A Matter of Rights

Now it is time to follow up on the comments and responses to my last post, A Promise and a Challenge. First a clarification: my offer to buy dinner for anyone who is able to persuade me to change my position on the market-based solution to India’s looming population crisis clearly states that the dinner will be at a restaurant of the winner’s choosing. That is, the winner does not have to travel anywhere to collect on the wager. If you are in Timbuktu, and wish to have the dinner in a restaurant in Timbuktu, I will get myself to Timbuktu to pay up for the dinner.

The comment from Raj Waghray is very interesting. I am not familiar with Eknath Easwaran’s book from which Raj quotes although I have read some of his other works. (As it happens, Eknath was my good friend in California Shankar Unni’s father’s brother. My reason for mentioning this is not for the sake of name-dropping but to remark on the fact that we are indeed connected with others in all sorts of interesting ways.)

The point that Raj makes, if I understand him correctly, is that dire predictions about impending doom have turned out wrong in the past. No argument there. However, it is instructive to understand why the predictions were wrong and in which significant ways does a given prediction does not make the same mistakes. Lumping all projections as idiotic doomesday rants because some others of its ilk have been falsified is not very clever.

I am reminded of a joke. A man falls out of a very tall building. As he is falling past the 40th floor, someone asks “How is it going?” The man answers, “So far, so good.” At the risk of abusing the reader’s intelligence, allow me to spell out the point of that joke. Just because right now things don’t appear bad does not mean that the trajectory we are on is not disasterous. The man has not yet hit the pavement but the pavement is approaching at an accelerating rate: 32 feet per second per second, if I recall my physics correctly.

Talking of falling from buildings: it is not the falling that kills. It is the deceleration, the stopping that does the trick. Actually, it is not the stopping that kills either: it is because all the bits that constitute a person do not stop at the same time.

It is not a huge population that is a problem. The more the merrier, as many people prefer. The important thing is to ask whether there are sufficient resources available for everyone to have a good time. When I say resources, I mean not just the potential raw material resources but actually available resources and the distribution of those resources and the availability of institutions and technologies that allow the proper allocation of those resources.

You could have a country of only 10 million people which could be in dire straits because of a lack of resources (as defined broadly above.) Or you could have a billion people in a country but with a sufficiently large raw resource base, and the technology to process the resources efficiently, and the political and economic structure to efficiently and equitably allocate the resources for consumption and investment, etc, and yet have no population problem.

When we discuss the population problem, we have to recognize that it is a problem which has multiple dimensions. In such cases, it is easy to fall into what is called the dimensionality trap. Roman builders knew that larger the diameter of a pipe, the greater the flow of water through it. They built larger and larger diameter pipes but found that they would get a trickle in many cases. The dimension they had missed was that of the pressure head: the flow depends on the head, not just the pipe diameter.

I will explore every comment and objection which has been raised so far. To keep the post from becoming too long, let me briefly address a point that has been raised by a few people in private emails to me. My proposal is said to inhumane and does not respect the rights of people to have as many children as they please.

First, the question of rights. Does a person have a right to inflict pain and suffering on another person? If my action were to lead to immense suffering, and I plead that if you do not allow me to freely act you are impinging on some basic right I have, would you allow me that “right”? Or will you circumscribe my “right” to act as I please because otherwise it results in unnecessary pain and suffering to a human being?

What say you to this point before I go on?

2 thoughts on “A Matter of Rights

  1. Prashant Mullick Sunday June 20, 2004 / 2:57 pm

    >Does a person have a right to inflict pain and suffering on another person?

    As is mentioned earlier in this post, the reason that a large population is harmful is not because of its numbers alone. There are other reasons if prevalent at the same time, create an unwanted situation (lack of resources for everyone).

    Thus where is the correlation of person A’s pain being caused by person B’s additional 2 children?

    The specific cause of A’s pain cannot be attributed to B’s additional 2 children. If B has been educated enough to make a choice of whether he can support 2 children or not, then how is he inflicting pain on A?

    Agreed, that the direction a society proceeds is a result of the macro effects of each individual’s actions. However, is it prudent to blame each individual for the pains and sufferings faced by the society atlarge?

    Even if person B is held accountable for A’s pain? Is the credit based child system posed as a punishment to B?

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  2. Anonymous Poster Monday June 21, 2004 / 12:24 pm

    If B is able to support everything he produces without being a drain on state resources then that should be fine often that is not the case

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