Libertarianism and Humility

Yesterday evening I was at the National Law School in Bangalore. I was invited to have a conversation with the students on the subjects covered in my book, Transforming India. It was a lively conversation and in fact quite heated at points. I enjoy a good argument — sometimes I think I should have been a trial lawyer. In any event, I argued my case and to my pleasant surprise there was push-back from some of the students.

I say it was a pleasant surprise because in general I have found that students in India are not very vocal about their opinions. It could be because of their disinterest in the topic, or because of their incomprehension, or because of some failing of mine — or a combination of them all. Therefore I was delighted to actually have an animated conversation with the students at the NLS.

I think my propositions are quite reasonable. In fact I think they are reasonable to the extent of being self-evidently true and there should be little debate about their validity. So why did some in the audience find some of my assertions wrong?

There could be many reasons for that. One of the fundamental reasons could be that economists think differently from the general public. Economists talk at a level of abstraction which is hard for non-economists to follow. I remember quite vividly how I reacted when I first came across economic models which reduced all the complexity of the world of production to three factors of land, labor and capital — and in some cases to just land and labor.

Economists even end up producing widgets using nothing other than labor. How could that exercise be illuminating in the least way? Yet surprisingly that kind of seemingly simple-minded modeling is extremely useful.

Students of law are trained to know the details of the set of existing laws, and to take specific real world situations and apply the laws to argue their cases. There’s a specificity in that kind of work which is very useful to them but when it comes to economic reasoning, getting bogged down in details is the worst barrier to comprehension.

Last evening once again revealed a puzzle which really evades my comprehension. Why don’t some people intuitively understand the value of freedom? Why don’t they see that being free is a good in itself? Why do they bend to the will of others so willingly?

We live in an imperfect world in which we need to make compromises. To avoid anarchy, we have to compromise and allow for a government. But recognizing that government is a necessary evil, we should seek to keep it at a minimum. Yet some people believe that the problems of our society require more government rather than less.

In India, people have been fed too much socialism and it has become second nature to them. They cannot imagine a world of freedom from government interference and control of their lives. Our greatest challenge is simply this: how do we awaken the desire for freedom of our people?

The good news is that philosophically Indians are tolerant. Our dharmic traditions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism — are founded on the idea of tolerance and acceptance (unlike the Abrahamic faiths which are intolerant and exclusive.) It will be easier for us to cross over to the side of freedom (libertarianism) because tolerance is part of our existing mental make-up.

Human freedom is inextricably bound with tolerance. As Milton Friedman argued (see the video), the foundation of liberatarianism is tolerance.

Have fun watching Uncle Friedman.

Author: Atanu Dey


10 thoughts on “Libertarianism and Humility”

  1. Oh, libertarianism. A beautiful system that completely ignores the reality of the society it aims to function in. One of the biggest problems of microeconomic models is the difficulty of translating back into reality the abstract results the models produce, and that is the exact problem with libertarianism- it is ‘freeing’ in theory, but considering the grave inequalities already present in the system and the unequal access to resources, libertarianism actually promotes the worst sort of oppression.

    In America, with its relatively less (but still stark) inequalities and much higher resource levels, I can somewhat understand the support for lolbertarianism, but even there it is a highly ignorant system espoused by rich, white males who ignore the realities of the system. In India? This is the most hilarious west-aping shit I have ever read.

    – A student of economics and law, who is able to understand highly abstract and mathematical economic models and yet also understand its real social implications.


  2. As a physicist, I completely get how extremely useful insanely simplistic approximations can be. Recently I found out that cosmologists often use the approximation that the Universe is an ideal gas of point particles with each point particle being a galaxy! And it turns out to be very useful. It gives you the sense that just because many things seem extremely complex, they can often be very well understood by throwing away all but the bare essentials.


  3. “This is the most hilarious west-aping shit I have ever read.”

    M., give our Atanu da some credit – he’s been trying in his posts for quite some time to map the Indic/Hindu philosophies on to his Libertarian/Randian creed, and find some overlap between the two, though not very successfully.


  4. As Mr. Friedman succinctly put it, the problem with libertarianism is the ‘getting from here to there’. And truly, there is no real answer to that question.

    You may argue that freeing up the market eventually gets you there, but that just not happen instantaneously. And the process to get there will be very painful in the short term for the ones at the bottom of the economy. It is a paradox that although they are the ones who gain the most from libertarianism, they are also the ones who lose a lot in the process to get there.

    The unfortunate part for democracies is that the bottom rung is also the majority. And any government, or aspiring government cannot come to power unless they ensure short term populist policies. These policies in turn just slow the process towards libertarianism.

    As you’ve put it across, the Congress is very good at keeping people poor because that is much easier than the longer process to get them richer, and that in itself is the sole reason for their staying in power despite their despicable policies.

    I’m a strong believer in the utopian values of liberty but worry a lot that our country will take a very long time to eventually get there.


  5. Yup there in that episode Bhagwati disagreeing with Friedman and making a point that Friedman’s choice of Japan to make his point was not appropriate due to nature of that society.


  6. M and Ilango point out a very important problem of shifting from socialism to oligarchy and/or crony capitalism as indicated by the 2G scam. Libertarianism is fine but how does one get there without a couple of generations of crony capitalism or oligarchy? Especially, in our society where family relations are all that matters and social relations are neglected, how does one instill any measure of meritocracy? Point in case being that all young MPs in Parliament are there due to family connections.


  7. It is high time the United Voters of India concept is implemented. If we start now then only it will be in final shape by 2014 elections.


  8. The hotbed of libertarianism is the US, where libertarianism seems like a cruel prank in which liberty for a boss is inherently better than liberty for his 100 employees.

    Where there is libertarian influence in the US, outside of civil rights (where there is a real and important role to play) it’s a discredited joke.


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