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.
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 a 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 aboutJohn 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 going into ideological differences and some other acts of omission and commission, one can also name half-a-dozen Chief Ministers from different states 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 others 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’.