Sunday, June 17, 2012

The importance of winning the social service narrative

Hindu volunteering organizations worldwide that focus tremendously on social service at the cost of their acceptability to the MSM or the intelligentsia of the day often receive a lot of flak from their supporters for neglecting these aspects. I myself have been guilty of giving them flak at times. Image issues are of course very important in our information age, the harder you blow your trumpet the better it is heard and it helps in keeping the flock numbers high and spirited. However, volunteer organizations have tremendous load on their hands to finish their social assignments, and if some of them believe that these assignments constitute all that they have to do, they shouldn't be harmed by constant harping about their shortcomings. My suggestion would be that they should be joined by their well wishers and changed internally by penetrating their leadership ranks. Another option is to rigorously convince organization chieftains of the good their well wishers could do and see how much they could bend their rules. 

To make my case more convincing, we will look at a less noticed feature of Monotheism's rise among Pagan cultures. It would be absurd to say that Monotheism as an ideology could have won in a straight battle of ideas with pre-existing cultures that had generated spectacular scientific and military achievements and long standing world superpowers. Right from the rise of monotheism to the fall of the Roman empire, there must have been several intellectual discourses between monotheism and paganism. Some monumental works of these types belong to people like the last pagan emperor Julian along with Celsus, Libanius, Porphyry. To know about whatever exists of their works, I will suggest this book: click. Most of it are fragments of the quotes from their works in which they had intellectually challenged both Christianity and Judaism. The fact that these quotes had to be resurrected from the books written by Christians to refute them and that large bodies of these works are lost seem to suggest more than what meets the eye. But something else was happening in the background of these intellectual showdowns that were happening all across the pagan world. Long before Pagans lost the spine to  participate in armed rebellion when their cherished temples and institutions were being plundered and ravaged (refer Libanius's oration to Theodosius in the appendix of the book), it appears to me that another important aspect of the pagan counter offensive against monotheist forces was missing, as we can see from the quotes below:

"Goatherds and shepherds among the Jews following Moses as their leader, and being allured by rustic deceptions, conceived that there is one God." Celsus

"Jesus having collected as his associates 10 or 11 infamous men, consisting of the most wicked publicans and sailors fled into different places, obtaining food with difficulty and in a disgraceful manner." Celsus

"We may see in the forum infamous characters and jugglers collected together who dare not show their tricks to intelligent men but when they perceive a lad and a crowd of slaves and stupid men, they endeavour to ingratiate themselves with such characters as these." Celsus

"We also may see in their own houses, wool weavers, shoemakers, fullers and the most illiterate and rustic men, who dare not say anything in the presence of more elderly and wiser fathers and families; but when they meet with children apart from their parents, and certain stupid women with them, then they discuss something of a wonderful nature; such as that it is not proper to pay attention to parents and preceptors, but that they should be persuaded by them...." Celsus

"The Christians now wonder that the city has been for so many years attacked by disease, the advent of Esculapius and the other gods no longer existing. For Jesus being now reverenced and worshiped, no one any longer derives any public benefit from the gods." Porphyry

"..They likewise suggested to him that the ancestors of the Jews were driven out of Egypt as impious and hateful to the Gods. For their bodies being overspread and infected with the itch and leprosy, they brought them together into one place by way of expiation, and as profane and wicked wretches expelled them from their costs..." Diodorus Sicilus

"After this, Amenophis returned from Ethiopia with a great force, and Rammeses also his son with other forces and encountering the shepherds and defiled people, they defeated and slew multitudes of them, and pursued them to the bounds of Syria." Manethos

"... The scum and refuse of other nations, renouncing the religion of their country, flocked in crowds to Jerusalem, enriching the place with gifts and offerings..." Tacitus

From these quotes, something seems to come out, that the social outreach apparatus of the Pagan empires of the past was either not present, had failed miserably or was not sufficient at the time these new religions arose. A schism seemed to have happened in the socio economic structure of the day and from that schism arose the monster of vengeance that took down mighty empires and civilizations in its wake. No amount of good posturing among the new members of Monotheism was able to stop Paganism from being taken over.   The final death blow was of course provided by Monotheism corrupting the ruling class, infiltrating the army and outright banning of the Pagan religious practices (for that, read this book). This is not to suggest that there should be no attempt at a battle of ideas, or an intellectual posturing but that  is only an accessory to the battle gear that a faith should wear, with its true armaments being social outreach to the poor and needy.

The above should be a lesson to all standing cultures, that whatever be their state of development, their existence is dependent upon the state of existence of the underclass and without taking them forward, their future is under peril as well. If the volunteering organizations are aiding the underclass, uniting the society and trying to prevent subversion, they should thus be at the least left alone at their task and at the most be assisted at it. In my view, if Hindu culture is standing today, it is because of a long standing tradition of service (ref Ch. 17, 18 of the BG and the four debts of life). But this tradition is under tremendous strain from big pockets across the globe. Time is short and to keep the society united under Hinduism, it must be known that the elite in Hinduism cares for its underclass. I call this struggle the struggle for the social service narrative and looking at the outcome of Pagans losing their narrative of social service, it must be won at any cost. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Is the welfare state moral or immoral?

In the previous post, we questioned whether capitalism was moral or immoral and what I wanted to express there was that while it has no moral values of its own, it can be supportive of existing moral values and maybe reinforce them by connecting moral values to a profit motive. In this post, we will examine the competitor for capitalism, which in today's age is by and large the welfare state.

Before, we go into analyzing welfarism, let us understand the needs of a man. These can be broadly classified into two groups: 1) material and 2) spiritual. The material needs are food, clothing and shelter. Lately, a few more items have been added to it - like electricity, education, jobs, internet and so on. The spiritual need basically revolves around generating his outlook of life, and some say the need to realize the self. The latter is indeed the Upanishadic goal, most Upanishads focus on educating us about the need of inquiring who we are.

Now, let us analyze welfarism. On the face of it, there seems to have a feel good thing about it. As we saw in the last post, markets redistribute wealth according to people's ability to satisfy others. In this redistribution, some people are left poor. And being poor, they need help. And they expect the government to help. But the government doesn't have any money of its own (let's neglect PSUs for our simple case study), so it taxes and spends on the poor.

And in democracies, this is not unexpected. When the government is defined as by the people, of the people, and for the people, the government is expected to help the people, and one method is to indulge in entitlements. But should the government just handout money to the poor and expect all to get well? Should the government give them food, clothing and shelter and expect all to get well? It is impossible that any government continue to keep managing basic needs of the people for all eternity. Firstly, this happens at a continuous drain of money from the economy through taxation. If the people are just pushed a notch up the socio-economic ladder without any development of their personhood, their expectations of the government keep growing and they vote in increasingly more government spending to satisfy even the most basic of their needs. This raises the first issue of the welfare state, which we shall call for the moment the vote pump. 

Next is the need of money to fund all the welfare. No amount of taxation is actually able to satisfy this vast need of money. In the end, it all boils down to robbing Peter to pay Paul which is a crime all of us can understand. We have to realize that we are in a very connected global system of nations where one company on being taxed more can easily switch to a more agreeable locale with lesser taxes, provided it gets all the conditions it needs for successfully running its business (if you are not clear with this, look up the 'going galt' phenomenon). After a certain number of talented professionals and companies have gone galt, tax revenues of the country start falling. But the amount to be spent remains the same! So the country would start borrowing money and run heavily into debt. This would involve a long and elaborate procedure of coming out of debt spirals, (use this: click as a primer)

But let us not get too much into the details. Welfarism as we have seen thus far, has grave issues, not only does it only satisfy the material needs of men, it also has other issues associated with it as discussed above. Few have been able to satisfy them. However, people expect help from their government, so if welfarism is evil, how should the government go about it? A simple story that many of us learnt during school days, is that it is better to teach a man to fish rather than giving him a fish everyday. If government wants to help people's lives, it should be towards this goal - making people independent in life. With skills, and with jobs resulting from those skills, people must be able to make out on their own and perhaps satisfactorily answer questions about their existence. Maybe, the government helps in people's material needs too, but that should be for a limited span of time, tied to the above mentioned skill development program and not to make them permanently dependent on it. Essentially, the argument for welfare should be that you can withdraw from the common pool of money only if you are going to pay back into it at a later day through taxes on your newly earned job. Only this sort of welfarism, in my view, is moral. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Is capitalism moral or immoral?

A lot of Indians have some compunctions with capitalism. Because of the ancient Indian ideal of a minimalist lifestyle and sacrifice at some age in life, many are of the view that an interest in monetary profits is bad. A lopsided reading of the scriptures might have had the appeal to make communism and then socialism popular in India during the period of British occupation and later. As compared to them, capitalism has taken a backseat in popular understanding of Indians. 

But if we are to consider the four purushaarthas of Hindu Dharma, (i.e. Dharma, Artha, Kaama and Moksha), the presence of the second purushaartha Artha (money/economics) implies that ancient Indians had never completely given up on money making. Indeed the ideal was to gain money through means of Dharma, i.e. through righteous means. And capitalism can do nothing to hamper that if the society has been already conditioned to be righteous. A basic definition suggests that it is all about private ownership of means of production, and creation of goods and services for profit by private owned enterprises. The profit motive is essential to encourage a player in the market to perform well and when it is rewarded, it is an incentive for good behavior. For our case in this post, we will take free markets as a synonym for capitalism. 

For a pretty basic understanding of some economic ideas, I suggest you read this book. It begins with some essays by Bastiat busting some myths on free markets. Towards the end, there is a section where twenty criticisms of free markets are addressed by Tom Palmer. He starts off addressing the ethical criticism of free markets. For the sake of brevity in our post, we will consider only a few points that largely relate to ethical criticisms:

1) Markets are immoral or amoral: Here the author mentions that markets make people think of advantages, for which people enter into an exchange. The exchange is usually of the type where a product or service is exchanged for money. To enter an exchange, a person has to respect the rightful claims of other people, and they are constrained by morality and law from simply taking stuff they want. To me, this aspect of markets endorse already existing moral sentiments, unless your moral sentiments included taking stuff. Not respecting other people's sentiments would break exchanges, and I am sure people will have no issues dumping the moral offender.

2) Markets promote greed and selfishness: The myth here is that people are trying to find the lowest prices or make the highest profits, ergo markets make the people greedy and selfish. But the truth is, they don't bar people willing to make small profits or people willing to shell out more from entering the exchanges mentioned in the first point. It is more of a system which accomodates all types of people. Moreover, if wealth is generated by being greedy and selfish, it also allows for its distribution as charity, which many would agree is the epitome of selfless life. Wealth created and distributed this way is far more efficient at running the society than brutal tax and spend schemes which generally are means of wealth destruction.

3) Reliance on Markets leads to monopoly: The myth here is that free markets would eventually lead to few big firms selling everything. But monopoly is what a government gives to select groups of people to deliver products and services. Free markets rest on the principle that anybody can enter the market, exit the market, buy from whomever, and sell to whoever. If in the end game of providing a product/service, one company emerges a winner then it has been through a process of selection, and it would have the best possible stuff of that category, so what is wrong if it has a "monopoly"? If after acquiring "monopoly" it starts downgrading its quality, a competitor will definitely rise from scratch and people would dump the behemoth company in due course of time. If the goods produced by the company are highly profitable, there will surely be more people aspiring to live the life of its owner and again somebody with an imagination will rise to compete with the behemoth. Thus, in my view, such a "monopoly" would not last for long.

4) Markets lead to more inequality than non market processes: Here, it is often considered that markets reward ability to satisfy consumer preferences and a person who is more able is rewarded more than the other. However, a 2006 Economic freedom of the World report suggested that this is not true, that reliance on free markets has a weak correlation with income inequality. Moreover, it substantially raises the income of the poor, and who would dislike that. Also, even if there is an inequality, there is nothing the market can do to keep a person dirt poor, or keep a person filthy rich. A person's outcome in life depends on what he does, and it is always in a state of constant flux. 'Jaisi karni waise bharni', as the proverb goes.

5) Markets cannot meet basic human needs: People like to think that basic needs have to be distributed according to need and not ability to pay, and markets support the latter. However, people living under markets enjoy higher standards of living than people under socialism, so it might be considered that markets do indeed support needs well. It's just that the means to support the needs are not through wealth redistribution, but through wealth generation. By endorsing people's ability to generate wealth, markets allow people to get wealthier, and through that way, they end up supporting their needs too.

We thus see that markets have nothing that impact moral nature of the person. What wires the moral nature of the person is not free markets or capitalism, but a sounder education. After a sound moral nature is established, markets will only support existing moral values and make them stronger. In fact, wealth generation through free markets worldwide has allowed people to have more free time, and greater curiosity to seek out other views of life. Many of them stumble upon scriptures of Hinduism, and reading them, absorb at least some ideas of Hinduism and some have even converted to it. If there is any bigger ally of Hinduism, it is capitalism. Were the ancients aware of the advantages of free markets? Would they have implemented them after establishing independence from foreign powers? I don't know for sure yet, but India's experiments with socialism/communism begin with the first contacts with communist internationals established in 1871 by West Bengal communists. By then, Thomas Babington Macaulay was long gone from the face of the earth.

Updated 6/14/2012: There is a part 2 of this post here: click.