27 February 2012

In search of a paradigm

Debates and discussions in the academic, media and public policy circles with regard to socio-economic issues have a tendency to identify positions as either Right or Left. The questioning mind thinks whether Right is right and  Left is to be left or is it the other way round where Right is to be left and Left is right. One talks of the virtues of the market a la Adam Smith and the other the virtues of a classless society a la Karl Marx.

Daniel Mackie, Thinkers, Adam Smith and Karl Marx
Among lay persons the discussions at times can point to the right-hand use among people being the norm whereas the left-hand use being an aberration by the supporters of Right, which is countered by stating that left-hand users are smarter and intelligent by the supporters of Left. There are others who want to broker peace and point out that there are advantages in both the hands while conceding that there can be situations where we are more attuned to the right and some others where we are more attuned to the left. But then a middle position leaves an unanswered question with regard to the appropriate paradigm. Are we both Right and Left? Or, are we neither Right nor Left? These questions put us in a catch-22 situation.

Getting back, the virtues of the market as also that of classless society have their own merit. The market gives the freedom to individuals to exchange their goods and services and because of the existence of large number of buyers and sellers none of them can determine the prices and it is this that can do away with any vested interest. A classless society does away with any kind of hierarchy and with it any power relationships that can lead to vested interest are also done away with. Both these are ideal situations that do away with some form of vested interest.

The doing away of vested interests is also articulated through the impartial spectator in Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments and the need is conveyed by the corruption of our moral sentiments, which is occasioned by the disposition to admire the rich and the great, and to despise or neglect persons of poor and mean condition. The role of the impartial spectator is taken forward in recent times by Amartya Sen in The Idea of Justice.

Another idea of doing away with vested interest is John Rawls' 'original position'. Here the individuals enter into an agreement by remaining under a veil of ignorance where they do not know their identities, as articulated in A Theory of Justice.

A very powerful call to our moral power is invoked when Mahatma Gandhi gave us a talisman. This talisman suggests that whenever in doubt an individual should recall the face of the most vulnerable person and contemplate whether the action to be taken will be of any help to that person and provide them with swaraj and it is this that will lead to one's doubt as also one's self melting away.  There will be no vested interest.

Steve Jobs in his commencement address (also see video below) to students at Stanford University refers to three stories from his life. The third one states that since he was 17 years old he has been starting his day every day by contemplating that it could be his last and it is this invoking of death that does away with all redundant things - external expectations, pride, fear, embarrassment or failure; only truly important things remain.  This reminds us about John Donne's Death be not proud, but more importantly it is also a very powerful moral power that does away with vested interest. 

Speaking about the contemporary political scenario in India one cannot but agree about the public perception of honesty and integrity by its Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. At least with regard to financial propriety at a personal level and without going into ideological differences and some other acts of omission and commission, one can also name half-a-dozen  Chief Ministers from different states cutting across political parties such as Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal, Manik Sarkar of Tripura, Narendra Modi of Gujarat, Naveen Patnaik of Odisha, Nitish Kumar of Bihar and Prithviraj Chavan of Maharashtra among others who are also known to satisfy the acid test of public probity in some sense. This is a good thing and a necessary condition to root out vested interests leading to corruption, but it is neither a sufficient condition nor the only test required for good governance.

For instance, being personally honest does not mean that we can assume that everyone around us is also honest. The assumption of trust is a positive thing, but this cannot be the basis of a statecraft to allow markets to rule the roost. Similarly, espousing a classless society through different process does not necessarily mean the absence of hierarchies and vested interests, as the recent experiences in the umpteen years of Left rule in West Bengal or the fall of the erstwhile Soviet Union suggest.

Markets or a classless setup are means to do away with some forms of vested interest so that people live in a fair society.  Thus, as a deeper reading of Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Rawls would show, it is people with plural concerns who should be at the centre of focus - the ends. As Amartya Sen would say, it is the enhancing of capabilities of people so that they can be and do what they have reason to value is what matters. These have been articulated in numerous ways in the Human Development Reports of the last two decades.

So, to sum up, the question of either Right or Left, or, neither Right nor Left are not the appropriate ones. One can use, markets as also classless set-up or any other means or none of them to help people depending on the context. One should take advantage of these as also other means and tools when required, but should also be on the guard for adverse implication that can come out of the usage of these. But, most importantly one should never loose sight of the people-centric approach, our end. It is this that takes us in our search for a paradigm to one called 'human development'.

An interesting note, tangentially related is Karl Marx and Adam Smith Drop In On Occupy Wall Street. This link and the link to some of the photographs have been put up on 25 April 2012.


  1. Srijit,

    It is a good summary of ideas on being right or left. Perhaps you know more about the public figures mentioned in your writeup than I do. But your writing may be discounted by the reader if in their view those figures are to the right or left of the center. I would avoid explicit mention of names.

    The omission seems to be what is the center and what are the right of the center and the left of the center, and if right of one's center can be left of anotehr's center. The discussion could perhaps be broadened to discuss what thereligions say about what is just, such as Thomas Aquinas on what is a just price, and what Indian scriptures say about what is just, what the quoran says on investment and drawing inetrest, etc,

    Krishna T. Kumar
    2, Trail House Court
    Rockville, MD. 20850

    1. Thank you Sir. I did not want to put the names of Indian politician, but then though of Dr Singh and maybe one or two others, but to maintain a balance I put names spread across party lines (which does not mean that I agree with all their plans, policies and approaches). The distinction between centre, right of the centre or left of centre and so on and so forth would be useful, but I have so far not thought much on those lines. In any case, I wanted to get back to a people-centric approach, which would implicitly include all such possibilities.

  2. Sharing comments sent by Prof VM Rao.
    Change in human societies is only partially under the control of its members. the other source is the numerous factors beyond our control.
    Consiuder, for example, the crisis which hit japan recently!
    Secondly, given the plurality of views, priorities and goals among the people in a society, the status of the society at any given time would be a mix of what we like and hate. We can neither accept fully the society as it is nor reject it totally.
    Third, a society to function needs a minimum of hierarchy and inequality to manage the variations in endowments, aspirations and capabilities across its members. Hence, neither the right nor the left would prevail in their pure form in any real world society. Right and left provide conceptual tools to discover the paradigm suitable for a particular society at a particular point in its evolution. Suitable paradigms differ cross-sectionally and over time.
    Each society has to discover the paradigm appropriate to it using concepts and past experiences. only in regimented societies a stable paradigm will emerge and endure. free societies will be continually changing. the trajectory will be zig-zag, backward-forward, cyclical. unidirectional growth and development are concepts helpful for orientation but unattainable.
    This applies to human development which has many dimensions and eludes consensus on the concrete policies and measures to achieve them. The search for paradigms would never end though there could be improvements over time.