John Maynard Keynes, when bidding farewell from the post of editor of the Economic Journal in 1945, eloquently stated that the great economic thinkers of the world were all searching for the intellectual tools that could help solve what he called the political problem of mankind: how to combine three things, namely economic efficiency, social justice and individual liberty. His argument was that these tools could be found only in the then rapidly growing science of economics.
While we may or may not contest that point, it has to be conceded that it is a perceptive statement: all governance, it would seem, is a mix and interplay of these three things. The ratio and proportion of the three makes all the difference in the quality, content and tenor of the government in position.
Economic efficiency, insofar as the country is concerned, entails the best utilization of human and natural resources, the organisation of the financial underpinnings of the system, the freedom to individuals, as themselves or as groups, to utilize their talent to further their legitimate interests, the setting in place the rules that shall govern the market place and allowing enterprise and commerce to prosper so that it can touch the lives of the ordinary people for their betterment. It involves the creation of infrastructure, including roads and ports and airports and essential requirements such as drinking water systems and medical facilities and a host of other activities that adds to the well being of the country. Commerce and business thrives, not only for the entrepreneurs themselves but for the citizens of the country that benefit from them directly or indirectly. The freeing of the spirit of enterprise of the nation is inherent in the concept.
But that alone cannot do for a nation, when there is much disparity and discrimination, despite the best that economic efficiency can bring about. Always there will be people on the margins, who fall through the cracks and face the cold of the winter. The factors that produce inequality, and its elder brother, inequity, may arise from religion or caste or class or even physical disability. Merely being a child or a woman may be enough to deny you access to what should rightfully be yours. It is here that the State has to step in and ensure that ‘social justice’ is maintained. Many nations have experimented with the modalities to do so; whether it is the affirmative action for the blacks in the US or the policy of reservation of jobs for certain castes and tribes in India; whether it is subsidies or scholarships or financial incentives for certain vulnerable categories of beneficiaries.
It is further argued that the government of the majority, as prescribed in the book of democracy, has to look out for those who are not in the mainstream too. Not only those who were their opponents in the elections, but also those who may not even have participated in the process of election for the government in power. Social justice thus becomes a gigantic conceptual ideal that must be fulfilled, or attempted to be fulfilled, if the real intent of governance is to be achieved.
There is much debate on the manner in which ‘social justice’ is to be implemented and put into place. Is it possible to overdo it? This has been a subject of some debate after the UPA government received a drubbing in the last national elections. The argument is that that political party placed too much emphasis on welfare measures for the poor and the downtrodden, even to the exclusion, and finally alienation, of the middle class, the youth and the not-so-poor. It was argued, how can all the resources of the State be diverted only towards the poor and the minorities and the oppressed? What about the legitimate aspirations of the common man who does not belong to these categories. On the other hand, the BJP focused attention on the hopes and dreams of the largest group of the Indian citizenry, the middle class, and portrayed a picture of a bright future that would ensure economic progress for the country and their own economic advancement. And thus a battle for the reins of the government was won decisively and conclusively.
And finally, the third principle that Keynes articulated, namely individual liberty. This is the very key stone of democracy. Of course there is no need to define it. Voices must be heard and paid heed to, even the voices of those who are voiceless. But, one could argue, can we have too much of individual liberty. If all the voices are heard and given heed to, will there not be cacophony? In the mighty task of the governance of the nation, when we are confident that the broad direction we are moving in is the right one, can we allow disparate and strident expression of fringe views to distract us? Such a sensitive issue, this individual liberty is. If we are to take leaps and bounds, perhaps we cannot heed those who distract us from our true path. Or perhaps, we have to pay heed to those voices, take them into the realm of discussion and then convince them that the ‘greater good’ does not permit any diversion.
I know, I know: there is much debate on the ‘greater good’. Who decides what is good and for whom and at what cost. But at this moment we are talking in generalities and I do feel, that the nation recognizes what is the greater good and whether decisions we take are in that direction or not.
So then, the interplay of these three concepts determines the broad foundations of good governance. There is again no need to explain that. If the government is focused only on economic issues, you may have greater inequities; but then if the emphasis is only on social justice, the real economic progress of the country may be adversely affected. On the other hand, individual liberty is vital and has to have the right of place in a democratic system; but those fundamental rights of the citizen cannot be absolute so as to hamper the nation’s march forward.
Political and economic theorists have pondered much and long on these issues; so have philosophical thinkers. And while the world is moving in a direction where these broad principles have been accepted and adopted, there is still much differences of opinions and heated debate on many an issue; but, perhaps that is the way it should be.