Virtues Of State Limits
I think Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee was right when he defended his government in the face of the latest round of WikiLeaks disclosures that the UPA -1 government, when reduced to minority after the withdrawal of the Left support following the conclusion of India-United States civilian nuclear agreement in 2008, won the trust vote by giving crores of rupees to some of the law-makers belonging to Samajwadi Party and Ajit Singh’s Lok Dal. A set of India-related diplomatic cables on the Indo-US nuclear deal released by the WikiLeaks and published by The Hindu newspaper claimed that an aide of Congress leader Satish Sharma had told a US diplomat that the party had paid crores to the lawmakers to ensure that they voted for the deal in Parliament.
Mukherjee’s point is legal and logical—the present Lok Sabha is not responsible for the acts of omission and commission of the previous Lok Sabha and that the revelations of the cash-for-vote by American embassy officials will not stand the scrutiny of law since they not only enjoyed diplomatic immunity but also did exercise their sovereign right to intimate and educate their government in Washington DC.
Mukherjee was responding to the opposition charges in the Parliament. What were the charges? Leader of the opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley had said: “It is conclusively clear that this government survived on the basis of a political sin. The government which survived on the strength of such a political or moral sin has no authority. We demand that this government must resign immediately.” His counterpart in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj was heard saying: “There is no bigger shamelessness than this…that people were showing war chests to outsiders. The government has lost the moral authority to be in power.”
In other words, what Mukherjee suggested that while what his previous government did in 2008 might be immoral, there was nothing in law that suggested that his present government should quit. But then this argument is not something peculiar to the Congress party. Non-Congress parties having governments in various sates have also argued on similar lines when confronted with scams and controversies. It may be noted that BJP President Nitin Gadkari had issued statement not long ago that Karnataka Chief Minister Yeddyurappa, belonging to his party, might have done something immoral favouring his kins, but he had not done anything illegal.
And that brings the whole question of legality vis-a vis morality in running the affairs of the State under purview. The issue is old. It has been debated all over the world, particularly where one sees democratically-elected governments. But unfortunately, there has been no easy consensus. Because, as we cannot punish any individual for doing immoral things, we cannot take any government, which, in a broad sense, is an assortment of individuals, to task for indulging in immoral activities. Punishment follows only when established laws are violated. In other words, as long as we do not treat things moral as things legal, we cannot punish anyone who is morally guilty. But the problem is: should we legislate morality?
Those who would like to legislate morality argue like this: ideally speaking, what determines what is proper and improper for governments to do are, in essence, the same principles which differentiate the proper from the improper actions of the individual. The “rights of a government,” like the rights of any other association of men, can be morally no different than the rights of the men who comprise it. All that which is immoral for men acting individually is equally immoral for men acting in association. There is nothing a government can morally do, which individuals by themselves cannot morally do. The group, that is the government, is ethically no different from the individual.
However, the problem with the above approach is whether we can agree on the nature of morality? What is moral for some may be immoral for others. This is particularly so when a country consists of many cultures and is democratic. Here the government or the Constitution tries to work on consensus or “greater well being”, which, by its very nature, restricts people’s choices. If the individual has an inalienable right to his own life, liberty, and property, then morally his life and property is his own to do with as he pleases. It is just as immoral for a government to attempt to tax his earnings, regulate his business, or draft his sons and daughters as it would be for some isolated individual acting on his own authority to do so. The association of men into a group called “government” does not free them from morality or sanction actions otherwise immoral.
Going by this school of thought, what then are the functions left which government might conceivably engage in? The answer is those which deal exclusively with the use of retaliatory force, for government to essentially act as a “policeman of man’s rights”. This is exactly the limitation of functions which philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand proposes. Miss Rand defines what she considers to be a proper government as “an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area,” in essence, a social monopoly of retaliatory force.
I do not exactly agree with the above argument. After all, we have to be practical. If everybody will do things the way they like, there will be complete chaos. We need a regulator and that is what a government is supposed to be. But I believe in the spirit of the arguments of the likes of Miss Rand that the government should be “limited” in its power and functions. Lesser the role of the government, fewer are the opportunities of those who run the government in abuse of power. If the Chief Ministers are not endowed with what are called “discretionary powers” and if commercial and industrial activities are not state-controlled, we would not have seen scams in Karnataka and Maharashtra. In fact, if power generation, including those from nuclear plants, is not susceptible to government regulations and licenses, then there would have been no need for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to push the nuclear deal with the United States and in the process adopt unethical or immoral measures to save his government.
I strongly believe that in India the so-called welfare measures initiated and implemented by the State are mostly responsible for the growing corruption and immorality in our polity. Involvement of the State means more rules and regulations, which, in turn, can be violated by unscrupulous elements through bribes and force. No wonder, why subsidies hardly benefit the poor and needy.
This does not mean that we do not need a government. The government must be the link between public policies and personal character, between the laws we pass and the moral attitudes we produce. We need social mobility and equality of opportunity. At the same time, we also need individual responsibility and self-confident citizens. Unfortunately, the so-called protagonists of “welfare state” do not believe in “self -responsibility” and “duties”; they are only concerned with governmental grants and concessions in the name of “fundamental rights”. They want a strong government, whereas the need of the hour is a “limited government”. India will be strong, both politically and morally when its citizens become self-sufficient in managing their affairs, leaving the State to protect them and create conditions to realise their potentials, with occasional umpiring over their differences.
By Prakash Nanda