Beware of Moral Invocations

Those who fail at economics or governance often invoke morality. Don’t fall for this age-old ruse.

At a recent book launch in Delhi, the BJP MP Swapan Dasgupta described demonetisation as being an act of ‘moral economy’. I guess he meant we should not ask whether slashing the currency in circulation had promoted the production of goods and services. Clearly it could not.

Instead, he was suggesting, we should look at demonetisation from a higher plane, aimed at improving the moral fibre of our fellow citizens.

This moral benefit clearly had economic costs of the non-moral kind – 7 million people exited the labour force, bad loans in the micro-finance sector multiplied, cement production slumped, and inventories of motorcycles and scooters piled up. Reducing the impact of these to a single number, such as GDP, is fraught, contentious, and still many months away. It is much easier to elevate your government’s concerns away from crass numbers to a higher, more moral level.

The recent Supreme Court ban on alcohol sales along highways smacks of the same smug morality. Alcohol outlets, bars, and even hotels along our state and national highways will pay a huge cost. Of course no one is shedding a tear for passengers who enjoy chugging a chilled beer while bumping along our clogged roads – that would be sympathy of an immoral kind. Though the Supreme Court case originated in the plea of an accident victim, the ban on alcohol sales along highways was unanimously supported by the National Road Safety Council (NRSC), which includes representatives of state governments and central ministries.

Even the most cursory data search shows the linkage between alcohol and road deaths to be non-existent. Germans, for example, drink more than twice as much alcohol per head as Indians do; yet our motor vehicles are 20 times more lethal than theirs. Clearly, there is more to highway deaths than alcohol – think non-existent driving licence tests, rutted roads, shoddy signage, callous traffic police. All of these are the remit of the bodies represented on the NSRC, and there has been little improvement on any of these fronts over the last decade. They should have tackled the complex issue of road safety by tougher policing on the ground, but it is much easier to take to the pulpit of morality and bans.

When Governments pull down the shutters on those they don’t like, they always find such good reasons to do so. Hitler closed Jewish banks because they exploited the common folk. Mao shut down theaters and jailed dancers because they corrupted public morality.

Last month, ‘illegal’ abattoirs and meat shops were shut down across the state of Uttar Pradesh as the new Chief Minister took office. Fervent appeals to follow suit arose in various parts of the country, from Karnataka to Uttarakhand. Here was the new UP Chief Minister’s public morality on view for his core consistency. And if someone would have you believe that the move came from a genuine concern for public health, it’s worth noting that 68% of the milk sold in India is adulterated.

Whether it’s restaurants or food stalls or primary schools, the onerous, often impractical web of rules and regulations that supposedly govern their functioning have little to do with their reality. This means that our Inspector Raj can earn a steady income stream from stamping the various chits, registers and licences by which they are ruled. It also means that when “morality” dictates, those in power can accurately state, “but we are only enforcing the law.”

Quite apart from the fact that morality should be the most private of spheres, the victim of public posturing is always the economy – in the case of the UP closures, massive job losses in the meat and leather industries.

Prime Minister Modi was elected on twin platforms, of economic prosperity and identity politics. There is little to suggest that his government has succeeded in restoring the mojo of growth. Perhaps as a consequence, the UP elections underlined the BJP’s hard shift to a consolidation of Hindu identity, and an assertion of moral superiority.  Expect more policy decisions that allow our regime to trumpet its civilisational relevance and the Indian way of life.

If the economy suffers, as I suspect it will, India can always declare that we have entered a new age, of the ‘Moral Economy’.