Thursday, November 10, 2011

The simplification of public debates

At the outset, let me clarify that this post is not a defence of any government. Nor is it an attempt to blame anybody. It is only a reflection of the environment in which public debates are taking place in modern societies.

Why is the government unable to lower inflation? Why is the government failing to provide employment to the massive numbers of people joining the workforce? Why is the government raising the prices of petrol and cooking gas periodically? Why is the government unwilling to tackle corruption? Why are governments failing to provide good quality utility services? Why are governments increasing the utility tariffs?

These are the dominant themes in our public debates today. The agenda of the debate is framed in a manner that puts governments at the center of the issue. The audience, mostly passive recipients, have come to believe that governments are either "failing", "unable", or "unwilling" to resolve these important and universal issues. Even when there is a rare attempt to search for the causes, it ends up in a circular manner reverting back to the government.

This framing of the agenda and questions suits all sides to the debate. The villain of the piece, government, is easily identifiable. This narrative fits nicely into the widely accepted stereotype of governments being the source of all evils. In this simplified world-view, citizens find easily identifiable villains. Most often, these debates end up as opportunities for collective middle-class catharsis. It is perfect staple for tweets and Facebook comments. They also make for good media events - soundbites, short op-ed columns, blog posts and half-hour television debates involving 4-6 people. The opposition and intelligentsia love it. The former's job is after all to oppose the government, while the later are known to just criticize, without offering solutions.

Ironically, governments too may not be unhappy. It helps them to avoid confronting the difficult issues that need to be addressed to meaningfully settle the issue being debated. In fact, it makes governments try out populist band-aid solutions which merely kick the can down the road. In many respects, we have a classic collective action problem.

The fundamental issues are complex, not amenable to quick-fixes, requires hard-thinking, and painstaking and long-drawn out action on multiple fronts. It involves all stakeholders facing up to bitter truths that unsettles and often discards the settled conventional wisdom. Most importantly, it requires communicating to all of us certain fundamental realities and the need to accommodate our opinions and ideologies based on them.

These issues are important for developing economy democracies like India, which are in the middle of far-reaching social and cultural transformations. These countries have a strong and deeply entrenched legacy of dominant government role in all walks of life. All the surviving generations are used to relying on governments to resolve all their problems. Accordingly, the dominant discourse invokes the language of regulations, enforcement, punishments, subsidies, and so on.

When governments are making pretences of controlling inflation by coming down on hoarders, or helping farmers by raising the minimum support price, or protecting consumers by keeping tariffs and oil prices unchanged, or controlling corruption by sending the corrupt to jail, it is this discourse that is being played out. This discourse has limited space to explain the complex dynamics of modern markets and the limitations of governments.

The theatrics associated with these debates means that we lose the opportunity for informed debates about critical issues of concern to all of us. In all these cases, since the government is the perceived villain, we stop or refrain from examining these issues in greater detail in search of "real" answers. Take the case of the debate surrounding inflation. What are its causes? What can be done to mitigate, in the short-term, and resolve, in the medium and long term, the causes of inflation? What should be the responsibility of governments, academicians, media, citizens and the society in this endeavour?

Or take the case of corruption. What are the major sources of corruption? What are the different categories of corruption and what are its dynamics? How can we systemically prevent rent-seeking for each category of corruption? What should be the role of different stakeholders in collectively addressing this problem?

This is not to be fatalistic - the resolution of all these problems require collective effort, and since such efforts are difficult to mobilize, we are left with no choice! But a more nuanced perspective of these issues and their challenges helps all participants in the debate to atleast appreciate the complex nature of the problem. I am sure all of us realize that we stand a better chance of success with addressing a complex issue when we have a well rounded understanding of the forces contributing to the problem.

If we are able to elevate public debates to this level, all of us will quickly realize that controlling inflation, job creation, keeping tariffs and user charges constant, and so on are issues that are increasingly beyond the competence of mere governments. They require long-term structural changes and societal adjustments, where all of us have an important role to play, either directly or by co-operating with and assisting in the process. The governments have to take the lead (sadly, even this is missing!).

However, as mentioned at the beginning, none of this is to underplay or overlook the central role of governments. They can, and should, play an important role (though their degree of control varies from situation to situation), in both mitigating the adverse consequences of these problems and putting in place the mechanisms to enable their effective resolution. Addressing market failures are the basic responsibility of governments. Public debates and policy making will be much the richer for this realization.

1 comment:

Kamini said...

The balanced and considered tone of your deliberation taking in the complexities of any problem be it corruption, unemployment, inflation, is undeniably necessary in the face of media reducing every problem to chest beating against the Government.
Take corruption. Today, the debate is reduced to a simplistic recount of scams, cases, and ranting against big wigs going scot free. There is no debate on the bribe-giver who is equally responsible. What is the whole picture of corruption? While it is imperative for a Kejriwal to plough the beaten track of public flogging of the Government, politicians, big business, he has to privately know that exposing corruption by others does not guarantee that it will be wiped off if he were to take riens.