The Illusion of Freedom

The April 2011 edition of “Pragati — The Indian National Interest Review” is here. I have a piece in there — The Illusion of Freedom. Here it is below the fold, for the record.

The Illusion of Freedom

Indians are Poor Because India is Not Free

There is much to be celebrated about India and the progress it has made since it gained political independence, especially over the last couple of decades. Various observers have pointed that out in bestselling books and articles in the popular press. Indeed, it’s become a cottage industry of sorts to write books on how India is going to be a superpower, if it isn’t one already.

Yet the fact remains that India is an extremely poor country. For instance, half of its children below the age of five are malnourished, and around 40 percent of Indians are illiterate in the 21st century. India should have at the very least solved the problems of underdevelopment such as widespread poverty and illiteracy since they are precisely what the government of India has ostensibly been focused on ever since independence. Practically every policy of every government that India has ever seen has avowedly been made to eradicate poverty and its concomitants. Clearly it is not for lack of trying by the government.

Why is India so poor? Implicit in asking that question is the assumption that there is nothing inevitable about India’s poverty, that it is not as if it were an unalterable fact of nature. That question, hard though it may be to admit it, has to be asked and answered honestly for there to be any hope of achieving that state in which that question is rendered meaningless.

India does not lack any of the necessary ingredients required for prosperity. It has adequate natural resources. Granted that it does not have an over abundance of them but neither has nature been exceptionally unkind. India has human resources – indeed it has a super abundance of raw human resources. By all measures, they are fairly close to average in intelligence, motivation, and have considerable cultural and social capital. India does not suffer frequent widespread civil unrest and natural disasters which destroy all the accumulated capital, leaving death and destruction in their wake.

It is worth noting that Indians do quite well outside India. In the US and other developed countries, they are extraordinarily successful. Their ability to prosper outside India is in sharp contradistinction to the inability of their counterparts within India to prosper. Could that imply that it is not nature but rather something in the Indian environment which accounts for Indians not prospering in India? Since it is the government which largely creates and controls the environment, could it be that India’s greatest handicap is the quality and nature of its government?

Robert Solow, Nobel prize-winning economist, observed that poverty is not simply an economic problem and that “underdevelopment is a web of economic, political, institutional, ethnic, and class-related connections with persistent historical roots.” My conjecture is that India’s continued struggle with poverty and underdevelopment are the understandable consequences of its governments’ objective. I believe that roots of the Indian government’s “license permit control quota” regime lie in its history of British colonialism.

In 1947, Indians got political freedom but little economic freedom, and only limited personal freedom. Merely changing the people who ruled India without changing the rules is superficial change which does not change the objective of the government. The government’s objective continued to be extractive and exploitative. It was “British Raj 2.0”.

Under the British Raj, the rules were made for the convenience of the rulers. Power was vested in the government and the people were subservient to it. The British government employed a strategy of “divide and rule” effectively and pitted one community against another. The government controlled important sectors of the economy: the railways, telecommunications, power, education. There was no violent revolution that overthrew the British. When they left, every institution that the British had created was left intact. The people who replaced the British found the system suited them quite well.

While controlling the economy is good for those in power, it is bad for the economy. First, it reduces economic activity and consequently growth. Second, it gives rise to rents (profits made from being able to manipulate regulations), which then attracts the most criminally corrupt to gain control of the government. Rent-seeking, rather than good governance, becomes the sole aim of those in government.

Transforming India into a developed country within one generation by 2040, is possible if, among other things, Indians gain comprehensive freedom. For that to happen, a new set of politicians and policymakers have to enter government and in effect change the government objective. Given India’s democratic setup and the Indian preference for non-violence, change will have to be brought about at the polling booth. This means that the voters have to elect a different set of people to office, people who are honest, committed and visionary.

Change of awareness precedes change in behaviour. Therefore for the citizens to vote differently there has to be a change in their understanding of reality. Most Indians would reject the idea that they are not really free and that the government may not have their best interests at heart. As Ram Dass pointed out, “If you think you’re free, there’s no escape possible.” The illusion of freedom is as good a prison as ever constructed. For India’s transformation, the challenge therefore is to make people aware that they lack freedom and that they have to struggle to get them.

A large country like India cannot be ruled without some degree of popular consent. That the population gives that consent despite the enormous harm the tyrannical government does to them would be inexplicable but for the fact that the rulers make sure that the population does not ever become informed enough to know that they are living under a tyranny.

Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out over two centuries ago that liberty and democracy are not the same thing. Indeed, there is sufficient evidence over the centuries that democracy has existed to show that democracy can be the enemy of liberty. India’s government is elected by the people. But being popularly elected as a democratic government does not mean that it cannot also be a tyranny and deny the people freedom. The subjugation of the population can be as real in a democracy as in a despotic rule.

Indians have had democracy for a long time. Indians need liberty as well. Only then does India have the possibility of becoming a rich and developed nation.

Author: Atanu Dey


14 thoughts on “The Illusion of Freedom”

  1. Indians are poor because they are free to not work (hard) and can depend on subsistence level handouts through the government’s appeasement programs for the poor. So there is a nice co-dependence between the top and the bottom of the pyramid.


  2. Sir,

    I wish to convey the following thoughts (that occurred to me after reading your article). I do not usually comment on articles. But I doing it this time. Let me also admit that I’m anti-communism/socialism, and relatively pro-free-markets. I’m quoting your words (italicised) and give my corresponding comments subsequently.

    “It is worth noting that Indians do quite well outside India. In the United States and other developed countries, they are extraordinarily successful.”

    Mostly, only people who have already succeeded (economically) or skilled enough to succeed migrate (or are allowed enter into) to the U.S. and other developed countries. Logically, their success would not count much to support the hypothesis (or your conclusion) that the difference in economic/social/policy environment has led to high success rate of India going abroad. We need to have the proportion of unskilled or low skilled people succeeding in India and proportion of failure cases in the US and other developed countries, to make a concrete statement on this.

    “In 1947, Indians got political freedom but little economic freedom, and only limited personal freedom.”

    In (and after) 1947, Indian politicians and their kith and kin have freedom- economic and personal. Other Indians do not. However, Indians do enjoy enough personal freedom (though, degree of it may be the moot issue here. It is subjective). Anyone can do anything is India. May be it is chaos, but it has shades of freedom too.

    “The people who replaced the British realised that the system suited them quite well.”

    This may be just one half of the fact. The other being the colonized minds (not just the ones replacing the British, but also the ONES RULED by British) started believing only in the models and theories that originate abroad. Even for the recent issue of revising Lokpal Bill, people entrusted with the job- both government and civil society members- speak about looking at various Acts being in force in the US and the UK.

    “This means that the voters have to elect a different set of people to office, people who are honest, committed and visionary.”

    We get what we deserve. We lack basis honesty. Our leaders are just one of us. Unless we diagnose this and ACCEPT, nothing worthwhile would come out. (I have suffered a lot because of our politicians, callous government officials and still believe in this. We have to become honest to have honest leaders. Bring back that social stigma for corruption and dishonesty.)

    “Most Indians would reject the idea that they are not really free and that the government may not have their best interests at heart. …The illusion of freedom is as good a prison as ever constructed.”

    This is highly subjective and philosophical. The reverse is also possible. One who believes that he/she is free would consider the person who makes the above statement as one suffering from “Illusion of no/less freedom.” This illusion of no/less freedom is a perfect example for the Lionel Robin’s definition of economics. Needs are endless. Even full freedom is not enough!

    Finally, it is not the government alone, which is controlling India. Some private business groups also control either overtly or covertly. Free market is possible only if control in all forms –govt and private biz giants– is destroyed once and for all. And then sustained.


  3. My conviction too.

    India is yet to get independence. What we celebrate as the Independence Day is the day Congress leaders got promoted to govern as the British.

    And the British has relegated their work (the physical control) to Indians, while retaining the virtual control.


  4. Atanu unfortunately your arguement is fundamentally flawed, it rests on an assumption that is theoretically unproven and demonstrably false. India’s human capital is much poorer than most people realize and most Indian elites are willing to admit. Talent and capability are not evenly distributed among individuals and in India’s case it is even worse. Please see the study India shining, bharat drowning which tested the capabilities of Indian students. The results were mediocre and not only below developed world standards but in the bottom pentile. What was interesting was that the standard deviation was higher in India than any other nation aside from south Africa. So in India you have a small percentage who are capable of matching first world standards much larger than one is given to expect but a large majority who are even less capable than the average would imply. I believe your friend pranabh bhardan has already done work showing that inequality in individual is much worse than the farcical Gino index would imply. Unfortunately for India I don’t see this situation changing. The us has spent half a century and trillions trying to close the gap as it were and they have failed and continue to fail. The only solution is to lower standards to such an extent that everyone becomes a mediocrity.


  5. India is simply too big and messy to be governed effectively as one entity. There are only two solutions – the China way of complete central control by an all-powerful authority, or split the country into five to six autonomous regions which are easier and more efficient to govern. Neither of these will happen in India.

    We have “enjoyed” over six decades of independence and yet we are much worse off than we were during the 1940s. This is not a lament, this is a fact which most are not willing to reconcile with, because we prefer living with the delusion that life is black and white, the British were all evil and the Indians who succeeded them were all good, and whatever is happening now is all part of a so-called democratic process that will ultimately (whenever that is) lead to a better life for everyone in this country.

    Yes, like the author says, Indians need liberty in the real sense. However that is never going to happen. Again, the country is just too huge and diverse to be organised enough to revolt against the diseased system rotting away today. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and the other countries managed because in each country they were one people, spoke one language, and shared the same culture and belief systems. Muslims and Christians came together in Egypt because of this. It is impossible for such a change to happen in India today.

    I think people have got it all wrong about the British “divide and conquer” approach. With India, it was “unite and conquer”. We are united as a political entity, but this very act of uniting a vast tapestry of diverse communities has guaranteed that we will never truly be united as one people. There is no other country with such a huge diversity of languages, cultures, religions, and races that is united as one people, and neither will India. This ensures the people will never, ever be able to rise up and fight for justice and liberty.


  6. Com,
    Agree with your point about the size. Besides being too big to govern, India has failed to make good use of the size.

    Ponder this …. It takes more money to transport cotton from Gujarat to mills in Tamilnadu then to transport cotton from Gujarat to China !!!

    Multitude of octroi and other ridiculous levies hindering commercial activity makes the size advantage disappear. The bad governance comes from the fact that government is SO MUCH centralized in Delhi.
    Governance is best when the governing are the closest to the governed in a democracy. Extreme amount of decentralization of power is required.


  7. I feel that, now also Indians not get personal freedom. we got only limited personal freedom. Politics is not good. Politics people only started the bribe. Now it is increased and destroying India. Now India is not a democratic country because “Democracy means for the people, by the people, and to the people”. Politics people only succeeding. Now “poor become poorer and rich become richer”. These are happening in India.


  8. Guys,

    There is one and only biggest threat to humanity for past 14 centuries. It is even more dangerous now then it was 1000yrs ago. That is none other than Islam.
    Islam is Pure Evil. Islam is a cult forced on us by Arab invaders. Leave it like plague.

    Please visit : http://www.FaithFreedom.Org to understand its great threat to humanity.
    Our corrupt/leftist/liberal politicians and media never let us know the facts about Islam. So it on us bloggers who can aware everyone including our sisters who will be easy targets for Love Jihads.

    Here is few other websites. Please pass on it to others.



  9. You were saying something about writer’s block. Perhaps, if it suits your fancy, if its not off topic for this blog (I think it is quite pertinent), the illusion of freedom post could best be followed up by an illusion of God post?

    One of the things that followers keep bringing up is that he provided clean water to the village. The perils of lack of development and governance… sigh! 😦


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