Our weekly explainer on economics using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 1, Salman Khan explains the importance of constitutional rules.
“Ek baar jo maine commitment ka di, uske baad tho main khud ki bhi nahin sunta.” (Salman Khan in Wanted.)
Once I have made a commitment, I don’t listen even to myself. This is a quintessential Bollywood line – and perhaps Salman’s most memorable – because it is full of machismo and attitude, and means nothing. Or wait, does it mean something? What is Salman saying here?
I haven’t seen the film, and I don’t intend to, so I don’t know the context within the movie. But devoid of context, one could argue that Salman’s words carry a great moral credo to live by. And its wisdom applies both at a personal and a national level. Let’s start with the personal.
What does it mean to live a moral life? Deontologists would say that you have a set of values, you set certain rules of conduct for yourself according to those values, and you live by those rules. For example, you may value human life and individual rights, and one of the rules could be, I will not kill anyone. You thus decide that, no matter what the circumstances, you will not commit murder.
Admittedly, given that none of us is likely to be stranded on a lifeboat with one companion, with nothing to eat accept that companion, this commitment is unlikely to be tested. We could set other such rules: I will not steal. Not hard to keep. I will not lie. Impossible for a married person to adhere to, at least. (‘No, darling, you’re not looking fat in that dress. Arre!’)
If we don’t have such rules for ourselves, then everything is circumstantial, and one can justify anything. So, to live the moral life, having a set of personal moral rules is important, though perhaps with some squiggle room for awkward social situations.
How does this apply to a nation? Well, imagine the constitution of a Republic as being akin to the personal moral rules of an individual. A nation, when it embraces a constitution, basically accepts rules for its conduct. The purpose of a constitution is to be a check on the state. In the classical liberal vision, a state exists to protect the rights of its people, and not to rule them as despots do. A constitution constrains it, and acts as a safeguard for the people.
The excellent comic strip above illustrates the dangers of a Democracy that is not a Republic. Shruti Rajagopalan recently wrote an excellent essay on these pages that spoke about what happens to a nation that does not have a strong enough constitution.
Sadly, India may be getting there. At one level, no one cares about the constitution these days, and the rule of law is in bad shape in much of the country. At another, our constitution itself started out flawed, and became worse over the decades. A book of fundamental rules is no good when it can be changed easily whenever the party in power feels that is convenient. India’s constitution has been amended so often that, as someone once quipped, it is more like a periodical than a book.
Admittedly, Salman may not have had precisely this in mind when he uttered those immortal words. Or he may have. I cannot say for sure, because I haven’t seen the movie, and I never will. Even I have some rules I live by.
- The Calculus of Consent: James M Buchanan and Gordon Tullock
- The Reason of Rules: Geoffrey Brennan and James M Buchanan