To escape the tyranny of the ignorant

Why education must outpace population growth

How do societies become enlightened? If they are under authoritarian rule, a small elite can impose values of the broader population. Sometimes authoritarians—or leaders with personal charisma and political power—promote enlightenment values: Peter the Great and Kemal Ataturk, for instance, used political power to push liberal values into their societies. Indian nationalists like Gokhale, Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar did the same, although they took a more democratic approach and constitutional methods to do so. The Constitution of India was an elite enterprise and was (is?) far ahead of its time in terms of the values it sought to enshrine in the genetic code of the new republic. Whether in Russia, Turkey or India, what we can see is that while it is relatively easy for the state to inject enlightenment values into society, it is by no means a given that society will completely adopt the package.

The challenge of promoting enlightenment values becomes much harder in a democratic societies that are under the grip of tradition, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, ignorance or lack of education. Here the principal channel for promoting enlightenment is education (again, in the sense of open-mindedness and critical reasoning). Yet it is not uncommon for the education system to be controlled by the very sections of society that oppose enlightenment values. Democracy empowers everyone alike—the liberal and the bigot, the enlightened and the ignorant, the reasoner and the dogmatist. Ignorant majorities can democratically decide to expunge Reason. In the absence of an educated population, democracy ends up as the tyranny of the ignorant. [See this post on dogma, reason and democracy]

For democratic societies to become enlightened the pace of education (E) must be higher than the rate of population growth (P). If E > P long enough for a majority of the population to be educated, then enlightenment is likely to prevail in a democratic society. If E < P, then that society is likely to ultimately reject enlightenment. It becomes impossible to endogenously and democratically reform the education system (in the broadest sense of the term) once it crosses a point of no return. The existence of countries like this in the contemporary world should serve as a signal warning against complacence on the E/P ratio. One important argument that contests reaching the conclusion we have arrived at concerns the role of institutions. Institutions where they exist, the argument goes, will defend enlightenment values. Well, yes, but institutions are comprised of mortal individuals. The individuals that constitute institutions are prisoners of the same narratives as the rest of society. The 'doctrine of necessity' will cause them to side with the popular. No institution can escape the hard social arithmetic of the E/P ration. The strongest constitutional institution, the most influential liberal social institutions are subject to education prevailing over ignorance. Tamasoma jyotirgamaya.

Tailpiece: The term “education” is used here not in the narrow technical sense of literacy rates, graduation rates and so on. It is possible to acquire post-graduate degrees while remaining uneducated. Similarly, it is possible to be well-educated without ever having to go to school. Education is the ability to acquire and use knowledge and most importantly, employ reason in decision-making.

Ideologies blowing about in journals

Independent opinion journals and their editorial orientation

Over at The Awkward Corner, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha pays tribute to Sachin Chaudhuri, founder of the Economic Weekly, the forerunner of the journal we now know as Economic & Political Weekly. That venerable institution turns sixty this year, and has undergone both a cosmetic facelift (and one hopes, one in terms of editorial orientation as well) in recent years. It is perhaps the only journal in the world that publishes scholarly papers by eminent members of the Planning Commission and letters to the editor by Naxalite noms de guerre.

Niranjan links to Ramchandra Guha’s 1999 essay on the history of independent opinion journals in India where Mr Guha writes “Verily could (the editors of Seminar and EPW) claim to have followed the Tagore-Gandhi mantra, thus modified: ‘I want the ideas and ideologies of all kinds of Indians to be blown about in my journal as freely as possible. But I refuse to let it be blown off its feet by any.'” That is a lofty objective, and it is arguable whether India’s independent opinion journals were able to avoid the ideological seduction of the socialism that was prevalent in those days.

At The Indian National Interest and Pragati we make no such claims of loftiness. We believe that the Indian republic presents the best hope for the well-being, prosperity and happiness (yogakshema) of all its people, and therefore, its survival and security is supremely important. We advocate economic freedom, realism in international affairs, an open society and a culture of tolerance. But Pragati and INI are both “products of independent minds, who—transcending ideological pigeonholes—are united in our determination to see a better future for our nation.”

Ideologies are important—bad ones can kill, and worse. So allowing all kinds of ideologies to be blown about sounds lofty, but there is hardly any virtue in sitting on the fence in matters of public policy. However, pigeonholing (the pressure to follow and yield to dogma) is dangerous, because it is the first stop on the road to fundamentalism, and public policy—not least in a country as diverse as India—cannot do without pragmatism. But pragmatism itself is rudderless without firm ideological grounding.

One reason I am personally hesitant to describe our political philosophy in a word or two is because doing so runs the risk of getting pigeonholed. I took the risk when in “liberal nationalism” I made an attempt to construct a coherent framework of where we stand. But I refuse to let it blow me off my feet *.

Dr Reddy’s life-saving medicines

Independent institutions under independent individuals

Joe Nocera’s piece in the New York Times crediting Y V Reddy, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, for pursuing policies that (relatively) insulated the Indian banking system from the global financial crisis, has some of India’s top bankers sounding like people looking back at their adolescence and thanking their strict parents or school principals for, well, being strict parents or school principals.

Now that those risks have been made painfully clear, every banker in India realizes that Mr Reddy did the right thing by limiting securitizations. “At times like this, you tend to appreciate what he did more than we did at the time,” said (Yes Bank founder Rana) Kapoor. “He saved us,” added (HDFC chief Deepak) Parekh. [NYT]

Now, a few experts, like V Anantha Nageswaran, have been arguing that Dr Reddy’s exemplary stewardship of the RBI was among the few bright spots in India’s economic management in the last five years. And as events proved, they were right.

Beyond individuals though, the underlying point is that independent institutions can deliver competent governance in their mandated areas even under bad governments. Of course, even independent institutions can be undermined over time, by packing them with less than independent-minded individuals. And that, unfortunately, might well be on the cards. The tenacious Dr Reddy is no more at the crease. The Election Commission could fall into the hands of Naveen Chawla, who the Shah Commission declared “unfit to hold any public office which demands an attitude of fair play and consideration for others.”