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
A slightly shorter version of this was published as the 14th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
Whenever the pressures of the world get too much for me, I lighten the burden by going over to Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. Trump, the only president who would fail the Turing Test, keeps lashing out at opponents and saying outrageous things, often in ALL-CAPS, the internet version of screaming. It’s wonderfully entertaining, and got even more so when he lashed out at Narendra Modi last week.
Trump said: “I could give you an example where I get along very well with India and Prime Minister Modi. But he is constantly telling me, he built a library in Afghanistan. Library! That’s like five hours of what we spend. And he tells me. He is very smart. We are supposed to say, oh thank you for the library. Don’t know who’s using it in Afghanistan.”
Modi fanbois also tend to be Trump fanbois because they like macho men, and this must have been confusing to them at multiple levels. One, why was Trump lashing out at Modi? Two, if Trump is telling the truth, why does Modi keep boasting about building a library? Three, what library?
After much googling in the PMO, our officials figured that despite having spent over US$ 3 billion in Afghanistan since 2001, we hadn’t built a library. Maybe Trump confused the parliament building with a library – but it was unlikely that Modi would boast to Trump even about that, especially ‘constantly.’ So Trump was lying, right?
No, Trump wasn’t lying, I say. He was bullshitting.
I’m not just dropping slang here. ‘Bullshit’ may appear to be a pejorative, but it has become a technical term after the philosopher Harry Frankfurt published his seminal book, On Bullshit, in 2005. And if we are to understand the likes of Trump, it is important to understand the distinction between ‘bullshit’ and ‘lies’.
A liar, as per Frankfurt, acknowledges the truth, and aims to deceive. For a bullshitter, the truth is irrelevant. Bullshitters aim not to deceive, but are just winging it, saying whatever comes into their head at a given point in time, which may or may not be true. For Trump, everything comes down to how macho he is, and how others are messing around at America’s expense and only he can stop them. His boast about Modi ‘constantly’ talking to him about a library was in this vein. He could also have said that Modi wears ladies underwear, or Modi begged him to open a casino in Lutyen’s Delhi, or Modi wore a suit with his name on it – any relationship that bullshit has with the truth is usually coincidental.
Trump bullshits a lot – and then doubles down on his bullshit once he has released it. For example, the wall that Mexico will pay for. I am sure he was winging it when he first came up with it.
Ironically, his latest target is a master bullshitter himself. When Modi spoke of the first plastic surgery in India being done on Lord Ganesha, or climate change being a consequence of people getting older, he wasn’t lying but bullshitting. He is not educated or knowledgeable enough to know the truth in any of those cases, so it does not matter to him. And it seems not to matter to any of us either.
Politicians can get away with bullshit (and lying) because people don’t care about facts. We tend to form echo chambers with like-minded people, form whatever worldview appeals to us, and shut ourselves off from conflicting views.
Behavioural scientists point to hard-wiring in the brain that strengthens this process. The Confirmation Bias ensures that we only consider facts that agree with our worldview and ignore the rest. The Backfire Effect, worryingly for fact-checkers, ensures that our worldviews actually grow stronger when we are presented with conflicting evidence.
These echo chambers, once formed, tend to grow more and more strident. Experiments by social scientists have found that when people with similar opinions are thrown together in a group, they tend to take decisions more extreme than any one individual would take. (This is known as ‘group polarisation’.) You see this in social media, where discourse is polarised and opposing sides are talking past each other, not to each other, with every individual performing to impress his own side.
When all discourse takes place along tribal lines, rhetoric matters, facts don’t.
Is bullshit a feature or a bug? An entire nation will vote upon it this year, as India goes to the polls. Narendra Modi has focussed entirely on optics and not on performance, betting that once people have formed a narrative inside their heads, facts are irrelevant. Is an A+ in campaigning more important than a F in governance? We will soon find out what the people of India think.
Posted by Amit Varma on 06 January, 2019 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 13th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
The late farmer leader Sharad Joshi used to enjoy reciting a poem that described the Indian farmer’s plight perfectly. It addresses the non-farmer from the farmer’s point of view, and it goes:
Marte hum bhi hain. Marte tum bhi ho.
Marte hum bhi hain, marte tum bhi ho.
Hum sasta bech ke marte hain,
Tum mahanga khareedke marte ho.
I would translate it thus:
I die, my friend, and so do you.
I die, my friend, and so do you.
I sell my produce cheap, and die.
You pay so much that you die too.
This beautiful shair expresses an old truth that many investigative journalists wrote about anew this week, as protesting farmers congregated on Delhi: the gap between what farmers get for their produce, and what the consumer pays. One report revealed that a farmer sold tomatoes at Rs 2 per kg, and consumers bought them for Rs 20. Too little; and too much. Both the farmers and consumers were getting killed by this, just like in the poem.
Joshi’s insight in the late 1970s was that this was caused not by the greed of middlemen, but the interference of the Indian state. The state had set forth rules that the farmer could not sell his produce in an open market, responding to supply and demand, but only to a government-appointed body called the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC). Because the farmers are not allowed to sell to anyone else, they are forced to take the price offered to them. And because all produce comes through the APMC, buyers also have no bargaining power.
Now imagine what would happen if the free market was allowed to operate. Middlemen would compete to buy goods from farmers, and that competition would ensure that farmers would get a better price. They would also compete for customers, this ensuring that customers would pay less. Instead of farmers selling for Rs 2 and the consumer buying for Rs 20, you could have the farmer selling for Rs 10 and the consumer buying for Rs 12. Both farmer and consumer would benefit by Rs 8 per KG. But the government does not allow this, and both farmers and consumers get hurt.
Joshi referred to this notional cost paid by the farmer as a ‘negative subsidy’. He viewed it, correctly, as theft. The issue here is not that farmers are hard up and the government is not helping them. The issue is that the government is responsible for the poverty of the farmer, and is stealing from him. And this is not the only way that the government is crippling our farmers.
Farmers are not allowed access to markets in anything they do. The state doesn’t allow free markets in inputs, because of which many of the inputs a farmer needs, from seeds to fertilisers to energy to even credit, are either hard to come by or of a low quality. And when they do manage to produce crops, they are not allowed to get the best price for it, as an open market would enable. By denying them freedom, the state effectively imprisons our farmers in what a friend of mine calls PPP: Perpetually Planned Poverty.
This extends not just to their produce, but to their property. Farmers are not allowed to sell their land for non-agricultural purposes. This restricts their market to other farmers, and ensures that the price they can get for their land is so low that it becomes pointless to sell. It has been estimated that some farmland would be forty times as valuable if this law did not exist.
Indeed, a common scam is for a crony of the state to acquire land from farmers, through the state, at low prices, and then get the land-use certificate changed so that they can sell at many multiples of that price. All perfectly legal – and deeply unethical. This is how Robert Vadra was alleged to have made his money, in fact.
Every political party in our history has let our farmers down, but there is a reason things are coming to a head now. India is already facing a jobs crisis, made worse by the deepening of the agricultural crisis. With every generation, land holdings get smaller – one farmer’s land is split among multiple children – and more and more unsustainable. It is no coincidence that many recent popular uprisings have been around demand for jobs from land-owning castes like like Jats, Patidars and Marathas.
Indian agriculture has been in crisis for decades. More than 50% of our country is in the agricultural sector, producing 14% of our GDP. In developing countries, less than 10% of the population works in agriculture. Here, we have trapped our farmers in poverty, and also not allowed the industrial revolution that would have provided an escape route. We pay lip service to farmers, but instead of making the necessary structural reforms, we give handouts like farm loan waivers that provide only temporary relief.
It is like handing aspirin to a burning man. “Here,” we say, “take this for the pain.” And everybody claps.
* * *
Also check out:
The State of Our Farmers—Epsiode 86 of The Seen and the Unseen, featuring farmer leader Gunvant Patil.
We Must Save Our Farmers — Amit Varma
Free the Farmers — Barun Mitra
The Crisis in Indian Agriculture — Brainstorm discussion on Pragati
Entry and Exit in Agriculture — Episode 1 of The Seen and the Unseen
The Farmer Rolls the Dice — Episode 12 of The Seen and the Unseen
The Unseen Effects of Farm Loan Waivers — Episode 25 of The Seen and the Unseen
Down to Earth — The collected writings of Sharad Joshi
Posted by Amit Varma on 09 December, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 12th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
This has been a year of glorious gifts from unelected middle-aged men. The Supreme Court of India is churning out enlightened judgements as if oppression is going out of fashion: Privacy, 377, and now Adultery.
On Thursday, the court struck down Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code. This section read: “Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape, is guilty of the offense of adultery, and shall be punished.”
As the part about the consent of the husband indicates, the law treated women as the property of their husbands, and adultery like a form of theft. Justice DY Chandrachud wrote in his judgement: “The history of Section 497 reveals that the law on adultery was for the benefit of the husband, for him to secure ownership over the sexuality of his wife. It was aimed at preventing the woman from exercising her sexual agency.”
As Chandrachud elaborates in his judgement, this has been a ubiquitous attitude towards adultery throughout history. Babylon’s ancient Hammurabi Code prescribed that a married woman caught in adultery “be bound to her lover and thrown into the water so that they drown together.” (No such punishment for an unfaithful man, mind you.) Ancient Greco-Roman societies considered adultery to be “a violation of a husband’s exclusive sexual access to his wife,” and Judaic and Christian laws followed a similar logic.
This went beyond ancient times. In 1650, England introduced the death penalty for adultery with the Act for Suppressing the Detestable Sins of Incest, Adultery and Fornication. Section 497, which they later thrust upon this particular colony, was an adulterated version of this.
In the 21st century, no law should deny the autonomy and agency of a woman. But what if society itself is regressive, and denies women basic human dignity, as is the case in India? Chandrachud remarks, “Law and Society are intrinsically connected and oppressive social values often find expression in legal structures.” But he adds, “The Constitution, both in text and interpretation, has played a significant role in the evolution of law from being an instrument of oppression to becoming one of liberation.”
One bad law has gone, but we remain a nation in which women are second-class citizens. Firstly, similar laws remain in the books, such as Section 498, which deals with “enticing or taking away or detaining with criminal intent a married woman,” and also treats women as the property of men. Secondly, hell, look at Indian society around you.
Some of us Engish-speaking elite types imagine that things must be getting better because we see so many strong, articulate women around us. But that’s the Selection Bias at play. Outside these circles, women in India are having a tough time. Women still fill government forms that insist on Father’s/Husbands name, as if to establish ownership. One telling metric: female participation in the workforce has actually gone down in the last two decades.
Much of what we call ‘empowerment’ is on the terms of men. So many men signal how modern they are by boasting about how they ‘let’ their wife work, or how they ‘help out’ with domestic chores. They behave as if they deserve a pat of their backs for not beating their wives, and chaining them to the kitchen. We have set the bar so low that not being a monster is now a matter of congratulations.
Men tend to be oblivious of how women carry their gender as a burden. Something I realised recently – and shame on me for being so late to realise it, in my forties – is that my gender is not a factor in my everyday life. I can ignore and take for granted my maleness. But in every single thing a woman does, her gender comes into play. An empty compartment at a train station, the tone of voice in a job interview, the supercilious, sniggering men who always interrupt, whose eyes travel like you know their hands would if they had the license.
Every day, women have to confront and make peace with their own thingness. Every day they find new reasons to question themselves. The ever-present human anxiety about what others think of us is amplified for women, and restraint becomes a reflex.
I have a secondary rant here. Just as the adultery law saw women as the property of men, many of our laws, and parts of our constitution, treat citizens as the property of the state. We are subjects of a mai-baap master, which can regulate our speech and our behaviour. We take this for granted, just as many women take the oppression they face for granted.
We cannot be a free society until we address this. The Supreme Court cannot deliver us from ourselves. No matter how ugly the sight, we must look within.
Also check out:
‘Misogyny is the Oldest Indian Tradition’—Amit Varma
‘Misogyny and Our Legal System’—Episode 58 of The Seen and the Unseen
‘Consent Won a Battle This Week. The War Remains’—Amit Varma
‘I am a Feminist. You should be too’—Amit Varma
‘Claiming Your Space’—Episode 76 of The Seen and the Unseen
Posted by Amit Varma on 30 September, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 11th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
Remember, remember, the sixth of September. In many ways, this date in 2018 is as momentous as August 15, 1947 was. On that day, India gained freedom from a foreign ruler, but Indians remained unfree, subjects of an oppressive Indian state instead of an oppressive colonial one. We were denied so many types of freedom, and took that condition for granted. This week, though, an important sliver of liberty was finally handed to us. This is also Independence Day.
The repeal of Section 377 is an emotional victory, but the tears are bittersweet. The fact remains that it took five unelected men to set this right. In this great democracy of ours, where the voice of the people is supposed to find expression in its politics, not one political party in the last 71 years tried to repeal 377. Parties don’t have principles, only incentives, and all of them behaved this way because they feared that voters would not approve. That tells you what every gay person in this country already knows from lived experience: our society is homophobic. Not just that, our society and the state do not give a damn about Consent.
The central principle of this 377 judgement was Consent: no one has the right to come between two consenting adults. Consent is the foundation of all human rights, and should be the foundation of our Republic. And yet, despite this one historic judgement on one domain of Consent, we remain a land that does not care for this principle.
Consider the arts. We are a country where films made for adults by adults are routinely censored. Books are banned. ‘Objectionable’ art exhibitions are shut down or vandalised. Artists and patrons, consenting adults all, are prevented from enriching each other.
Consider free speech. As in any other marketplace, all of us benefit when there is competition in the marketplace of ideas. And yet, we have laws in the Indian Penal Code, like 295(a) and 153(a), which allow anyone to claim offence and shut free speech down. Like 377, these laws are colonial artefacts. But they are actually validated by the most illiberal part of our Constitution, Article 19(2), which allows caveats to free speech on grounds like ‘public order’ and ‘decency and morality.’ Those are open to interpretation, and anything goes.
Consider food. The government regulates what you may or may not eat. Consider health. You cannot take cannabis for medical use, or any other medicine not approved by a government body. Consider education. You could get arrested for home-schooling your children if you find government schools inadequate, and there are so many restrictions placed on private schools that come between consenting parents and consenting teachers.
Indeed, markets are as big a battleground for Consent as bedrooms or kitchens. If we don’t interfere between consenting adults in a bedroom or kitchen, what moral justification is there for doing so in the marketplace? Every time a voluntary exchange happens between two people, it does so because both people benefit. Life and markets are a positive-sum game. And yet, governments ‘regulate’ and stop voluntary exchanges between consenting adults all the time. Often acting on behalf of entrenched interests, they restrict competition, harming consumers aka citizens, and benefiting cronies.
The most poignant victims of this are our farmers. Our entire agricultural crisis is a result of our farmers having their autonomy snatched away from them. They are the least free of Indians, and are trapped in a cycle of dependency. But this is a subject for another column, perhaps.
71 years after the British left is, we have the mentality of the colonised. We behave as if we are subjects of a mai-baap state, and not its masters. The state should exist to serve us, not the other way around. We give the state a monopoly on violence so that it can protect our rights, not so that it takes them away with the threat of violence. It is not a safeguard for our liberty, but the biggest threat to it.
We got lucky this time with the Supreme Court ruling, but we cannot rely on the court every time. There are too many freedoms to fight for, and unless the parties that run this country see political capital in it, they will not grant us those freedoms. But I have hope.
The outpouring of joy at the repeal of 377 may indicate that things are changing. Have we started caring about each other, and about freedom, a little bit more? Are we beginning to recognise that a nation cannot truly be free until all its citizens are free? Are we going to bring about more trysts with destiny?
Posted by Amit Varma on 09 September, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 10th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
A debate has been conducted in India since the Kerala floods broke, not through words, but through actions. Two different Ideas of India are being debated. They are opposite ideas, and we will soon be called upon to choose one of them.
To get a sense of the first idea, consider the countless heroes who stepped up in Kerala to help the countless victims. As the water levels rose, as homes were submerged and livelihoods destroyed, fisherfolk from across the state turned their boats inwards to help. The most enduring image: Jaisal KP, a fisherman from Mallapuram, bending and offering his back as a ramp for rescued people getting on a boat.
Thousands of volunteers from across the country, even as far away as Kashmir, turned up to volunteer at relief camps. Those locals who escaped the worst of it stopped their Onam shopping to buy relief materials instead. Thousands donated to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund, including an eight-year-girl who had been saving for four years to buy a bicycle. She donated every rupee. In the town of Suntikoppa, the local church, temple and madarsa turned into relief camps, coordinating with each other, as if to say, Our religion is humanity.
What is this Idea of India? It is the idea that we are one people. We celebrate our differences, but we recognise that what holds us together is stronger than anything that pulls us apart. In this India, when the water level rises, no one will ask what your religion, caste, language, state, cuisine or ideology is. They will offer you their hand – or their boat, or their bicycle.
The other Idea of India is filled with hate and anger. One man claimed this was God’s punishment on Kerala because menstruating women had been allowed into the Sabarimala temple. Another claimed that it was God’s punishment on Kerala’s Muslims and Christians for, well, not being Hindu. Another appeal went out for donations only to go to Hindu organisations, which would help only Hindus.
There were those who wanted not only to gloat on Kerala’s misfortune, but to prevent it from getting help. A gentleman, who was later revealed to be a member of the BJP IT Cell, put out a viral video saying that since Kerala did not have too many poor people, there was no need to donate. Another man in an army uniform gave a similar message, only for the army to then declare that the fellow was an imposter.
In all this, the Hindutva Whatsapp factories were active. They circulated images supposedly of RSS people distributing relief, though some of them turned out to be of non-RSS people – including from the communist parties – and the others were old, recycled pictures. Will not help, will not allow others to help, will take credit anyway: this was also the story of the central government.
When the Kerala government asked for aid, the Narendra Modi government gave a pittance, a fraction of what had been asked for and what they had given other states for smaller tragedies. When speculation spread that the UAE government had offered Rs 700 crores as relief, the Modi government said it would not allow the money to go from willing donor to needy recipient. Yes, really.
This is the second Idea of India. Here, we are divided by religion, caste, region, language. We feel schadenfreude, not sympathy, at the pain of others. Here, it is a zero-sum game, and we like to see others fall, as only their falling will help us rise.
I call this the Tukde-Tukde Vision of India. People who think in terms of divisions, who foment hate among their own people—what else can one call them but anti-national? They are betraying both the inclusive entities they claim to speak for: Hinduism and India. I consider them a greater threat to our nation than any terrorism from across the border.
It is true that all Indian politics is identity politics. Every government we have ever had, every party that exists today, has let this nation down. But this ruling party, and the entire Hindutva movement, has hit new lows with the way they actively tried to prevent aid from reaching Kerala. Such malice? Why?
The people they let down were not just the people of Kerala, but the citizens of India. From across the country, the rest of us were watching, and deciding which of these two Ideas of India is dear to us. And just as this debate unfolded through actions, we can make our choice clear through action. Vote wisely next year.
Posted by Amit Varma on 26 August, 2018 in
This is the 9th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
There was outrage on Twitter this week when it was revealed that the union government had spent Rs 4880 crores since 2014 on government advertising. The outrage is justified—but it is not enough. It is not just this amount or this use of government money that we should question, but the whole concept of government spending. And indeed, government action.
We in India seem to think of Government as the solution to all our problems. (I often argue that India’s biggest religion is not Hinduism but the Religion of Government.) We behave as if the State is a benevolent entity with unlimited resources of its own with which it should fulfil all our wishes: ban what we don’t like, build what we want built, spend on what we think are good causes. Statues, loan waivers, awards for sportspeople, ministries for cow protection, and so on.
In all this, we ignore one essential truth: Every act of government is an act of violence.
Think about what the state needs in order to exist: our taxes. Money taken from us by force. No one pays taxes willingly. Without the threat of imprisonment—basically, abduction by the one entity that has a monopoly on violence—there would be no taxpayers. There are two words that mean the act of taking someone’s property without their consent: no wonder people say that Taxation is Theft.
Indeed, it is more than that. Assume that you pay 25% of your income in taxes. That amounts to one-fourth of your time and labour. It means that, for all practical purposes, from January to March every year, you are a slave to the state. Taxation is not just theft, it is part-time slavery.
Contrary to a common canard, everybody pays taxes. Taxes are not just income tax. Your domestic help is parted from her money when she buys a bar of soap. The beggar at the traffic signal near you loses money to the government every time he buys salt. Even inflation—usually caused by the government printing money—is basically a tax on the poor.
I am not arguing that we should pay no taxes and live in anarchy. The state is a necessary evil. We need it to protect our rights, and there is no way around the paradox that by allowing it to exist, we give away some of our rights. The state has to tax us to protect us, and the violence it thus commits is necessary to protect us from greater violence.
Regardless of what your ideology may be, none of what I have said above is contestable. It is plain fact that no one pays taxes willingly, and that the threat of coercion is involved. It is plain fact, thus, that every government action involves violence and coercion. Most people would also accept that some amount of this violence is necessary, for we need the state to protect our rights. The larger question then is, what actions of the state are justified, given the violence involved at every step?
This is where ideology begins. Person One (a libertarian like me) could argue for a minimal state that only protects our rights and nothing else. (If you feel the state should do other things, give me the moral justification for your preferences being funded by money coercively taken from others.) Person Two may advocate a state looking after its less fortunate members, proving free healthcare and education. Person Three may care about national glory, and want to build grand statues. Person Four could argue that building infrastructure is necessary, and has positive externalities.
(It is beside the point, of course, that political parties are driven by imperatives beyond ideology. They need money and votes to exist and win, and when in power, use the state as a tool to reward those who gave them money and votes—always at the expense of us citizens.)
The purpose of this column is not to argue for or against any of those ideologies. I just ask that every time you advocate government action of any kind, remember that the action comes at a cost. That cost is not just a financial cost, but a moral one. That cost involves violence committed on all of us—not just rich industrialists, but also the poorest of the poor.
Can you justify that violence?
Posted by Amit Varma on 05 August, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the 8th installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
Would Aditi Mittal have become a stand-up comedian had she not studied in a girls’ college? Appearing as a guest in the latest episode of my weekly podcast, The Seen and the Unseen, she told me that studying at Sophia College enabled her to perform in front of others with confidence. Had there been boys in her class, she said, she would not have been able to claim the space of the class jester.
This came as a revelation to me, though it should not have. No male comedian would have experienced this; but every woman knows what it is like. Aditi’s point was that even though she was so privileged—born to English-speaking, liberal parents—she began her career facing obstacles her male peers never considered. At least she made it through: there are 235 million people who did not.
One reason for India being such a poor country is that we treat half of our greatest resource—our people—as inferior to the other half. This has a huge cost, which people have recently begun to quantify. Here are some numbers: only 26% of Indian women are in the workforce, next only to Saudi Arabia among G20 countries. A story in the latest issue of the Economist reveals that if female labour participation was as much as of that of men, there would be an additional 235 million women in the workforce. (Even many of those who do work now would be more skilled and productive if treated equally with their brothers in childhood.) According to a 2015 McKinsey study, our GDP could go up by 60% by 2025 if female participation in the workforce matched that of men. (For more, read Namita Bhandare’s outstanding series in IndiaSpend.)
India’s misogyny carries much more than just an economic cost. It is a humanitarian tragedy. No other term suffices when more than half a billion people are treated as subhuman and prevented from reaching their full potential. A recent study named India as the most dangerous country in the world for women, which is no surprise given that women are essentially treated as the property of men. (These cultural attitudes are reinforced by actual laws that take this approach.) Even though we live in the 21st century, our attitudes towards women belong in the 19th. We must fix this.
Let me declare it upfront: I am a feminist. And because that particular F-word has so many shades of meaning, let me define what I mean by it: Feminism is the belief that women deserve the same respect as individuals that men do. The same moral consideration. The same legal rights. My feminism arises out of my belief in the primacy of individual rights, with ‘Consent’ as an absolute value. Indeed, I tell my fellow libertarians that to be libertarian is, by default, to be feminist. A (male) friend of mine even says, “If you are not feminist, you are not a good human being.”
Why does feminism get a bad rap then? This is because just as there are all kinds of human beings, there are all kinds of feminists. Not all stop at the principle of equal rights, and offshoots of feminism can often contradict each other. (Google “gender feminism vs equity feminism.”) Many feminists feed into an identity politics in vogue today, which can be as toxic as the ills it purports to be fighting. Also, the tactics that some feminists employ can make some uncomfortable, such as the recent ‘list’ of alleged sexual offenders in academia, who were to be deemed guilty until proven innocent.
But even that list had an important function, which is the same one that the #MeToo movement highlights: women are angry, and won’t put up with this shit any more. Men seem to be oblivious to the extent and ubiquity of this anger, as well as to the fact that it is justified. Indeed, one central cultural disconnect of our times can be summed up like this: Women are angry. Men are clueless.
This is made worse by the fact that many men who declare themselves to be feminists are just being performative. (Basically, virtue signalling to get laid, as men are hardwired to do.) I find this irritating, but I won’t turn away from declaring my feminism either because of this or because of my discomfort with the tactics of some feminists. The reason for this is twofold: One, women being treated as second-class citizens hurts us all, and diminishes us as human beings. Two, it is a sad truth that because of the power dynamics around us, men can actually make more of a difference than women can, especially when outspoken women are being constantly minimised and mocked.
Therefore, it is imperative for us men to also fight this good fight. Not because of what our ancestors did or how our fellow men behave, but because it is the right thing to do.
* * *
Also check out:
‘Claiming Your Space’—Episode 76 of The Seen and the Unseen
‘These Funny Times’—Episode 75 of The Seen and the Unseen
Posted by Amit Varma on 08 July, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the seventh installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
All around me, the air is filled with the anguished groans of cricket purists. England scored 481 against Australia a few days ago in a one-day match at Trent Bridge, despite a slowdown in which no boundaries were hit in the last four overs. In their previous ODI at the venue, against Pakistan, they had made 444. And it isn’t just this venue: everywhere, it would seem, mishits are going for six, record scores are being posted, and bowlers are settling down in bathtubs to slash their wrists.
The purist lament is simple: for a variety of reasons, the balance between bat and ball has been upset. Heavier bats, shorter boundaries, bad regulations, the malign influence of Twenty20 cricket. “In the good old days,” my friends declaim in sophisticated accents, “cricket was not a spectacle but a contest.” Also, though they do not say this, petrol was two rupees a litre.
As these notional nostalgics collapse at my feet, I want not to console them but to whack them on their unhelmeted heads. “Yes, cricket has changed,” I want to tell them. “But it has changed for the better. Get over yourself. Go watch a game.”
First up, let’s consider why the balance of the game has shifted towards run-scoring. Heavier bats are just part of the reason. The main cause is that batsmen have been forced to develop new skills because of the changed imperatives of T20 cricket. Having ten wickets in hand but only 120 balls in an innings means that the value of a run goes up, the value of a wicket goes down, and the cost of a dot-ball is immense. This mandates greater aggression.
Batsmen have thus developed a wider array of skills than previous generations needed to. (Consider AB deVillier’s 360-degree game.) Fielders are now better than ever in the past, because each run saved is that much more important. And bowlers have also adapted.
That old cliché of T20 cricket being a slugfest where you can replace bowlers with bowling machines is nonsense. Bowlers, who once focussed on restricting runs, have realised that the best way to keep the score down is to take wickets. Attack is the best defence. Modern spinners like Rashid, Chahal, Kuldeep are not scared to flight the ball in search of wickets, in contrast to the flat ODI spin bowling of the past. The top teams in this latest IPL were the ones who bowled to take wickets, not to restrict: consider how MS Dhoni used his CSK fast bowlers.
These skills have migrated to the other forms of the game—and have enriched them. The writer Gideon Haigh, in an episode of my podcast The Seen and the Unseen, once mentioned why he found the 2015 ODI World Cup fascinating. “You got Test match quality bowling—because the only way to slow down batsmen these days is to get them out—and T20 batting skills.” That illustrates how the game has evolved into a deeper, more complex beast—which is a good thing.
And yes, in all this, the ‘balance between bat and ball’ has shifted. But why was the older balance—say from the ‘70s, when 240 was a good score in a 60-over ODI—better in any way? Is it because that’s the one we are used to, and which forms our comfort zone and anchors our expectations?
Here’s a thought experiment: if T20 cricket had been invented before Test cricket, and Tests came later, how would people have responded? Would we wonder what the point of five-day cricket was, without the challenging constraint of having a limited number of balls to score your runs in?
Another thought experiment: if someone introduced a five-day baseball game, or a nine-hour football game, how would people react to them? Would they immediately diss the shorter form?
Beyond the skills argument, there is also a pragmatic reason to celebrate T20 cricket. Few people, even performative purists, have five days to watch a game of cricket these days. Or even one whole day. There are just too many other claimants for your time. Cricket was heading for commercial death when this new form came to the rescue: long enough to pack in immense drama; short enough to finish in an evening. In future, T20s will end up subsidising Test cricket and keeping it alive.
Indeed, I celebrate T20 cricket not because I like it more than Test cricket. They are different sports requiring different skills, and I find it graceless when fans of one sport disparage another. I celebrate it because T20s have enhanced Tests by bringing new skills and strategic learnings into the game. And they will keep Tests alive in commercial terms. That is why every purist should celebrate Twenty20 cricket.
Posted by Amit Varma on 24 June, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the sixth installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
From the way this government behaves, you would think that the people of India are a great danger. A few days ago, the government floated a tender asking for vendors who would build for it a “comprehensive analytics system to monitor and analyse various aspects of social media communication and World Wide Web.” Put simply, a surveillance system that will track all your online activity, and know everything about you, so that you behave. This tender came on the heels of an earlier proposal mooted by Smriti Irani, then the I&B Minister, to regulate online media.
These specific proposals were par for the course. Any government looks for ways to expand its power over its citizens. As much as we should protest these attempts, we should also consider that the real problem lies elsewhere. The biggest danger to our democracy is not one set of people lusting for power, but the mindset that all of us have.
The Indian people still behave as if we are subjects of an empire. We have no rights except those that our rulers are kind enough to grant us, and they are our mai-baap. Yes, since the British left we have a procedure to elect our own rulers – but we remain the ruled.
In a democratic republic, the people should be in charge, and the government should serve. The only legitimate role of the state is to protect the rights of its citizens – that’s what laws are for. And yet, in this inversion of roles that we have accepted, laws become the tool by which our rulers keep us in check. The mere rule of law is never enough for this, and the state always seeks to expand its power with that magic word, ‘regulation’. We accept and encourage this: whenever we see a social or economic problem of any kind, we assume that the solution must lie with government, and demand ‘regulation.’
We need to reverse our thinking. We should regulate the government, and not the other way around.
You should always be suspicious of any sentence with the phrase ‘government regulation’. Most of the time when someone proposes any kind of government regulation, it is something that will harm the common citizen, help a special interest group and expand the power of an oppressive state. Let me explain.
First of all, let’s take for granted that the fundamental role of the state is to protect the rights of its citizens. It has to maintain the rule of law. In any marketplace, whether of goods, services or ideas, this is all it needs to do. Punish cheats and thieves. Enforce contracts. Ensure that all interactions are voluntary and there is no coercion. It needs to do no more than this.
Now, consider what happens when the government decides to ‘regulate’ something in the ‘public interest’. The state is not a benevolent godlike force that works in society’s best interests. Politics is an interplay of power and money, and those in power have always been captured by special interests. There is already a power imbalance in favour of these special interests. To grant the government more power is to increase that imbalance.
Usually, in any market, competition is the best regulation. A common form of government regulation is to increase entry barriers in a marketplace, thus reducing competition. This hurts the consumers – or us common citizens. It helps entrenched special interests.
This is as true of the marketplace of ideas as it is of the marketplace for goods and services. Social and online media are already subject to laws that fight criminal activity—including many laws against free speech that should not exist. Further regulation is an attempt to protect one set of ideas and intimidate another. This reduces the possibility of dissent. This is bad for democracy.
The issue here is not which party happens to be in power at a given time. Whenever you concede a certain set of powers to a government, imagine the worst possible person in charge. It could be Yogi Adityanath or Sonia Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal—whoever you dislike most. The state should have so little power, and such strong checks and balances, that the worst person imaginable being in charge will not be a threat to the nation.
So the next time someone proposes government regulation of any kind, with the most noble rhetoric behind it, raise your voice. It is the natural tendency of the state to try to grab as much power as possible. It is the duty of the citizen to resist.
Posted by Amit Varma on 03 June, 2018 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the fifth installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
I was 17 when I first heard Chris Cornell sing, and I still remember the shock of that moment. The song was Hunger Strike, by a band called Temple of the Dog, and the other vocalist on that song was Eddie Vedder. Cornell and Vedder, with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam respectively, would go on to become the iconic vocalists of their age. Unlike their grunge peers, Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley, they didn’t die young, and actually built a strong body of work.
Wait, strike that: Cornell died last week at the age of 52, and now that I too am on the wrong side of 40, it feels like it was way too young. This column is not a nostalgic musing of a middle-aged man, though. Instead, it’s sparked by something Cornell’s wife Vicky said after he died. He was not the type to commit suicide, she said, and his death was probably caused by an anti-anxiety medicine he was taking called Ativan. The side-effects of Ativan include “paranoid or suicidal thoughts, slurred speech and impaired judgment.” When Vicky spoke to Chris over the phone after his last concert, she said, his speech was slurred.
That mildly tweaking the chemical balance of the brain could turn a person suicidal is not surprising: anti-depressants are so popular because we know you can turn the switch the other way. Indeed, it drives home the fact that what we call our ‘personality’ is actually deeply contingent. It arises from the state of the brain. You damage a tiny part of the brain, or tweak its chemical or hormonal balance, and voila, you have a different person.
Back in the day, the brain wasn’t considered as important as it should be. Bodies supposedly had souls inside them, and people spoke of minds as if they were independent of the brain. We now know that the former is bunkum, and the latter, at best a metaphor.
The most popular case study in neuroscience is probably that of Phineas Gage, a 19th century American railroad worker. When he was 25, an iron rod went through his head, and a large part of his left frontal lobe was destroyed. Miraculously, he survived – but did he survive as himself? His memory and intelligence weren’t affected by his accident, but his personality changed so much that his friends and family described him as “no longer Gage.”
Over the decades, we have learnt that the physical structure of the brain determines personality. For example, sociopathy is not a behavioural defect but a biological one: damage to the amygdala, the part of the brain believed to cause feelings of empathy for others, is the probable culprit. Four percent of us are born sociopaths, though they are over-represented among criminals, bankers, lawyers and politicians. (I’m not joking.) Neuroscientists have even identified parts of the brain that are responsible for spiritual feelings, though I classified being devout as a mental disorder long before I knew this.
The physical structure of the brain is just the start of it. Tweaking the chemical or hormonal balance of the brain can also shape and change personality. That accounts for the popularity of anti-depressants and cognitive super-drugs like Modafinil (which I take occasionally). Similarly, a coffee or sugar high can change behaviour, and hunger or lust can transform us. Most of these processes we are barely beginning to understand, leave alone control, but one day we will be able to shape a child’s personality before its birth using genetic engineering.
The big point I am making here is that what we call our ‘self’ is fragile and accidental. All humans, and their brains, are more or less identical. Tiny differences in our physical brains, and their chemical and hormonal balance, account for who we are. Self-help books teach us that we are all unique, but the truth is that we are basically made of the same matter, differ only in circumstance, and that embracing this truth is the only route to a happiness that is not delusional.
I don’t mean to imply here that Nature is everything. Nurture is as important. As Steven Pinker once wrote, Nature gives us knobs of varying sizes, and Nurture turns them. That underlines, even more, the accidental nature of our identity. We have the brains and bodies that we have; and then, we are born into the circumstances that we are. It’s all just luck.
So the next time you meet a Hindutva nationalist who dreams of Akhand Bharat, ask him if he would have felt the same way if he happened to be born in Lahore and his parents named him Anwar. If the question makes him angry, hand him an Ativan.
But no, in all seriousness, empathise with that dude. There, but for the grace of Luck, stand you.
Posted by Amit Varma on 28 May, 2017 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the fourth installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
A century ago, when India was still a British colony, some of our most prominent freedom fighters were lawyers: Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, Rajagopalachari, Mookerjee and Patel, among others. It is fitting, then, that a few days ago, it was a lawyer who made an eloquent plea for freedom against a government that is arguably as oppressive, and certainly more powerful, than the British were. Remember the name: Shyam Divan.
Divan was arguing against the government’s recent decision to make Aadhaar mandatory for filing income tax returns. Previous challenges to this act, on the basis of the Right to Privacy, were held up in court, and Divan could not make that argument for technical reasons. Instead, he based his argument on a person’s ownership of his own body.
“My fingerprints and iris are my own,” he said. “As far as I am concerned, the State cannot take away my body. Others cannot act in a way that subjects my body to their interests.” Divan argued that the imposition of Aadhaar “completely takes away your political and personal choices. You are a dog on an electronic leash, tagged and tracked, your progress hobbled.”
A person’s body, Divan pointed out, could not be “nationalised.”
This is not a new argument. Divan cited both Enlightenment and modern-day philosophers during his masterful submission, and John Locke was among them. It should be intuitive that all humans own their own bodies, but it was Locke, in the 17th century, who gave the first clear articulation of this: “Every man has a property in his own person. This no Body has any right to but himself.”
What does it mean to own yourself? Well, there are three implications of this. One, for the ‘Right to Self-Ownership’ to have any meaning, you need to respect the corresponding right of others. This leads to what libertarians call ‘The Non-Aggression Principle.’ You cannot initiate violence against another person.
Two, all legitimate rights flow from this right to self-ownership. The right to free speech – for your thoughts are yours, and you should be free to express them. The right to property, which is a result of your labours, and of voluntary exchange. The right to interact with any other consenting adult in any way you wish – economic or personal – that does not hurt anyone else.
Three, because a situation where every person has to fend for themselves is unviable, and likely to be violent, the state is a necessary evil. It commits some violence on the people – for taxes are violence – but only to the minimum extent required to protect our rights. Note that these rights are not granted to us by the state, as if they are favours. Instead, we have these rights to begin with, and we have brought the state into being to protect them. The purpose of the constitution is to limit the power of the state, and not to be, in Divan’s words, “a Charter of Servitude.”
Here, then, are the two visions of the state. The old one, where the people are mere subjects, ruled by the state, for all practical purposes owned by the state. The modern one, in which the state is an instrument of the people, tasked only with protecting their rights.
Deep inside the belly of any modern state, though, is the old one waiting to spring forth. Governments consist of humans, who are corrupted by power. The state, with its monopoly on violence, has tons of power. Thus, states tend to grow endlessly, and become an ever-present parasite on its people.
Divan’s argument was based on personal autonomy and consent, and the attorney general of India, Mukul Rohatgi, was ready with a response. Indians do not have a right over their own bodies, he said, adding that there are “various laws which put restrictions on such a right.” This made for a shocking headline, but he was stating the obvious.
India is a country where you can go to jail for what you say or what you eat. There are countless restrictions on markets, which are basically networks of voluntary exchanges. (If two consenting adults can be put behind bars for engaging in an act that infringes on no one else’s rights, can they be said to own themselves?) There are laws against victimless crimes (like gambling and alcohol). And there is an arrogant condescension by the state towards common citizens, as if it exists to rule us, and not to serve us.
Our constitution paid lip service to individual rights, but did not do enough to safeguard them. It will not save us – and thus, nor will the Supreme Court. It is up to us to snap out of our apathy and declare, as that battery of lawyers did a century ago, that we will not be ruled any more, that we own ourselves.
What is your view on this? Do you own your body?
Posted by Amit Varma on 14 May, 2017 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
This is the third installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.
When the Indian Premier League began a decade ago, my fellow cricket purists bemoaned what they called a tamasha version of the game. I was an enthusiast, though. I was baffled that so many people felt a three-hour game was too short to be taken seriously as a sport. Football lasts 90 minutes. Hockey is an hour. Tennis, badminton, basketball matches all tend to be shorter. None of them lack nuance or complexity or drama, and are rich in strategic and tactical options. So why should T20 cricket be any less than that?
I expected T20 cricket to have a number of positive effects, and it has delivered on all those counts. It has widened the pool of players who can make a healthy living by being professional players. It was broadened the audience for the game, as many more people are willing to spend three hours watching the game than than they would be to spend five days. And it has enriched the other forms of the game.
Cricketers are now fitter than ever before, and batsmen and bowlers alike have developed tools in their arsenal that were not necessary before. The shorter format demands greater urgency, and players have to approach the game differently. Intent leads to ability. A batsman who needs to play an aggressive stroke to every ball will develop a better repertoire of aggressive strokes. A fielder who is desperate to save every run he can will be fitter, and will have better technique. Bowlers, in turn, will have to adapt to more aggressive batsmen by pushing the limits of what they can do. (And indeed, contrary to early stereotypes, T20 cricket isn’t a bang-bang slog-fest, and bowlers remain matchwinners.)
This has percolated down to Test cricket. Nostalgia makes us overestimate the past, but in terms of pure skill, modern greats are a league above the legends of the past. This is not because they are inherently more talented or hard working. It is because, as an economist would say, the incentives are different. T20 cricket demands more from them, and they have adapted.
I consider T20 cricket to be a separate sport, all on its own, and in that light, the last ten years have been fascinating. We have seen a new sport evolve out of the framework of an old one, and every year has seen the game develop rapidly. The key strategic development has been in the structure of the game itself.
Teams initially came to T20 with an approach transplanted from one-day cricket. Every innings had three broad phases: pinch-hit, consolidate, slog. But this was a mistake. In ODIs, teams have around seven batting resources for 50 overs. In T20s, they have the same number of batting resources for 40% of the overs. The reduced overs mean that the opportunity cost of a dot ball goes up, and the opportunity cost of a wicket goes down. The risk-reward ratio changes, so batsmen should attack more.
In fact, they should frontload, as I like to say – they should begin with attack, and attack all the way through. A team that bats through 20 overs losing only three wickets has probably wasted resources, given the batsmen waiting in the pavilion. They should have attacked more; every over can be a slog over.
Some teams understood this, like West Indies in the last T20 World Cup, or Sunrisers Hyderabad last year. But many teams still don’t get it. I wrote before last year’s IPL that teams are underestimating par scores and not frontloading, so anyone into cricket betting should blindly bet on the team batting second, as the team batting first will score less than optimally. That’s exactly what happened. Out of the first 14 games, 13 were won by the side chasing in an average of 17.2 overs, with an average 6.6 wickets in hand. (Teams adjusted in the second half, so follow that advice this year only for teams that don’t frontload.)
The most important statistic for a batsman, thus, is his strike rate. We might consider a strike rate of 125 healthy by ODI standards, but it is pathetic for T20s. A team batting at that strike rate would make 150 runs, which is well below par. A batsman playing at that strike rate is, thus, a liability to his team – the more balls he faces, the more he is letting them down. (As there should be no consolidation or innings-building phase in T20s, there is no ameliorating factor over a season.)
So here’s one stat you should keep your eye on this season: a batsman’s season-long strike rate minus the overall par-score strike rate (for a par score of 180, that would be 150). Let’s call it the Varma Number. If it is negative, the batsman has failed.
Earlier pieces by me on this subject:
Opportunity, choice and the IPL (2008)
The Lesson From This IPL: Frontload Your Innings (2014)
Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Lamborghini (2015)
The New Face of Cricket (2015)
What Cricket Can Learn From Economics (2016)
National Highway 420 (and the EV of Aggressive Batting) (2016)
Posted by Amit Varma on 09 April, 2017 in
Essays and Op-Eds |
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 |
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.
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 |
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