On 20th January, 2019, I participated in a day-long colloquium titled ‘The Limits of Democracy’ organized by the Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society in partnership with the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research in Mumbai. The IGIDR campus in Goregaon East is where the gathering was held, with the stated aim “to bring together experts from diverse backgrounds within the policy space for a discussion on the conceptual terrain of public choice.” I decided to commit my time because of the following brief that came with the call for applications:

Democracy is the best form of government. But it is not without its limits. The Public Choice tradition emphasizes that “democracy may become its own Leviathan unless constitutional limits are imposed and enforced.” The consequences of failing to heed this advice are visible in the Western world that is struggling to deal with mounting debt and increasing pressure for expanding the scope of government action. In India, we are entering a year of potential electoral shuffle and this is an appropriate time to review the performance of our democracy. In light of these developments, it is important to remind ourselves of the key ideas proposed by James Buchanan and other public choice scholars.

The participants in this round table discussion came from an interesting mix of academic and professional backgrounds: education policy, micro-finance, marketing, literature, politics, law, communication, economics, human rights education, infrastructure investment, history, management, social entrepreneurship, rural development, revenue forecasting, mathematics, wildlife conservation, psychology, statistics and theatre.

Each participant was sent a reader a couple of weeks in advance to prepare for the colloquium. It contained writings by James M. Buchanan, Viktor J. Vanberg, Sunita Parikh, Barry R. Weingast, Roby Rajan and Shruti Rajagopalan. The reading material assigned was challenging for me to go through because I was struggling with dental troubles, and was using antibiotics to deal with the pain. However, I did manage to read Buchanan and Rajagopalan.

In Buchanan’s essay ‘The Paradox of Being Governed’, an interesting distinction is made between the productive state and the protective state. The former refers to the state as “the means of facilitating and implementing the complex exchanges required for the provision of jointly consumed goods and services.” The latter is concerned with the role of the state “to ensure that the terms of the conceptual contractual agreement are honoured, that rights are protected” on the basis of “truth judgements” that “will include specification of punishment or penalty to accompany violation.”

This effectively means that the state will have monopoly over violence, and citizens will voluntarily give away their power to the state in order to be protected from other citizens. This arrangement sounds dreadful not only for those who advocate for free markets as the regulating mechanism of society but also to those concerned about human rights violations. Knowing about the reality of state-sponsored terrorism, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, sedition charges, capital punishment, and encroachment of private property, it seems ironic to call it a protective state when the state itself is arguably the biggest violator of rights. In that case, I think we probably need protection from the state. What do you think?

Let us go back to the idea of the contractual agreement I had referred to. An example here would be the Constitution of India, a document that I first heard about in my Civics class. I cannot recall which grade that was but my peers and I did study the preamble in some detail. Did we form a connection to this contractual agreement? I do not think so. Buchanan speaks to this gap in a way that resonates with my own experience:

The existing and ongoing implicit social contract, embodied and described in the institutions of the status quo, is exogenous to the participants, who have no sense of previous sharing in the making of the rules….persons may feel themselves being forced to abide by terms of a “social contract” never made and subjected to potential punishment by an enforcing agent over whom they exert no control, either directly or indirectly.

This alienation of modern man from the protective state is exacerbated when he observes those persons who hold assigned roles in the functioning of this agency themselves to be departing from the rules defined in the status quo, either to aggrandize personal power or to promote subjectively chosen moral and ethical objectives.

Thinking about this carefully helped me understand why some people choose not to vote. They are not irresponsible or lazy. They find the whole system quite arbitrary because they have not had a say in the creation of the social contract the elected representatives will uphold and help execute. As an educator, I can connect this back to the school setting where students do not have any role in making the rules. They are expected to obey and conform to rules that may appear illogical just so that they can escape punishment.

In Rajagopalan’s paper ‘The Role of Ideology in Constitutional Craftsmanship: Evidence from India’, the focus is on how “ideology informs an individual of his interests — it helps the individual form expectations on costs and benefits in the future.” The author argues primarily based on her research around the history of constitutional amendments in India, and how they have affected the property rights of citizens. I will not go into the details of this history but, if you read the paper, you will see how liberals and socialists have perceived “future costs from public and private predation.” This is how ideology has been defined in the paper:

Ideology is the foundational belief of the nature of reality in the world…an economizing device by which individuals come to terms with their environment and are provided with a “world view” so that the decision-making process is simplified. It is inextricably interwoven with moral and ethical judgements about the fairness of the world individuals perceive.

When I read this, I thought immediately about the current political discourse in India. There are some who think that we are on the way to becoming a Hindu rashtra, and there are others who think that Muslims are about to take over this country using the weapon of ‘love jihad’. They are firmly entrenched in their own world views, and they seek to influence others using various means of communication. Reality is perceived as a set of opposing camps, and the attempt is to recruit people to one’s own camp. This extends to how the constitution is viewed — as a document that should protect the welfare state or if it should be amended to favour a free market economy. It is useful to examine Rajagopalan’s summary of Thomas Sowell’s discussion about two basic visions of human nature:

The first is the “constrained vision” of man, where one views individuals as selfish, morally limited, and with dangerous impulses. Given these limitations, the goal is to find ways in which, with all these limitations, an individual could be induced to produce benefits for others in society, in the process of pursuing one’s own interest. The contrasting view is the “unconstrained vision” where the problem is not nature, or the nature of the individual, but institutions. In this view, it is not in the fundamental nature of an individual to act selfishly or in a morally limited way; the behaviour of man is a result of a combination of circumstances or institutions. Therefore an individual could be improved, to be morally superior, and capable of justice and virtue; and not require the aid of incentives.

Based on the vision held by the state, resources are directed towards inventing new ways of restricting individual autonomy or towards coming up with new incentives that encourage individuals to act in ways that benefit society. From what I see around me, I think that the Indian state adopts a constrained vision of its citizens. Ensuring individual freedom is not a priority for the state. It is held hostage by vote bank politics which mobilizes individuals around identities based on religion, caste, language and ethnicity.

The colloquium gave me much food for thought. I have not been able to document as much I would have liked to but I hope this gives you a flavour of what it was like to be there. We ended the day with everyone at the table being asked to identify what they would like to change about the Constitution of India. I listed three things that I would like this document to do:

  1. legalize marriage and provide property and inheritance rights for queer couples

Writer, educator and researcher

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