Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The fault, dear Brutus

People are always complaining about how politicians are so self-seeking. I've done it myself. Thinking about it though, it seems to me that this is the wrong criticism to be making. That in fact, politicians are supposed to be self-seeking, that's why we have democracies in the first place.

Think about it this way - suppose we actually had a bunch of leaders who were entirely selfless - whose only aspiration was to dedicate themselves to serving the country, and then pass on power to others just like them. Assume for a moment that we could identify these leaders with complete certainty. Why would we need democracy then? Absent mala fide intent, we could just leave these benevolent leaders of ours to run the country for us, couldn't we? Okay, so we'd still need to tell them what it was we wanted, but we could just do that through opinion polls - we wouldn't need any actual power over these people - we'd just tell them what we wanted and if enough of us wanted it or were okay with it they'd go ahead and do it.

Well, not quite. Actually, they'd be able to do better. To the extent that the common people don't know what's good for them, these leaders could actually make decisions that would, in fact, be in the interest of the general good, even though the population in general couldn't figure them out.

The problem is, I think, that we've got so used to celebrating democracy, that we've somehow convinced ourselves that it's the best system of government in every way possible. That's simply not true. The fact is that democracy is neither particularly efficient or effective as a system - it's inefficient because democratic decision making is a far more time taking process than centralised decision making, it's ineffective because decisions have to be reduced to the lowest common denominator. There's fairly good reason to believe that, absent self-interest, a quorum of relevant experts could do as good, if not better, a job of running the country as a government by the people and of the people.

The rub is that self-interest is never absent. That's why we need democracy. Not because it's the super-optimal system of government, but because it's the only system of government that will safeguard us from the misuse of power, that will ensure that we can keep the incentives of our leaders aligned with the our own interests, that will limit the harm that the government can do [1]. That's why we're willing to live with the inefficiencies and headaches of democracy - because it mitigates downside risk. If we could have a government that was for the people without being of the people or by the people, we would choose it in a heartbeat, it's because that's not possible, because it's an all or nothing deal, that we choose democracy [2].

How then do we deal with value-destroying yet populist measures like reservations? Certainly not by appealing to the enlightened nobility of our politicians, because it doesn't exist. The real need here is for voter education, not for pointless discussion with politicians. In the end, every democracy gets the government it deserves [3]. If it is really true that people are going to be stupid enough to vote for this government because they went ahead and gave them some entirely meaningless sops, putting in place measures that cost the government nothing (no matter what it may cost the country) and provided no benefit whatsoever to the truly underpriviliged, then all the Karan Thapar interviews in the world will not make the government change its mind. Why should they, if they can get votes so easily?

What we need then, is a way of communicating to the truly underpriviliged why this measure is meaningless for them, and why, if they really want to see their children do better, they need to reject this kind of populism and demand that the government take action where it's really needed - in primary education. No politician in his right mind is going to go against the will of the people. What he can and will do is try to mould the will of the people so that he can get the maximum votes with the minimum effort. The point of public debate is not to change his mind about this - the point of public debate is to ensure that the people understand how he's trying to dupe them and don't let him get away with it. How that's to be done, of course is beyond me [4] (you didn't really think I was going to have a solution, did you?) but as we bemoan the stupidity of reservations, it's a point that I think is worth keeping in mind.

P.S. Forgive me. It's been that kind of a day.

[1] The obvious analogy is with shareholder rights. No one seriously believes that the shareholders can run the company better than managers, but limit the power of shareholders over managers and you end up with Enron.

[2] This, of course, is why all those silly debates in high school about whether India should have a dictatorship never got anywhere - because one side was arguing what dictatorships could do, and the other what they would do.

[3] That's not strictly true, of course. Every country gets the best of the alternatives on offer that it deserves. You need to add a secondary assumption which says that if an issue is important enough to a sufficient number of people, there will be a political party representing that interest group, for the free market analogy to hold. But that's not too drastic an assumption.

[4] Though one would imagine that the press has a big role to play. Which is why the decline of newspapers in India is such a blow - we bloggers can have all the intelligent discussions we want - it's the mass media that matters.

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Naveen Mandava said...

What you are alluding to is actually the quality of democracy. A democracy could be liberal or illiberal. A liberal democracy will have protection of three freedoms: economic (start a business); political (right to vote) and civil (say what you want).

India has very less economic freedom; a good deal of political freedom and a civil freedom that is on shaky foundations. These freedoms will be protected under a rule of law and not a rule by law. If you had those institutions in place, it wouldnt matter much what politicans said or did.

That said I am with you on the over-bashing of politicians. They only cater to vote-interests. On one hand you need the education of voters which is a long-term prospect. On the other hand you need to divorce the influence of politicians on economic, political and civil institutions. Now that is a more short-term goal and can be achieved through amendments and Acts.

Cyberswami said...

i agree a 100 per cent with what you're saying, and especially with the opening bits about why we need democracies. brilliant.

but the problem runs deeper. simply informing the underprivileged about what is in their best interests, even assuming they follow, understand, and react, doesn't help beyond a little bit.

for one, reservation in college is hardly the sort of thing the truly underprivileged are going to see as a keystone to deciding whom to vote for. as seen elsewhere, those who offer rice or jobs tend to do better.

secondly, it is worth considering what these tv opinion polls show. on an all-india level, there is still about a 70 per cent support for reservation. surely not much of those comes from underprivileged people.

i know you said you don't presume to have a solution, but sometimes i really wonder if there even IS one. i guess this particular argument boils down to what makes a voter vote, and choose someone to vote for. hmm.

thanks, you've brought up a lot.

MadHat said...

You are talking about the problems in representative democracy, not democracy in general.

Perhaps, participatory democracy is a better idea...

Anonymous said...

check this out.. for a peek into an ancient democracy.

Falstaff said...

naveen: fair enough. I guess in my head an ideal democracy is liberal. Agree with you about the importance of building and protecting institutions, though I would include that under the ambit of "things we can do not to let politicians get away with stuff"

cyberswami: I don't know. The government clearly thinks it can get more votes by doing this. They may be wrong about that, in which case we need to make sure they realise that. But again, that's going to take a message from the masses.

madhat: Not really. I'm talking about an issue with the nature of governance in general. And I'm not sure I see why participatory democracies would be more efficient or effective. If anything, I'd expect them to be even less so. The point is that you're trying to strike a balance between the self-interest of the leaders and the inefficiences of decision making by public consent - participatory democracy would probably overcompensate

anon: thanks for the link

rc said...

Indian democracy does not have enough checks and balances in place to prevent the so called "tyranny of the majority".

I agree with Naveen Mandava, that only under the rule of law can we prevent a majority from usurping the interests of other groups.

Given that the current issue has no basis in facts and that the government has not taken due diligence to evaluate the true position of beneficiaries - one would expect the supreme court to strike down this law (once it passes parliament).

At that point, it is a foregone conclusion that the government will bring in another constitutional amendment.

The Supreme Court is the arm of the government that can and must put its foot down when it detects large scale transgressions of peoples freedoms without taking into account facts and statistics.

I agree with you that we must focus on hilighting to the downtrodden the true beneficiaries of the quota system. This unfortunately is complicated by the politicians, who do not want the system to be monitored or measured in any way.

Thus we have one of the largest preferential treatment social justice programs in human history with absolutely no statistics about its beneficiaries. This must be highlighted.

Also we must highlight that SC/ST quotas ARE monitored and we have statistics for SC/STs as late as 2001.

Heh Heh said...

while voter awareness is admittedly something that is needed, i think the tragedy of indian democracy is that many educated voters are too cynical to vote, and as a result politicians have nothing to fear from the educated middle class..

Cheshire Cat said...

All this talk about enlightening the underprivileged masses about what's best for them is not only ridiculously idealistic but beside the point. Suppose that we did have a perfectly functioning system of primary education. It would still be in the best interests of the underprivileged masses to support reservations.

So much for utiopianism. We are reduced to hoping that the non-democratic Courts will step in...

obc voice said...

'What we need then, is a way of communicating to the truly underpriviliged why this measure is meaningless for them, and why, if they really want to see their children do better, they need to reject this kind of populism and demand that the government take action where it's really needed - in primary education.'

agree with you on most of that. wish you were around when the iits were started.

? said...

well done. you may have stumbled upon some of the conceptual foundations of modern political theory.

machiavelli / marx, both seem to agree that in the presence of a state, a benevolent dictator may be the best form of governance. reactionaries to these two thinkers argue that since such does not exist (on account of selfishness), democracy is the best option around. (of course, this summation is fraught with inaccuracies that generalizations normally command !!)

very impressive. particularly, if you did it without reading political theory.

your views on reservation, i must say, still smacks of an upper middle class, well educated, dharavi and tanjore exist only in books, kinda philospohy. but then, you already knew i thought so.


Falstaff said...

rc: Yes, clearly the courts are critical.

heh: agree

cat: Yes, but then we'd have a perfectly functioning primary education system. At that point, reservations may be a lot less relevant - since presumably a substantial portion of admissions into top institutes will be from less priviliged classes anyway.

And frankly, it's hard to imagine a world where reservations are the most salient issue for an objective educated voter. You say "it would still be in the best interests of the underpriviliged masses to support reservation". My point is that it's not in their best interest now.

obc voice: I'm not sure I know why, but okay.

?!: *modestly* ah, well. Great minds and all that. Though to be fair, while I've never read political theory per se, I've read enough of the literature on corporate governance, much of which, I suspect is influenced by that literature. At any rate, the point wasn't that I'd come up with some dramatic theoretical insight, more that most people don't think about it that way.

As for what my views 'sound' like, maybe it's the listener? :-).

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