Dogma, Reason and Democracy

How to protect Reason from democratically-enforced dogma

Democracy is popular. Other than self-serving polemic promoted by authoritarian regimes or by dispossessed elite, it is rare to find anyone criticising democracy. For thoughtful people, democracy is, as that Churchill cliché goes, “the worst form of government except for all the others.” Yet some—perhaps even a lot of—scepticism is warranted in terms of democracy’s role in the long war between Dogma and Reason that has been in progress for much of human history.

Indeed, it is possible to argue that most—if not all—big political debates are essentially different forms of the fundamental conflict: should humans follow some form of dogma, or use knowledge, reason & critical reasoning in making decisions. What individuals do in their private lives is less of a concern. How they decide on public issues matters a lot more. Should slavery be banned? Should abortion be declared criminal? Should women be allowed to willingly immolate themselves on the pyres of their dead husbands? Should cloning be allowed? Should we allow foreign direct investment in retail? Should voting rights belong to citizens or to all people living in the country? The most vexing questions of politics are essentially dogma vs reason, playing out in different contexts.

So what role does democracy play in this conflict? Do democratic states always tend to push the moral envelope towards greater reason? For instance, aren’t democracies more liberal than non-democracies? Perhaps yes. But this might merely be a temporary correlation: are they liberal because they are democracies, or democracies because they are liberal? We can’t say for sure, as there are other factors at play that might have made societies more liberal, democratic or both.

Bryan Caplan has a compelling argument on why democracies fail:

“In the view of most democracy skeptics, it fails because it does not do what voters want. In my view, democracy fails because it does what voters want. In economic jargon, democracy has a built-in externality. An irrational voter does not hurt only himself. He also hurts everyone who is, as a result of his irrationality, more likely to live under misguided policies. Since most of the cost of voter irrationality is external—paid for by other people—why not indulge? If enough voters think this way, socially injurious policies win by popular demand.[The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies]

Mr Caplan’s argument is that people have systematic biases that, unlike random biases, do not cancel each other out. In other words, if biases towards colour of shirts were random in the electorate, then they would cancel each other out and no particular colour would be more likely to win. However, if people had a systematic bias towards purple even to a small degree, the electoral verdict is quite likely to go purple. (Read the book to understand more deeply how this happens)

This argument, in itself, is a powerful indictment of democracy. It explains why democratic governments choose policies that are bad for them. If we factor in “education” (in the sense of reasoning, critical thinking and open-mindedness) then democracies can amplify dogma, in extreme cases, into a vicious cycle where society surrenders to dogma.

Consider a democracy where a simple majority of the people have an unshakeable dogmatic belief that Everyone Must Wear Purple Shirts. The rest of the people have a shakeable belief in everything and make up their minds based on available facts. Since the facts do not point to any advantage of purple shirts, they disagree with the Dogmatists who insist on purple shirts. Let’s assume everyone votes. It is quite likely that the politician who runs on a “Wear Purple” ticket is likely to defeat her competitors. And once she acquires political power, depending on her political strength, she is likely to change public policies to promote the wearing of purple. She is likely to focus on the education system, introducing purple into the curriculum so that she has an inherent advantage against the Reasoning politicians. In the future, politics will be about the shade of purple that people must wear.

In this highly simplified example, Democracy worked, the majority got what they wanted, but Reason lost. The real world is more complex, but the fundamental argument remains valid. To the extent that people subscribe to dogmas, democracy is a risk to Reason and values that derive from it.

Mr Caplan sees democracies failings as an argument for governments to let the market determine economic outcomes (his book consciously limits itself to economics). Given the risk democracy poses to Reason*, and therefore, to itself we should go further. The zeroth requirement is for democracies to be constrained by a republican constitution that affirms fundamental rights.

First, those who prefer a slightly more reasoning society than a slightly more dogmatic one must unequivocally defend freedom of speech and expression. Unpopular and dissenting voices must not only be tolerated but enjoy absolute protection. As my colleague V Anantha Nageswaran noted during a recent conversation on this topic, actors in ancient India enjoyed total freedom and protection for what they said on stage. Likewise, court jesters. Such freedoms are protected in many democracies, but your mileage varies depending on which democracy you are speaking out in. Freedom of speech and expression must be protected in law and in practice.

Second, those who believe minds should not surrender to dogma must hold up the freedom of education. This means that while the government can pursue uniform standards, syllabi and curricula in its role of delivering a public good, it should not be allowed to monopolise the curriculum. People should be free to start and send their children to schools of their choice, teach and learn curricula of their choice, with no interference by the government or self-appointed custodians of public values. If this means some parents send their children to religious schools, nature schools or witchcraft & wizardry schools, so be it. It would be a small price to pay in the defence of Reason.

Third, the separation of powers into the legislature, executive and judiciary is not only for the purpose of ensuring that no single entity is too powerful. It charges the judiciary with the duty to defend the constitution and dispense justice without reference to what is popular. Here again, your mileage varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, from time to time. In recent years we have had the US Supreme Court under John Roberts declaring it is not the job of the Supreme Court to “protect people from the consequences of their political decisions”. In India, while courts have been criticised for judicial activism and overreach, cases of judicial populism have received lesser attention. Trials by jury suffer from the defect that they subject questions of guilt and innocence to popular mores. This doesn’t mean trials by judges escapes the defect completely: judges are cut from the same cloth as jurors, and both from that of their compatriots. One way to reduce such risks might be for judges to come from other jurisdictions—rotate them more frequently across states, and bring in foreign judges from similar jurisdictions.

* Disclaimer: In a contest between Dogma and Reason, The Acorn stands on the side of the latter. Hence the implied value judgement.

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 *.

On liberal nationalism

Connecting liberalism, nationalism and realism

Let’s start with an axiom: all individuals are free, and from this freedom, they possess certain inalienable rights. They possess these rights and freedoms at all times, but in a state of nature, their ability to enjoy the freedom and exercise the rights is circumscribed by their individual power. In Indian philosophy, the state of nature is termed as matsya nyaya, or the law of the fishes, a condition under which the stronger fish eats the weaker fish. Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher, describes this as the time when “men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man (bellum omnium contra omnes).” Life, therefore, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

To better enjoy their rights and freedoms, individuals trade-off a part of their freedom for the security offered by a state. Hence Kautilya writes

People suffering from anarchy as illustrated by the proverbial tendency of a large fish swallowing a small one (matsyanyayabhibhutah prajah), first elected Manu, the Vaivasvata, to be their king; and allotted one-sixth of the grains grown and one-tenth of merchandise as sovereign dues. Fed by this payment, kings took upon themselves the responsibility of maintaining the safety and security of their subjects (yogakshemavah), and of being answerable for the sins of their subjects when the principle of levying just punishments and taxes has been violated.[Arthashastra I:13]

In Western philosophy, this trade-off forms the basis of social contract theories. In Leviathan, Hobbes argues that individuals cede all their rights in return for protection to a sovereign who is himself above the law. John Locke, writing after Hobbes, is more moderate: in his view, individuals surrender only some of their rights to a government that rules by the consent of the governed.

This trade-off forms the basis of modern liberal democratic states. The exact implementation differs from state to state, and depends on a number of factors. But most often, the social contract is codified in a constitution. Constitutions are not, and do not have to be either perfect or immutable. To varying degrees, they affirm the rights of the individual and offer an enlightened method to settle the differences between the interests of individuals. In sharp contrast to Hobbes’ Leviathan, modern constitutions also, to varying degrees, make the government itself subject to the rule of law.

The upshot is that the state is necessary for the practical enjoyment of individual rights and freedoms. The survival and security of the state—often termed “the national interest”—is directly connected to the ability of citizens to enjoy their freedom. Put in another way, the “national interest” is the well-being and development of all its citizens.

If we adopt this people-centric definition of the national interest, how should one regard territory? Is territorial integrity uncompromisable? Not quite. To the extent territory is necessary for the well-being and development of all citizens, holding the territory is in the national interest. Where territorial compromises enhance the well-being of citizens, they are in the national interest. In the state-centric formulation, the objective question is whether acquiring, keeping or parting with a particular piece of land enhances the survival and security of the state, or not.

While the establishment of a state allows individuals to enjoy their rights—abridged as they are—the relationship between states remains in the world of matsya nyaya or anarchy. To an extent, the development of international law and institutions like the United Nations allow states to pursue ‘rules-based’ relations. But the ultimate arbiter of international relations is power. It follows that to protect its national interests—whether expressed in the people-centric or state-centric terms—states have to maximise their power relative to others. This results in an international balance-of-power, which can be stable or unstable depending on the power dynamics obtaining at a particular moment in time. The objective of the state then, is to maximise its own power to ensure that the international balance-of-power is in its favour.

This is how liberalism, nationalism and realism are connected with each other. Liberalism (or libertarianism, in its American usage) is concerned about individual freedom. To enjoy freedom in practice, the individual gives up some of it to the state. The state, a nation-state in India’s case, exists to ensure the rights, freedoms and well-being (yogakshema) of its people. So ensuring the survival and security of the Indian state—by maximising its relative power internationally—is wholly consistent with allowing its citizens to live in freedom.