Satish B. SettyArchiveAbout

Revisiting my views on economy, society and politics

About three years ago, I examined my own beliefs and opinions about economy, society and politics. In the intervening years, the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic happened and the world has changed for ever. It is time to reflect on the nature of humanity and what we’ve done to Mother Earth. I’ve witnessed first-hand, how the greed of profits drove hospitals to eschew human values. Enough of such selfish, capitalistic greed.

Since the past few years, I’ve been influenced by the Viṡiṣṭādvaita Philosophy of Bhagavad Ramanujacharya. It stands in the middle-ground between Advaita and Dvaita. As a result, my beliefs even in politics have shifted towards Centrism-Liberalism.

What India needs today is a model of development which makes a judicious mix of free market and social justice principles, the market and the state working in harmony and in tandem to deliver people-centric services. An ethical state committed to the common good, social justice, and equality of opportunity for all people without distinction of gender, religion, class or occupation.

Gist of my principles from the previous essay still hold true:

Duties over rights.
Responsibilities over freedom.
Common good over personal gain.
Opportunities over outcomes.
Fairness over equality.
Pluralism over diversity.
Localization over centralization.

That is, while I cherish the items on the right, I prioritize more those on the left.

“You shall have your rights only when you fulfill your duties”

Foundations

It goes without saying that I support a republic and democratic government and also support civil rights and civil liberties. I support a liberal mix of private ownership and collective ownership but not government ownership.

India is a not a country based on language or religion or ethnicity. India is not a nation state but a civilisation statemany, many others think so too. It is culture that binds us. And one has to concede that the dharmic way of life is central to this culture. Even today 80% of India’s population follows dharma-centric religions. This cannot be denied. Therefore, the social and administrative policies of the state should reflect the cultural and civilizational ethos of the country or bhāratīya saṃskṛti more than anything else. However, the civil and legal policies of the state shall be secular, i.e., not religion-based; otherwise, the religious minorities could be disadvantaged.

Indian culture is embedded in humanistic values and aims at welfare and happiness of every human being. It has a cosmic vision where the orientation is towards “welfare”, “social good” and the “good of the greatest numbers”. This is reflected in the statement vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam (the world is one family) and sarvē bhavantu sukhinaḥ (happiness to all).

In a country where about 25% of our fellow citizens live below the poverty line, the policies for national development must be prioritized to fulfill the basic needs of the people, namely, (1) food, (2) water, (3) clothing, and (4) housing.

Equality

We need Uniform Civil Code and social equality under law. Non-Appeasement policy should be followed, i.e., no policy shall favour a person or group based on their gender identity, religion, colour, language, state, ethnicity, class or caste. Meaning, human rights, social rights, civil rights and civil liberties shall equally apply to everyone in a non-discriminatory manner. Neither minorityism nor majoritarianism. Hence, I’m critical of affirmative action because it is discriminatory. The only criteria for special treatment should be the financially poor and physically-disabled.

Meritocracy shall apply to everyone. Allocating a seat in IIT for a 50,000th ranked student instead of a 5000th ranked one is not equality. Ensure equality of opportunity instead of equality of outcome – meaning no reservation quota for SC/ST/OBC. However, the state should provide positive and proactive measures to ensure that every individual would have an equal opportunity of success, for example, financially supporting the poor in General/SC/ST/OBC and the physically-disadvantaged.

Despite providing an equal starting point, the socioeconomic status of individuals are determined by their skills and talent, not birth, caste or religion.

Individuals and Society

Too much individualism has made us devoid of familial happiness, to the point of not even talking to neighbours. Family traditions like bowing down to your parents and touching the feet of gurus, teach you humility. “To the liberals, the whole world is but a family. Be detached, be tranquil, be unemotional.” – thus goes the Mahā Upanishad. Note the word udāra used in the verse. In fact, liberalism is translated as udāra-vāda.

Duties to one’s family (pitṛ ṛṇa) and society at large (manuṣya ṛṇa, ṛṣi ṛṇa) are central to Indian culture and should not be abandoned.

Economy based on Free Markets

An economy based on free market and free trade consisting mainly of private enterprise but with government-owned or subsidised programs of education and healthcare for all citizens. Creating equal economic opportunities will uplift the poor, not just wealth redistribution.

Regulatory bodies should watch over private enterprise in the interests of workers and consumers. Such bodies shall ensure humane work conditions and fair competition to prevent monopolies.

I consider drinking water, healthcare and education as “essentials”. They shall be government-owned or subsidised. Housing shall be subsidised to those below the poverty line. The state should establish and maintain an electricity grid and let the private players compete for generation and tranmission. However, the state regulate it to ensure availability, uptime and geographical coverage. Every other sector (e.g. banking, postal services, railways, airlines, etc.) shall be privatized and deregulated.

Apart from these, the government has no job running an enterprise. It’s a waste of taxpayer money when the government owns loss-making companies like a textile company, an airline company, telephone companies or even a soap company!. Heavy government subsidies should be avoided.

The government should exercise fiscal discipline, i.e.

  1. Do not make policies which lead to excessive inflation.
  2. Keep the bugdet balanced over the economic cycle, i.e., aim for zero net borrowing.
  3. Be thrifty in public expenditure and avoid abnormal deficit planning.
  4. Do not take on foreign loans which are beyond the capacity of our country to repay.

Moderate Level of Taxation

Keep the taxation low, so as to not interfere with reasonable living standards for the people and not so high which prevents capital formation and private investment.

I prefer taxation on consumption rather than on income. For example, someone buying a Mercedes-Benz should be taxed a higher percentage than someone buying a Tata Nano. Because, it is the rich that spend more and they can afford to be taxed more. It is a form of wealth redistribution, but it is in the hands of the individual, not the state. It also discourages USA-like mindless consumerism.

Income tax should not be high because low-wage earners need to save enough for their basic needs. Ideally, a single, flat-tax rate of one-sixth (1/6 ≅ 16%) for all citizens is reasonable. Historically, it was that tax rate for several millennia. However, a progressive taxation system, say, between [5%…25%], is not bad. All citizens must pay income tax, no matter how little that may be. Capital gains and dividends are still income, so they should be taxed according to income tax bracket.

Consumption tax can be variable and higher than income tax.

Corporations and businesses should be taxed a little lower than individuals, but not too little. And tax havens are a definite no-no. Tax evasion laws should be strict.

Federalism and Decentralization

Decision-making should be decentralised. Historically, we had gaṇas, sabhas, and samitis which made decisions at the local level. Even today, we have grāma pan̄cāyats and pan̄cāyat samitis. The communitarian spirit of India must be cherished.

Given India’s vast diversity, federalism makes complete sense. Too much power in the hands of the Central government may turn it into authoritarian.

Trade Unions, Cooperatives and Trusteeship

Rampant privatization of healthcare results in insurance mafia, like in USA. Rampant privatization of education results in sky-rocketing student debts, like in USA. The consumerist culture of “borrow and enjoy” has caused rising household debt. It’s all about finding a balance between private ownership and social ownership. Achieving community welfare without compromising individual freedom. I oppose state ownership, and this is where cooperatives help.

I like the idea of private ownership with a Trusteeship focus. The State should utilise and reward the sense of moral responsibility, the satisfaction and fulfilment felt by individuals in serving others, which are inherent in our culture, instead of adopting legislative or other forms of compulsion. Trade unions shall be encouraged so that workers have collective bargaining rights to decide their own fate. Similarly, a group of private employers can also form another union to balance their point of view. This is quite common in Nordic countries.

For example, create guilds, clubs, syndicates, trusts, worker- or consumer-cooperatives, cooperative banks, trade associations, animal welfare societies, social-service organizations, employee- or employer-unions, business-owner associations, and so on.

The idea is to decentralize and dissolve oligarchy & monopoly (be it state monopoly or corporate monopoly). Such organizations can (and do) exist in a capitalist society but not on a scale large enough to challenge big corporations, which is what I’d like to see.

Again, the government should stay away from heavy labour regulation and let the citizens decide for themselves. It should just be a bystander, mediating only when necessary, between the workers’ and employers’ trade unions.

Social Policy

A progressive social policy, including support for homosexual marriage, stem-cell research, euthanasia and legalisation of prostitution. Addictive substances (e.g. weed, tobacco, alcohol) shall be heavily restricted (but not banned), to avoid tax burden on other citizens who don’t use them.

Abortion should be legal but restricted to cases of risk to woman’s life, her health, rape, fetal impairment or economic factors. Shouting “my body, my right” is pointless, because, first, it’s not only your body but that of the offspring too, and secondly, as above, “duties over rights” means that the parents should jointly accept the responsibility for the newborn. Actions have consequences, and thus you shall be held responsible.

Social Welfare for the Needy

Social security shall be provided but only for the financially- and physically-disadvantaged. Just the bare minimum to ensure food, clothing and shelter. That is, a “safety-net” welfare but not “cradle-to-grave” welfare like in the Nordics. Such a “welfare allowance” is only for the poor and the handicapped and not based on religion or caste (SC/ST/OBC). This means that poor Brahmins as well as poor tribals are equally served justice.

Environmental and Animal Welfare

One thing that COVID made it clear is that humans need Nature but Nature doesn’t need us. Nature is not a resource to satisfy human needs. Global warming is real. Hence environmental protection laws should be in place, although not always to the extent advocated by “Green” parties. The state could outsource the task of forest preservation (but not forest ownership) to the private sector. However, handing off the ownership of forest reserves to the private sector will accelerate deforestation and loss of animal habitat, because, well, the companies want to make profit.

Carbon tax sounds good but in reality it puts the low-income households at a disadvantage because it is usually they who use emission-heavy products like vehicles. Instead, tax incentives should be given to enterprises which promote green technologies like renewable energies (solar, wind, nuclear etc.), electric cars, bio-degradable bags, etc.

However, alarmist and politically-backed NGOs like Greenpeace are a nuisance to economic development. Nuclear power has low-carbon footprint; it’s an excellent, renewable, alternative to coal/oil.

One-time use plastics must be banned. While recycling is good, it is not enough. Companies must make products that last, i.e., durable and not for recyclability. Perverse ideas like “planned obsolescence” benefit only the manufacturers like Apple, against its consumers and the environment. Right to Repair must be legislated by the government.

It is well-established that eating (red) meat is harmful for the environment. Effort should be made to promote vegetarianism and sustainable development, even if it causes financial loss or loss of jobs. Cattle protection is a directive in the Indian Constitution and must be enacted.

Healthcare

Current public health services are plagued by low-quality and under-funding. Government should rehaul universal healthcare. Especially primary healthcare (not specialist or in-patient care) should be government-owned, providing free-of-charge services to its citizens (possibly in cooperation with the private sector). Coverage beyond primary care could be complemented by the employer. I prefer a multi-payer system (instead of single payer) in which healthcare is funded primarily by the government and secondarily by contributions from employers (mandatorily) and employees (voluntarily) to a regulated, non-profit funds. The concept of “health insurance” should be generally discouraged, but it might be useful for very high-cost treatments.

Steps must be taken to address population growth. Sex education, especially the use of contraceptives, should be promoted at all levels. Women’s education and self-empowerment plays a critical role here. I also oppose child-care benefits, because it provides an incentive to have more children – something which we don’t want at all!

Nationalism and Immigration

Patriotism and love for one’s motherland is what binds us all to defend our country in the times of war. India is both a civic nation and also an ethnic nation. I strongly oppose violent and aggressive forms of nationalism; plus nationalism should be non-discriminatory. Nationalists put India first and their religious, caste, regional and linguistic identities last.

“The whole world is one family”, Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam. So, immigration is welcome, especially, skilled workers, college students and others who profess pluralism. Immigration of exclusivists should be discouraged because, well, they exclude others who differ from their beliefs, so why bother with them.

Pluralism is preferred over diversity and hence Cultural Pluralism over Multiculturalism.

Gender

Gender is of personal significance and it shouldn’t matter in the division of labour. Gender equality is a given. Women’s quota and women-only tax incentives imply an affirmation of women’s inferiority and backwardness – do you want it?

The whole drama in the West surrounding LGBT rights has its origins in their vilification by Abrahamic religions. Dharmic religions proudly steer clear of such bodily identities and focus on the spirit inside each one of us. That said, eunuchs should be brought to mainstream society and ensure that they are not discrminated against (just like others), so that they too can lead a life of dignity.

Curbing Corruption via Transparency

The state should be an enabler for employment and minimize employment in the public sector. The cost of public administration should be reduced considerably. I’m against the expansion of the bureaucratic machinery, with its hierarchy of officials who are asked to do work which is best done by citizens and private agencies, resulting in unproductive waste of national resources.

Babudom is the bane of Indian economy. The government should be as minimum as possible, in order to minimize bureaucracy and corruption.

  1. One weapon to fight such institutionalized corruption it digitalization. Make all government services available online and via smartphones. This cuts out the middlemen.
  2. All government “data” (e.g. financial statements, policies, salaries, etc.) should be placed in public domain and made available free of charge. Such transparency is necessary. Reduce the salary of government employees (including politicians) in order to discourage “money-making” mentality. No perks for ministers.
  3. Build a professional civil service. Transparent, merit-based hiring and competitive pay will reduce the opportunities for corruption. The heads of agencies, ministries, and public enterprises must promote ethical behavior by setting a clear tone at the top.

Religion and Secularism

Secularism, i.e., separation of religion and state, must be strictly followed. The government shall not make laws about any religion (like management of temples or giving Hajj subsidy). As a corollary, whatever laws are passed should not be religion-specific. Things like Sharia law for Muslims, or Hindu Marriage Act must be scrapped because, well, we have a Uniform Civil Code. However, an elected minister could be a religious leader; as long as she doesn’t bring her religion into governance, it’s alright.

Religious institutions shouldn’t be under the purview of the State. Temples should be private property and they can have the right to deny entry to whomever they want (e.g. in Sabarimala). That is liberal equality.

Rant

Today the word ‘liberal’ is considered derogatory because of its association with the dynastic, left-leaning, pseudo-secular Congress party. Its leader Nehru believed in Fabianist socialism. Indira Gandhi was responsible for undemocratic, dictatorial inclusion of the words socialist and secular in the Constitution. By socialism it was meant Soviet-inspired, anti-capitalist License Raj. “He [Nehru] did not seem to accept that capitalism was necessary for the economic development of India”. Contrary to what “secularism” actually means, for Congress ‘secular’ means reservation system based on religion and caste, and minority appeasement. Congress opposes Uniform Civil Code because it is afraid of losing the Muslim vote-bank. BJP, with its focus on development, national- and social-conservatism, has a visionary leader (Narendra Modi) but pretty much everyone else in the party is a nutjob. And BJP too is not moving away from socialist and caste-based policies.

Foreign Policy of Non-Interference

Foreign policy should be based on mutual benefits.

  1. Foreign policy should be focused on economy, i.e., expanding trade and tourism.
  2. No interference in the internal affairs of other nations.
  3. Not letting others interfere in the internal matters of our nation.
  4. Defensive military, i.e., do not attack until attacked.

Point 1 means that, we should promote our cultural values abroad to improve tourism. A state-run news media should present the Indian p.o.v. to the world fearlessly. We should certainly welcome foreign direct investment especially in sectors like infrastructure and manufacturing.

Point 2 means that, we don’t comment about burqa rights in France or human rights in China.

Point 3 means that, foreign lobbying agencies, like the Amnesty International, must be heavily regulated. Similarly, all funding to religious organizations from abroad must be taxed out to the max.

I’m not a Classical Liberal

(1)

Classical liberals are usually skeptical of the government, always afraid that it will take away their liberty. However, I place more confidence in the positive role of the government (they’re elected by us after all!) to act as an enabler in maximizing liberty of even the most disadvantaged.

(2)

Classical Liberalism leans towards laissez-faire, which I believe results in rampant capitalism and hyper-consumerism. It is also based on the ideas of “self-interest” as propounded by Adam Smith. Class libs believe that humans maximize their own self-interest in dealings with others. For example, people acting in “self-interest” is what caused private hospitals to charge exorbitantly during the COVID pandemic. The “invisible hand” of the markets failed because everyone in the market wants a profit and the common man was left in the lurch. A typical response is, well, “start your own hospital and compete in the market”, as if every individual has the time and money to do it.

(3)

Class libs emphasize individualism and individual liberty over everything else. They believe that society should serve individuals’ needs. I believe in the opposite, i.e., “selfless service”, Sevā towards society. Seva is at the core of Indian culture, be it Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism or Islam[1].

(4)

I’m in favour of the right to private property but not to the extent of classlibs. They prefer to sell state-owned enterprises, goods and services to private investors. This includes banks, electricity, schools, hospitals and even fresh water. Such privatization has the effect of concentrating wealth in a few hands and making the public pay even more for its needs.

The goals of education and healthcare are at odds with profit-maximization. Though I support private enterprise in sectors like banking, railroads and infrastructure, there should be quality assurances regulated by government agencies.

(5)

Classical liberals dislike unions and advocate labour market deregulation (i.e., full freedom for companies to set pay structures and in hiring and firing) because it widens individual choices. On the other hand, I like the idea of unions and support deregulation of the labour market only where it is expected to produce significant social or economic benefits. Trade unions have a role to play in protecting low-paid employment. Of course, deregulation makes sense to ward off aggressive trade unions or when the unemployment benefit payouts are excessive.

I’m not a Neoliberal

(1)

Neolibs don’t like price controls by the government. To convince us this is good for us, they say “an unregulated market is the best way to increase economic growth, which will ultimately benefit everyone”. It’s like “supply-side” and “trickle-down” economics – but somehow the wealth hasn’t trickled down very much. I’m glad that the Indian government imposed a maximum price on the COVID vaccines sold by private hospitals.

(2)

Neolibs eliminate the concept of “the public good” or “community” and replace it with “individual responsibility”. Pressuring the poorest people in a society to find solutions to their lack of healthcare, education and social security all by themselves – then blaming them, if they fail, as “lazy”.

(3)

Neolibs want everything “deregulated” that could limit their profits, including protecting the environment.

(4)

Neolibs advocate cutting public expenditure for social services like education and healthcare.

It should be clear that I disagree with neolibs, as explained elsewhere in this essay.

I’m not a Social Democrat

SocDems have their heart in socialism, i.e., they see it as a transitory phase from capitalism to socialism. SocDems are skeptical of private property and prefer social ownership (either by the state or some collective group). On the contrary, I fully support private property rights.

SocDems also favour an extensive welfare program (like in the Nordics) which is too “extensive” for my liking. For example, I certainly don’t want things like Basic Income Guarantee or perpetual unemployment allowance. Though such schemes could be reserved for the downtrodden, these programs discourage people from actively seeking employment – please do some work to earn your bread.

Similarly, many leftists emphasize on equality of outcome whereas I prioritize equality of opportunity.

Since I’m not a fan of socialism in general, that excludes democratic socialism as well.

I’m not a Libertarian

Unlike libertarians, I don’t consider taxation be theft or “aggression”.

Unlike libertarians, I don’t consider liberty to be the primary principle. There needs to be some reasonable limits on individual liberty; otherwise extreme individualism will result in everybody shooting each other with guns like in the USA.

I am a Dharmic Liberal

I’m neither the first nor unique in having these political views; maybe they’re closer to Social Liberalism or Liberal Socialism or whatever “ism”. But the basis of my views is dharma. Or you could call it Indic Liberalism, if the word dharma upsets you. You could call it a Hindu Democratic Centrism, à la Christian Democracy.

Dharma is not religion and certainly not a religious concept. It is an idea native to the Indian subcontinent (Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh – all accept it) and hard to translate. It represents social order, a set of ethical and moral values, a notion of duties and responsibilities, righteousness and even cosmic harmony. Like Dr. Kaushik says, dharma embodies service and humility to achieve social equality and welfare, whereas liberalism embodies individual rights and economic freedom in pursuit of material happiness. Among the trivarga, “liberalism” represents artha and kama, both of which must stand firm on dharma – we don’t have a separate ideology for the body and a separate philosophy for the mind like the West. Dharmic ideologies are an integral unity, not a synthetic one.

Abrahamism is present all over the world, but Dharmic religions are unique to us. Dharmic culture has shaped our lives more than Abrahamism. This uniqueness must be celebrated and capitalized by industries like tourism.

Early liberalists like C. Rajagopalachari aka Rajaji identified Vedanta as the basic culture of India and considered Hinduism as a way of life. Yet he was a liberal who didn’t undermine other religions. One of the 21 principles of Swatantra party states: “We stand for every effort being made to preserve what is good in our culture and to replace by spiritual values the materialistic philosophy of life that has resulted from the efforts merely to raise what is called the standard of life.”

And a disclaimer at last: these views are dependent on time (2021), place (India) and circumstance (coronavirus) and thus subject to change without notice :)

If I have only one expectation from politicians, it is this:

Do your job well. Really. That’s all I ask. Punctually. And without corrpution.

Like Lord Krishna says, “svadharmē nidhanaṃ ṡrēyaḥ”, doing your prescribed duty, even unsuccessfully, is better than death.


  1. “In this (Islam’s) framework, individual duties trump individual rights.”  ↩