January 2, 2011

The right’s idea deficit

Why is there a left bias in India? At one level, the answer is simple enough. As the academic and former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda once put it,

“The combination of inequality and democracy tends to cause a movement to the left everywhere.”

In other words, the presence of an unequal distribution of income, combined with universal franchise, pushes politicians looking for votes toward populism and redistribution rather than growth and efficiency.

This can be seen as an example of the “median voter theorem,” a central construct in positive political theory, widely used in contemporary economics and political science modelling. In simple terms, it says that if certain theoretical assumptions are met, political parties will converge on the most preferred position of the voter who is at the median—not the mean—of the distribution in any given policy space. Thus, if the issue is tax policy, and the distribution is such that the median voter is to the left of the mean, platforms will converge on a tax system that redistributes from those above the mean to those below. From this vantage point, it should be no surprise that in India political parties tend to espouse a “pro-poor” position, the median voter clearly being poorer than the mean.

While appealing at a theoretical level, the median voter theorem is an incomplete explanation of the left bias that we see in India and other developing countries. For one thing, it assumes that both voters and politicians are fully rational and informed and, more crucially, that preferences and the policy positions that they induce can be ranked on a line, from left to right. With a multi-dimensional policy space and “noise” in the system—which ensures that at least some voters and politicians sometimes do not follow their rational incentives—the median voter theorem loses its potency and its predictive power.

There is likely a deeper explanation. It is useful to remind ourselves of the trinity of ‘I’s espoused by political theorists: ideas, interests, and institutions. In the case of India, the institution is our Westminster-style parliamentary democracy. The interests are those of various groups that get filtered into political party platforms and policy positions. The oft-forgotten father of them all is ideas, and that is where the true deficit in India lies.

In other words, we do not have a viable right alternative to the prevailing left orthodoxy in India. In substantial measure this is because we have not until now had a coherent strand of intellectual currents on the right, operating to create a counter-narrative to prevailing leftist ideologies based on populism and redistribution masquerading as “social policy” and “inclusive development.”

The contours of such intellectual currents are nascent. The elements of this counter-narrative must include an insistence on furthering the economic reform agenda, and making clear that this will be to the benefit of all, rich and poor, urban and rural. It should be made clear that such reforms are not simply a mechanism to further enrich the existing beneficiaries of incomplete reforms to date via cronyism and political patronage. The counter-narrative must also embrace the pluralism that is one of India’s greatest contributions to global civilisation, and eschew any divisiveness based on religion, caste or ethnicity.

It would be easy to succumb to despair or cynicism based on the depressing nature of our present reality. Such a reaction would be premature and defeatist. We need only look to recent intellectual history for examples where the articulation of ideas can change the course of history. At the end of the Second World War, when ideas of central planning and the primacy of government as a means to manage the economy were ubiquitous, Friederich Hayek, the great libertarian philosopher and economist, assembled a group of like-minded thinkers and founded the Mont Pelerin Society, with the stated goal of countering ideas of collectivism with a renewed emphasis on individual liberty and market-based economics. Hayek made a point then that resonates strikingly with India today: although he decried the ideas of members of the left, he praised them for carrying conviction in those ideas, and in articulating them in a fashion comprehensible to the general populace. Thus, he suggested, they appropriated the moral high ground, a space that had been vacated by a right that had failed to make its case in such a compelling fashion.

In this, he was, ironically, echoing the famous utterance of his great intellectual rival, John Maynard Keynes. Keynes said that ideas are more powerful than any of us imagine.“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood,” he wrote. “Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” As it happened, both Keynes’ and Hayek’s remarks proved prescient, as the subsequent course of economic and political history in the United States and United Kingdom demonstrate.

Today, we are just at the beginning of this contest of ideas in India. The consequences will be momentous. Will we remain in thrall to the remnants of a defunct socialist ideology, and plod along with piecemeal and limited economic reforms without a sound intellectual rationale? Or will we boldly strike out on another path? Let the battle be joined.

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