The blogosphere and Facebook and Twitter are abuzz with support for Anna Hazare and his hunger strike against corruption. Thousands have signed up to show solidarity with this anti-establishment movement. So far, so good. After all, democracy allows us to voice unpopular opinions, be they against the government, its decisions, its policy or democracy itself. Democracy is the only system that tolerates criticism and even encourages it.
But what is Anna Hazare’s answer to the problems of the current establishment? More establishment. He and his supporters are asking for an independent body to oversee government actions and protect us from those who have a preferential access to government.
Before I go into why I believe Anna Hazare’s approach is flawed, let us tackle the fundamental question. What is corruption and why does it happen?
Now I’m sure that there are intellectuals out there who can define corruption better than I can imagine it, but let me rustle up a working explanation.
Corruption is government employees performing their duties and exercising their discretion for or against the law in exchange for compensation from the party directly benefiting from said duties or discretion. This ranges from a policeman pocketing Rs. 50 instead of a legal Rs. 500 fine to a stamp duty officer who won’t let your file move up until you put money on his table.
But why does this happen? Are all government employees inherently evil? Is there a special screening in these job interviews that ensures the exclusive entry of psychopaths and purges the system of all honest and responsible people? And what of these citizens, who encourage venality by rewarding it with bribes? Are they the cause or a symptom of this horrible situation?
The answer, of course, is a lot simpler, and depending on your perspective, either heartening or disheartening. People, as Steven Levitt often says, respond to incentives. A tiny, insignificant fraction of us actually do good or evil for its own sake. We do things that benefit us. Sometimes that benefit is obvious.
The problem with government officials who can be bribed is that they have powers to grant you permissions or hand you prohibitions regarding property that’s not their own. A policeman who ignores your speeding (for a small bribe) doesn’t personally stand to lose from its adverse consequences. So he barters his power to excuse your transgression against the importance you place on reaching where you want to on time (which can be correlated well with the amount of bribe you’re willing to offer). The same goes for the stamp duty officer, or the MTNL guy we had to bribe to get our dead telephone line working after an outage.
The more a person controls what you do over property he doesn’t own, the more the incentive for him to look the other way when you grease his palm. This principle can be applied for almost all but the very necessary functions of government. The solution to corruption is to check the growth of government, which first taxes you to establish organizations which control your actions, and then imposes a secret tax in the form of a bribe to remove those controls.
Let’s now take a look at Anna Hazare’s panacea. He believes that if we appoint a group of the right people with power to look over the government’s shoulder, we will achieve a corruption-free India. He also wants to dole out brutal punishments to strike fear in the hearts of the corruptible. Despite Arvind Kejriwal’s false equivalence of the Lokpal with the income tax department that oversees the finances of the nation’s top officials without — he believes — being influenced by them, I’m quite convinced that given enough time, the Lokpal can be corrupt too.
And then businesses will have more palms to grease than they do now. As Milton Friedman once reproached — and I paraphrase — “What is business? Any costs that a business pays is borne by its stockholders, employees or its customers.” Have no doubt — we the customers of India Shining will pay for this extra red tape, probably more than any bribe.
Let’s take a look at our kind martyr, the genial old man supposedly on a Gandhian route to clear our national conscience. The village of Ralegaon Siddhi is Anna Hazare’s first claim to fame. It is not common knowledge that Anna Hazare endorsed the public flogging of alcoholics to shape them up, and he personally flogged some of them with his belt. When questioned about this, he nonchalantly replied that rural India was rough, and such measures were needed. Distillers who sold alcohol in the village were told to shut shop or else. This man fighting for freedom made his bones by curbing the free enterprise of people who did no bodily harm by threatening them with just that.
I’m glad that this man was instrumental in getting us the Right to Information Act, but it is worthwhile to note that many of his past collaborators don’t support him now.
While I’ve stated my case for the lack of justification for Anna Hazare’s ends in this situation, we must also examine his means. Make no mistake, fasting unto death is extremely violent. It is nothing but blackmail and coercion. This is where the comparison with Gandhi falls apart. Gandhi’s fasting was violent and coercive too, but it was violence against an imperialistic establishment, one that treated Indians as almost sub-human, subjected us to taxation without representation, and curbed our basic human rights. Anna Hazare is practicing coercion against a democratically elected government (however corrupt), which democracy has done almost nothing to curb his freedom. I say almost because I vigorously oppose his arrest, but when we put it in perspective, the matter was resolved quickly, and it gave him more publicity and sympathy.
Finally, we will truly be free, safe and democratic when we rid ourselves of the notion that the ‘right people’ in power will make things rosy. The benevolent dictator is, all said and done, a dictator, and that’s not what we signed up for.