One axis politics

Historically, political leanings have ben described on two dimensions – economic freedom and social freedom. In the American scenario, the Republican Party has historically been supportive of economic freedom and restrictive of social freedom. The Democratic Party has been liberal on social freedom but illiberal on the economic freedom front.

While other major Western democracies occupying these two opposite quadrants, the other two quadrants have been largely empty. The libertarians occupy the “free on both fronts” quadrant, but nowhere is there a party to represent them – giving people freedom on all fronts means lesser power for the government and no politician wants that. And being restrictive of both kinds of freedom means people won’t vote for you – at least this was the way historically.

Of course things have been different in India. While we did have a series of governments between 1991 and 2004 that were reasonably economically liberal (“liberalisation” happened in this time period), all Indian political parties are required to swear by socialism, and they swear by it in spirit as well. So the difference on the economic freedom front between different Indian parties is marginal (in 2014, many of us thought the BJP might be supportive of economic freedom, given its record in the 1999-2004 period. Instead, it gave us demonetisation).

So in effect, in India we have a one-axis democracy, where parties try to differentiate themselves on one axis, which is the kind of social freedom they allow. Even there, it is not so much of an axis, but different ways in which they control social freedoms.

The BJP doesn’t want you to eat beef. The AAP doesn’t want recorded music in restaurants. The Congress and JDS don’t want live music in restaurants. The BJP puts cow welfare over human welfare. The Congress enacts and supports laws that allow suppression of Muslim women (by Muslim men). Many parties want to ban liquor, despite it having been repeatedly shown that such bans don’t work. No party wants to legalise marijuana, despite our rich tradition in the substance (heck, its scientific name is Cannabis indica). And we all seem to vote based on which of these social freedoms are more precious to us than others – economic freedom is a battle already lost.

In any case, it seems like other countries are also moving towards one axis democracy.  A chart posted on Twitter today describes results from a survey in the US on voters’ attitudes towards social and economic freedoms, and how they voted in the 2016 presidential elections (which Donald Trump famously won).


A large part of America seems to lie in the left half of the economic freedom spectrum. Yes, the republican voters are still more towards the centre than the democratic voter, but the bigger separation here is on the social rather than the economic dimension. And the Trump administration has been pursuing several policies cutting economic freedoms, such as tearing up trade deals and imposing tariffs.

So it seems like the world is following India in terms of enacting one axis politics – where voters vote more on the social dimension rather than the economic dimension. Then again, I don’t expect this to last – with parties moving left economically, soon you can expect economic freedoms to be crushed to the extent that it becomes advantageous for a party to signal economically right and still get votes.

PS: We don’t need to limit ourselves to two dimensions.  A few years back, Nitin Pai had proposed the Niti Mandala which has three dimensions.


On liberalism and government control

My first exposure to political ideologies took place in 2004, when I joined the now-defunct (but then brilliant) social networking site Orkut. While filling up my personal details, I was asked to pick my political beliefs from a drop-down.

It had things such as “left-liberal”, “very left-liberal”, “right-conservative”, etc. Now, while I considered myself liberal back then (I’ve moved far more liberal on personal freedom issues since then), there was no way I could describe myself as “left”, since I’ve always been a free market fundamentalist. Finally I noticed there was something called “libertarian” in the dropdown, and assumed it might stand for my beliefs and chose that. In hindsight, it turns out I was right (no pun intended).

A year or two later, I got introduced to a “libertarian cartel” (I was never a member, so don’t know who were members). Presently, I was invited to join some of them in discussions, and my love for the libertarian philosophy grew (these discussions were instrumental in me moving far more liberal on personal freedom issues). Yet, looking around the political spectrum, you had few libertarian parties (going across countries).

You had the set of parties that can be broadly classified as “Republican” which allowed you to do business the way you liked, but sought to restrict personal freedoms. And there were the parties that can be classified as “Democrat” which promoted personal freedoms, but restricted how you could do business. And you had philosophies such as communism which sought to control both. The “fourth quadrant” was (and is) largely empty.

It is not hard to understand why this fourth quadrant is empty – in exchange for responsibilities of governing, politicians desire power, and this power can only come at the cost of restricting freedoms of the constituents. Different political formations choose to exercise this power along different axes, but little differentiates them – they all seek to control. While libertarianism is appealing for the constituent, it doesn’t make sense for politicians since it doesn’t compensate sufficiently for the responsibility of  governance. Hence you don’t find libertarian political parties.

Yet, we find that slowly but surely, reforms do happen. Over time, restrictions on freedoms (both personal and economic) do get relaxed, albeit at a glacial pace, and this is true across countries, despite there being no “libertarian” politicians. Why does this happen?

The simplistic answer is that politicians in functioning democracies have to face lengthy periods of time in opposition, when they are at the mercy of the party that is then in power. Since politicians tend to be vindictive animals, you don’t want to leave behind any laws that might be used to harass you while you are out of power. So the ruling party should tend to ease restrictions that can be used against its members when they are out of power.

Again, this is fine in theory, but why does it not always happen? The answer is that opposing political parties are not “orthogonal enough”. If politicians on multiple sides of the divide have broadly similar ideas on certain issues, there can be a tacit understanding (a “doctrine of no first use”, perhaps) to not use the laws that they agree on against each other.

When you have parties that have orthogonal philosophies, you can expect them to do their bit while in power to undermine the sources of their rivals’ control, so that their rivals might enjoy less control the next time they are in power. And citizens in such democracies are likely to enjoy greater freedoms.

As the old saying (paraphrased) goes, “when politicians from all parties agree to something, it is unlikely to be in the interests of the people”.

Capitalism and Freedom and JNU

This piece by David Henderson has a very powerful quote by Milton Friedman. Quoting in full:

In the circumstances envisaged in the socialist society, the man who wants to print the paper to promote capitalism has to persuade a government mill to sell him the paper, a government printing press to print it, a government post office to distribute it among the people, a government agency to rent him a hall in which to talk and so on. Maybe there is some way in which one could make arrangements under a socialist society to preserve freedom and to make this possible. I certainly cannot say that it is utterly impossible. What is clear is that there are very real difficulties in preserving dissent and that, so far as I know, none of the people who have been in favor of socialism and also in favor of freedom have really faced up to this issue or made even a respectable start at developing the institutional arrangements that would permit freedom under socialism. By contrast, it is clear how a free market capitalist society fosters freedom.

Think about the ongoing protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University, a far-left-of-centre university, regarding the rally they took out last week and the government crackdown thereafter. While the current protests there have little to do with economics, and mostly about government control, given that a large section of the university has a mostly leftist anti-capitalist agenda, it’s a good example to take.

So where did the students and faculty of JNU obtain the resources to organise their protest marches? Some posters and banners might have been handmade, but many would’ve been bought (or made to order) from capitalist banner manufacturers.

The protests were largely covered by capitalist media houses which gave them further ballast, and acted as a force multiplier. Discussions on capitalist TV channels and newspapers (some of them publicly listed) added legitimacy to the protests.

Protestors would have needed a way to coordinate regarding the time and location and manner of protests. While old-fashioned methods such as notice boards and offline meetings could have been used, it is far more likely (and far easier) that the protestors used a capitalist social network (such as WhatsApp or Telegram (though admittedly the latter is not-for-profit, but it’s just that its owners are not optimising for profits) ) to coordinate their protests, using smartphones and computers made by capitalist manufacturers and sold by capitalist shopkeepers.

In other words, capitalism is a necessary condition for any kind of freedom, especially freedoms directed against the state. In a wholly state-owned economy, last week’s protests would have been far harder, if not impossible.

The state-owned media could have been one-sided in the coverage. The state-owned banner manufacturers could have refused to sell to the protestors. State-owned social media would have snooped on and subverted attempts to organise (if not block them altogether). I’m only picking a few examples here.

The next time you think you can have social freedom without capitalism, think again. It is capitalists driven by profit motives who provide anti-state activists the necessary tools to express their freedom.

Telling Known Stories

I’ve always been skeptical when people have told me that they are telling known stories in their play. Whenever someone tells me something like that, I start wondering what the big deal about it is. About why anyone would want to watch a play that tells a story that they already know. A story where everyone expects the next move that the actors make, the next thing the actors say. I wonder what thrill the actors get when they know that they are contributing little to the audience in terms of story value.

But then, after watching a mindblowing rendition of the Ramayana by kids of Navkis Educational Centre (I was there at the invitation of a friend whose cousin studies in the school and played a major role in the production) last weekend, I must confess that I had been wrong. I must admit that there does exist tremendous value in telling known stories. In fact, from a pure artistic perspective, it is preferable to tell a known story.

There are two parts to every production – the story and the way the story is told. And unless the story is something absolutely mindblowing, or has enough twists and turns and thrills to keep the viewers always on the edge of their seats, it is the latter part that makes or breaks a production. Yeah, of course you need a reasonable plot, a good storyline, but if you look at all the great movies, books or stage production, the best part has been the way that the stories have been told.

So when you are telling a known story, it gives you more scope to experiment in terms of the way that the story is told. You get more freedom to do your own thing, knowing fully well that the viewers know what is happening. You can twist and turn the dialogues, or even dispense with them (as the Navkis kids did). You can leave things unsaid, knowing that the audience will fill in the gaps. In short, you can just freak out with the production, in a way you never can if the audience doesn’t know the story.

Of course it is a double edged sword. Because you are not adding any value in terms of the story itself, the way you present the story can make or break the production. So unless you are confident that you are telling the story in a unique way, you risk tomatoes.

Another thing I was thinking about during the performance on Saturday was about the commercial viability of productions such as this. It was a truly amazing performance by the kids, and for a school play you don’t need commercial success. The thrill of being involved (and each one of the 500+ students of the school was involved in the production) is enough incentive for the players to do a good job. The question is about scalability, replicability and commercialization. I don’t have any answers yet. If you can think of something, let me know.