Can too many Rights be Wrong?

Rights appears to be all the rage these days. The right to this, that and the other. For example, in the US, the acrimonious debate about healthcare — a right to cheap medical services — is reaching unhealthy levels. Nationalized healthcare (and all other things as well) seems to be the preferred route in the US. It seems everyone has a right to a bail out from the government — sick automobile companies and banks included. In India, the newest right on the horizon is a right to “compulsory and free education.”

That’s kind of confusing, isn’t it? Why does there have to be a right to “compulsory and free education”? Here’s what I find confusing. If something is good and free, it wouldn’t have to be made compulsory, would it? Good, free, compulsory, competent, responsible, freedom — some combinations of these don’t go together. If adults are competent to judge what is good, are responsible, and have the freedom to choose what is good for their children, would it be necessary to make education compulsory? So by making education compulsory, the admission is that at least some of these are not true. Perhaps the adults are not competent and responsible. If so, should they be voting? Or more importantly, should these adults be having children?

Things cannot be simultaneously good and need to be mandated for a population which is assumed to be competent and responsible. So if education is good — and free education at that — but has to be made compulsory, it is an admission that people don’t know what is good for them and have to be whipped into compliance, and that given freedom they would not do. So what is it? Are the people a bunch of incompetent irresponsibles who cannot be trusted to know what is good for them or are they not? If yes, then it brings into question the idea of a democracy, that people know what is good for them and should be let to decide for themselves how to govern themselves.

I am very suspicious of any policy that seeks to force people to do something because it would do them good. It is paternalistic, and if paternalism had any beneficial effects on the welfare of a society, then India would have been long ago a developed economy. Cha-cha Nehru and his inheritors are nothing if not paternalistic. Even Mr Manmohan Singh, not even remotely related to Cha-cha Nehru, is all in favor of dictating to the people of India what they must do. Send your children to school or else!

Or else what? Whip the children? Whip the children who cannot go to school on an empty stomach? Maybe imprison the parents who don’t send their children to school. But wait. What happens to the children when you send the parents to jail? Ah, now those children have a right to “state support.” OK, add one more right up there. So now the state has to support the children and also spend money in imprisoning the parents. Who is paying for all this paternalism?

Yes, you are paying for all this. You will be taxed. You are gainfully employed and have an income? OK, here’s the tax bill. Here’s the bill that helps pay for the costs that the rights that the state compulsorily imposes on the people. The state grants all sorts of rights and take away only one right from the people — the right to property.

Mind you, the right to property is not taken away without due process. The process is called “democracy.” John Adams is spinning in his grave. Here’s what he had to say on the matter, for the record .

Suppose a nation, rich and poor, high and low, ten millions in number, all assembled together; not more than one or two millions will have lands, houses, or any personal property; if we take into the account the women and children, or even if we leave them out of the question, a great majority of every nation is wholly destitute of property, except a small quantity of clothes, and a few trifles of other movables. Would Mr. Nedham be responsible that, if all were to be decided by a vote of the majority, the eight or nine millions who have no property, would not think of usurping over the rights of the one or two millions who have? Property is surely a right of mankind as really as liberty. Perhaps, at first, prejudice, habit, shame or fear, principle or religion, would restrain the poor from attacking the rich, and the idle from usurping on the industrious; but the time would not be long before courage and enterprise would come, and pretexts be invented by degrees, to countenance the majority in dividing all the property among them, or at least, in sharing it equally with its present possessors. Debts would be abolished first; taxes laid heavy on the rich, and not at all on the others; and at last a downright equal division of every thing be demanded, and voted. What would be the consequence of this? The idle, the vicious, the intemperate, would rush into the utmost extravagance of debauchery, sell and spend all their share, and then demand a new division of those who purchased from them. The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If “Thou shalt not covet,” and “Thou shalt not steal,” were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free. [The Works of John Adams. 1787.]

The democratically elected government — whether in the US or in India — is here to help you. It will make sure that it will give rights to people whether they like it or not and make sure that it will tax you to pay for all the costs that the rights give rise to and in exchange you will give up the rights to the fruits of your labor. So you should actually stop laboring. And when you do stop laboring, perhaps the government will introduce a right to free food and free housing — and free healthcare, and free and compulsory education. And free entertainment. And then we will be in socialist heaven — exactly as Cha-cha Nehru wanted for and as the government of the US wants for the Americans.

Good night, good luck, and may your god go with you.

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

16 thoughts on “Can too many Rights be Wrong?”

  1. I have been reading your blog a long time. However, I have never commented on it (as it requires registration…in this day and age !!!). Man are your posts pessimistic.
    You have a problem with the Right to Free and compulsory education. It is quiet obvious a poor parent will look at the child and think of him/her as an extra hand to work and earn some money. Is that right for the child? To give the child a fighting chance to improve his life. I am not sure in this case the parent is competent enough to take that decision. So, the govt introduces a bill and I was sure you would tear it apart. Thanks for not disappointing me.

    “I am very suspicious of any policy that seeks to force people to do something because it would do them good. It is paternalistic, and if paternalism had any beneficial effects on the welfare of a society, then India would have been long ago a developed economy.”

    The only plausible reason you gave for your suspicion is that “its paternalistic”. Thats it. Period. You then extrapolate it to suggest that this is the reason why India is not a developed economy. Have you looked …umm…I dont know..Europe. Free health care anyone.

    “So by making education compulsory, the admission is that at least some of these are not true. Perhaps the adults are not competent and responsible. If so, should they be voting? Or more importantly, should these adults be having children?”

    You are just peeved that Congress came back into power. Who do you prefer ..BJP?

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  2. “If adults are competent to judge what is good, are responsible, and have the freedom to choose what is good for their children, would it be necessary to make education compulsory?”

    I agree with that as far as that goes to determine their lives and not somebody else’s. Let’s say that an irresponsible drunkard moron or some religious prick who thinks that girls don’t need education has a kid. Does that mean that the kid has to suffer the consequences of being born to that father? Shouldn’t society try to mitigate that as far as possible, if not completely. If education is not compulsory and he chooses not to educate his kid, doesn’t the kid start his adulthood with a big dis-advantage? If the whole society is full of such morons, then obviously the kid suffers the consequences that cannot be helped. But as long as these are possible outliers, I support the fact that the society should lay down some rules.

    Regarding health care in the US, the current free market or whatever form of private insurance it is, has obviously failed. I’m sure you’d be aware of its failures. What obama proposes is not a nationalized healthcare that runs doctors and hospitals but a govt insured healthcare!!

    There is so much talk about free and socialism about this health care reform, but I don’t understand; how we could talk of poor people as freeloaders when so many of the people have inherited wealth and can enjoy society’s resources without having to contribute anything to society, just because they were born in certain wombs. If you say that’s how it is and suck it up, then I think that this health reform is going to offer some safety net for people at a cost to society and everyone better suck it up.

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  3. A mandatory travel req from our govt that Govt employees should fly only IA/AI for official travel:

    http://giridharmadras.blogspot.com/

    Looks like AI has a “right” to claim this (in additional to bail out?) per govt policy. This policy is so in violation of fundamental economics. Unimaginable how these are formulated…

    Yoga

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  4. Have you looked …umm…I dont know..Europe. Free health care anyone.

    yeah right! compare a bunch of half-a-million population countries in europe with a country of size of US. That’s real mature.

    I have been reading your blog a long ti

    Does you Kangresss party pay you to read this. It may be news for you, but it’s *not* mandatory..

    I have never commented on it (as it requires registration…in this day and age !!!)

    precisely 🙂

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  5. >>Perhaps the adults are not competent and responsible. If so, should they be voting?

    Thats something that i keep asking. I just go insane reading the innovative election manifestos that win elections. Rice for 2 Rs a Kg, free color television.

    The public education system is in a complete mess. Bad pay scales, inadequate staffing, stretched out teachers who are compelled to do stuff outside their sphere of work, interference, lack of facilities to name a few. Without even consolidating on that front, they are now adding to the mess by trying to accomodate more children. Instead they should try to encourage philanthropism(organisations/individuals) in the education sector by providing attractive tax benefits/discounts (something similar on u/s 35 on steroids). I would rather pay directly to a well deserving NGO and save on tax than have my tax dollars trickle through all the pockets before it hits the needy.

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  6. @Kaunteya
    So, Just because I agree to one thing the Government does, I am Kangrass party. Just like Dey’s, your logic is also pristine.

    Europe was an example where this kind of policy is successful (mildly maybe). The blog writer and even you did not give any example or logic(except ofcourse if you count paternalistic) where this is not. Which was my point.

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  7. Kooladi,

    just like you, I have been reading this blog for a long time but never commented much. But Arguments for the sake of logical extension is not always desired. English language in that way can be deceptive. Atanu is arguing the title.. “free and compulsory” being kind of oxymoron. As is evident from innumerate schemes of kangress, this “policy” is also probably drafted by a bunch of clueless civil servants after some 100 meetings on how to implement this. It would have been apt to mention free education. If citizens still want to live on Rs.2/kg rice, free electricity and more hopes of loan waivers..they would be fulfilled as long as these schemes are pledged heart and soul to some gandhis or nehru’s balls. In any case this this is not a free meal. we have paid education cess for close to 10 years now and I am sure it would be increased in the days to come.

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  8. @Kooladi

    It is quiet obvious a poor parent will look at the child and think of him/her as an extra hand to work and earn some money. Is that right for the child? To give the child a fighting chance to improve his life. I am not sure in this case the parent is competent enough to take that decision.

    So, you are saying an incompetent adult who can’t provide for his child, still goes ahead and has kids; Puts the kids through the misery of childhood labor. Decides not to educate his kids even when that is provided for free by the rest of us.
    Now, why is it that forcing this moron to send his kids to school is acceptable, but forcing him not to have more children than he can provide for, is not acceptable?

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  9. @kooladi : it’s u who brought kangress/bjp unneccessarily in this discussion. if your’s was a contructive criticism of De’s post, i wouldn’t have bothered to respond. but there were some too-smart-by-half wise-ass lines trying to camouflage within your so called rejoinder. and someone had to call your bluff. so there..

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  10. The mid-day meals, I thought was a good scheme to at least make people start sending their kids to school. I don’t know how the scheme is doing now though. That one rupee/two rupee per kg scheme is benefiting a section of rural population, I think – not sure about the colour TV’s (Maybe it benefits the party workers??)…

    Destination Infinity

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  11. If the education provided is good enough , then it should make people choose better choice , like sending their kids to school..but then if like a country in India , where many are not educated, you cannot expect them to send their kids( at least not in all the cases). Democracy as it exists today, is sheer nonsense, no where are the masses showed the choice between two alternatives in respect of “receiving good” rather they make a choice between two superfluous options , often that too pre- decided thanks to some other factor.

    In terms of providing things for free, well health care is going to benefit the whole population.But what should taken care of is that quality is ensured(like our education system,which we all love); Of course it is the rich who are taxed, it is the rich who pay more for health care. But the question would be – will a wage laborer first of all if he is employed get money either in terms of a loan or as a gift from his employer if he falls ill?

    Unless there is a sense of responsiblity among the employers, there will be a need to have government intervention in certain areas.

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  12. Go to any city, big or small and you can see army of parents grovelling in front of various school admission offices to get their child enrolled in a school. And they are not demanding free education. They are ready to pay through their noses. Free education means education in a municipality school that does not educate anyone. How many bureaucrats and ministers are ready to avail this free education for their kids?

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  13. I think there is one significant area where ‘free and compulsory’ could be useful – Education for girls. Unfortunately, there are still parents in some parts of the country who think its unnecessary for women to be educated, or that its not worth the trouble. Of course there are always problems with implementation, do you think something like the charter school system being tried in the US would work?

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  14. I generally find your posts insightful Atanu, but I think your focus on this one is going all wrong. Indian bureaucratic-speak is funny at best and downright stupid at worst. If you examine the words, “Compulsory & Free” you may see that those involved in the jargon-coining business for Government Linguistics, must have been aiming to achieve two things at once. They wanted to instill hope and fear together! That’s truly Orwellian isn’t it:) So I think that you’re quite right when you say that the Government is paternalistic, but come on, I expect more than that obvious fact from you, especially regarding education:) When I examine the term, I see a different picture.

    There is a cynical presumption that those parents who do not send their children to school do it of their own “free” will. Certainly Government of India thinks so, as is obvious from the terminology they use. However many people in the population also agree with that. Especially those whose own children go to school and they have to pay with some, minor or major, degree of economic hardship to themselves. My own parents believed that and educating me and my brother wasn’t cheap for them.

    The comment above about John Galt from Atlas Shrugged reminds me of my own confusion when I was sixteen.

    However, I’ve come to question that premise over the years. I am not saying that all those parents who are working their children or sometimes even selling them for cash or kind are not doing it “willingly”. At least some of them may be doing it willingly as their best option. But the question remains, is it out of “free” will? Certainly, you’ll agree that we all do many things, unwillingly or half willingly, but do them anyway and then justify it as the best possible choice… perhaps resigned to the situation. Many have said so, even you, about choices and you hear the same about democracy, that it is choosing between the lesser evil.

    You said:

    Here’s what I find confusing. If something is good and free, it wouldn’t have to be made compulsory, would it?

    That too is not necessarily true. For example: Let’s say the H1N1 vaccine comes out and the Government makes it compulsory and free for every citizen to get a shot. Would that not qualify as good, free and compulsory? We see Polio camps setup every few months. They are not compulsory, but are free and few would doubt, good for the parties concerned. Another rather fascinating example is the National ID under the watchful eyes of dear Mr. Nilekani, which is being touted as “compulsory”, “free” and “good” (Now that I’m quite opposed to by the way) So I think the more interesting quality is the “good” here. “Good” for whom?

    You may be opposed to NREGA or “Right to Education” programs but I think its wrong to equate that with:

    It seems everyone has a right to a bail out from the government — sick automobile companies and banks included

    I think ethics (not to be confused with morality) should be a foundation for societies, and there is something unethical about my nation when I see children being used for all kinds of labor when they should be going to school. However, by no stretch of my imagination do I see anything unethical in an “Automobile Company” or “Bank” going down because of mismanagement.

    While its no joy seeing my tax money used on inefficient and corrupt public programs, I tend to get more pissed off that my taxes are subsidizing and substituting for the millions of dollars worth of taxes waived off to companies like Reliance, Kingfisher etc. or the useless weapons that we are amassing. That’s what I mean that your focus is wrong. I’m all for no taxation without representation and yes I’d like to see lesser government or even no government and ultimately no paternalistic nation state.

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