Why Do We Need Freedom?

I see this interesting debate in India that one may have had too much of freedom. The public, by that I mean of the urban middle class, attitude is that freedom to do anything and to obstruct is coming in the way of order and development. The model is indeed China, whose growth rates, wide roads and fast trains are seen with envy, and the attitude is not unlike the one Dambisa Moyo recommend for Africa - a Chinese model that prioritise development over liberties, even human rights.

To be more specific, one can talk about the land acquisition bill that is pending at the Indian parliament, which will make it easier to acquire land - by evicting people - for infrastructure projects, industries and mining operations. It is important for India to build infrastructure fast and cheap, and tenancy rights are often coming in the way. As someone told me, for an underdeveloped country, freedom is a luxury one can ill-afford - we can get freedom once we have got the roads.

We all know the usual arguments here and what really matters is what side one is on. From the airconditioned chambers in Delhi (or of other cities), what matters are those fast trains and motorways, and indeed, the rural poor can be compensated by an equivalent accommodation in urban slums. The other aspects, that they may be resettled in an area where a different language is spoken, where they will be actively discriminated, that the families may be torn apart, do not matter that much. From this technocratic point, the difference between urban and rural poverty is a moot one, and if anything, urban destitution may be preferable because it may present at least a theoretical chance to progress in life. Seen this way, at the core of this seemingly economic debate is an attempt to impose a certain set of values, a power play, that the rhetoric of development skillfully obscure. However, beyond this, there is still an argument for freedom ahead of economic growth.

This argument is to be found not in the activist pamphlets but rather in the mission and vision of those companies which are pushing for curbing of freedoms and for Economic growth. It is to be found in Business Schools, where these technocrats arguing for displacements have been educated. It is an essential part of strategic thinking nowadays - the ability of a corporation to renew itself by harnessing the creativity of its people! It does seem that we have a corporate state and accountants and bankers are all over public policy these days, yet this piece of corporate wisdom does not seem to resonate in policy making. What I am arguing, contra-Moyo, that freedoms matter because this creates space for continuous economic renewal of a society. Allow the powerful too much role in driving growth, and we would be heading towards stagnation. That economic growth is simply a matter of infrastructure is the same mistake that once powerful corporations have done by making themselves too orderly and process orientated, driving out the trouble-makers, the marginal and those who would want to pursue an idea other than the dominant one. In the global world of instant cross-border capital flows, unending competition between nations, footloose talent and corporations, the ability of constant self-renewal is a crucial, perhaps the most crucial, requirement for development. Take away the freedom, the democratic spirit, the ability to argue, and this ability is extinguished.

This is not to say that India, or for that matter, Africa, does not need reform. Unfortunately, the R word has been appropriated to mean certain things, and come to mean limitations to freedom, such as freedom to unionise, freedom to public actions etc. However, India is poor not because people have too much freedom, but they have too little. And, their freedom is limited by the institutional structure, by lack of education, by inefficient courts, by corrupt police, by black money that can buy influence. The reform India needs are those that extend the freedom - freedom from corruption, efficient courts, right to good education - and the freedom to hold the elite accountable. The societies that can hold its elite accountable, gain the ability of self-renewal, and progress, succeed and survive, and this has been the subject of many recent books. This is what is needed in Africa and India, and this must come before the roads (because otherwise, roads would be built with wrong priorities, with excessive cost, with poor quality and would ultimately not bring the intended economic benefits). 


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