A reader, frustrated by my apparent duplicity, asked me how I can possibly say that RTE & Right to Food are worthwhile programs when my writings are predominantly libertarian in nature. I can only thank my reader, who goes by the name Dyslexic, for questioning the consistency of my beliefs. Without it, I would probably never have the opportunity of clarifying why I believe in what I do. I do now, and this is it.
Human beings are capital. A government’s basic duty is to maximize productivity of this capital, even at the cost of all other forms of capital like land and money. All schools of economic thought agree on this basic principle, but each goes about it in a different way. Libertarians believe in liberty and freedom of choice to be the foundation of human welfare. Keynesians believe in value maximization through government intervention where required, and Communists believe that human choice has no role to play at all. Here’s what I believe in,
1) The government should not limit industry and enterprise.
2) It should not own or manipulate the currency.
3) It should stay out of business.
4) It should do everything required to protect property and life from domestic and foreign aggression and finance it from tax receipts.
5) It should develop infrastructure, both physical & social, and finance it from tax receipts.
I know the social infrastructure part of 5 seems at odds with the first 4, but is it really? Physical infrastructure cannot be more important than social infrastructure like education and healthcare. Especially when inequality has reached frightening proportions and very little of it can be blamed on lack of initiative from the poor. In parts of the country which have been ignored, access to physical and social infrastructure is non-existent. The only thing one can find in abundance here is poverty. In these places, as in some developed parts of the nation as well, parents don’t send their children to school because 1) there are no schools and 2) even if there are, they need another earning member in the house. In this environment, making education a right is probably the only way to encourage parents to do the “right” thing. With poverty as widespread as in our nation, parents need all the encouragement they can get to send children to school. Rather than look at Right to Education as only a child’s right to be educated, I look at it as also the government’s right to demand that every child be educated.
The Right to Food has other roots. Have we ever wondered how we can have deaths due to, and suicides because of the fear of, starvation when every needy person has access to heavily subsidized food through the Public Distribution System(PDS)? Well, the answer lies in the unique way loans are structured in rural areas. When marginal farmers, farm workers or migrant workers take a loan from moneylenders, they are required to deposit their Ration Card & entitlement booklet with the lender. The money lender then draws food from the PDS using these cards and sells them in the open market, with the difference being treated as interest payment. When the loan is repaid, the Ration Card & booklet is returned. If the borrower cannot repay the loan, he/she literally starves to death or commits suicide to hasten the process. Right to Food proposes to tackle this menace by terming demand for such collateral as depriving the borrower of his/her Right to Food, making it a criminal offense. At the moment, its a civil matter.
Laws in India are seldom what they seem to be. To judge their suitability based on narrow interpretations of their motives is probably the biggest mistake one can make. An unrelated case that comes to mind is our DTAA with Mauritius. A recent article in the Business Standard had a finance ministry official lamenting the cost of the DTAA, pegging it at Rs. 2,000 crs. p.a. Such statements are common, and we wonder why the government puts up with the loss. Well, how about because the DTAA was not signed in isolation. It was signed along-with another treaty, one which gave the Indian Navy right to be positioned in Mauritius alongside French & British, both of which are former colonial rulers of Mauritius. This gives the Indian Navy unparalleled presence in the Indian Ocean. Now look at the Rs. 2,000 cr. cost of the DTAA. Doesn’t seem like much, does it? Then why are these statements made at all? Its about government allocations. The Ministry of Finance’s loss is the Ministry of Defense’s gain, but one it has never acknowledged officially. The day the MoD admits that it gains from this treaty, the MoF will be in a position to demand compensation to the extent of, well, Rs. 2,000 crs. p.a. So there.