The ability of Indian society to correct itself is underplayed, underestimated,and undermined by the Indian State.
Consider these questions: Indian languages are being displaced by English; who should protect them from ‘dying’? Indian cities are spatially segregated along caste lines; who should desegregate them? Our social media feeds are increasingly polarised; who should extricate us from our closed echo chambers? And, brave Indian two-wheeling commuters prefer injury over wearing ugly helmets; who should be entrusted with ensuring that they do?
Instinctively, our answer would be another question: duh! Aren’t these exactly the kind of things our governments are supposed to solve? Well, not quite. I am going to make a case for why tasks that require behavioural and societal changes are best left for the society to resolve. In short, I will make a case for what I call Societism.
Institutionally, there are three major actors in any sovereign community— the market, the State, and the society. They are complementary—each of them is better at some tasks and is worse at others. For example, the state is very adept at employing force, but efficient usage of resources is not its forte. A market is efficient, but is oblivious to inequality. And a society has several self-correcting mechanisms, but is susceptible to majoritarianism.
What are societies good at?
Among the three institutions, the first two are the focus of the most popular streams of political thought; I want you to zoom in on the third one: the civil society. Loosely defined, a civil society is “an aggregate of non-governmental organisations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens”. In his seminal work, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville had this to say on American civil society in the early nineteenth century:
There is nothing, according to me, that deserves more to attract our regard than the intellectual and moral associations of America. We easily perceive the political and industrial associations of the Americans, but the others escape us; and if we discover them, we understand them badly because we have almost never seen anything analogous. One ought however to recognize that they are as necessary as the first to the American people, and perhaps more so.
Needless to say, all of us have heard of many successful civil society initiatives but broadly speaking, they are of three kinds.
The first amongst them is philanthropy: generous donation of money to good causes. Or to causes that the state wouldn’t or couldn’t care for at that particular moment. Andrew Carnegie’s public library legacy, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s work on healthcare, and Tatas’ contribution to research establishments fall under this category of civil society initiatives.
The second category comprises of social movements, aimed at self-correcting the underlying organisational fundamentals of the society. Such movements are often led by reformers, of which we had quite a few in India. Ram Mohan Roy’s contribution to abolition of Sati, Dhondo Keshav Karve’s work on women’s education, Jyotirao Phule and Periyar’s efforts to eradicate caste discrimination, and Baba Amte’s rehabilitation of leprosy patients, are all successful examples of civil society led reform.
The third category of civil society initiatives are aimed at correcting market failures: situations in which allocations of goods and services is sub-optimal. Non-governmental groups that mobilise people to plant more trees in the city, or to clean lakes, or to raise awareness about noise pollution are a few examples of this category.
Why is the society’s ability to self-correct underplayed?
Though civil society initiatives have wide-ranging abilities aimed at self-reform, the emergence of the welfare state has slowly and steadily sidelined society. A welfare state is the one whose role goes far beyond provision of basic public services to all members of the society; its primary role is thought to be to change society itself.
Now, this idea — the welfare state as an actor more powerful than civil society for social change —has wide acceptance across the political spectrum.
In the conservative canon, free markets are considered to be the best way to achieve prosperity. But in situations where markets fail, the State—and not civil society—is seen as the agent of change. The role of the civil society is undermined: it is merely seen as an advocate and an agitator that should force the State to address these market failures.
The primacy of the State remains true on the other side of the politics as well. If you ever try typing the word Societism on your phone or laptop, it will get autocorrected to Socialism. But that’s where the similarity ends. The socialist canon sees the State as the most powerful actor for social change; the role of society itself is again undermined. In fact, socialism is more statism and less societism.
So what if the State is seen as society’s biggest troubleshooter, you ask? Well, the nature of the State as an institution is such that it is terrible at making social change happen. Even if it does, it has many unintended and unanticipated negative consequences that can make the society worse-off. Tocqueville again, described this eloquently:
A government can no more suffice on its own to maintain and renew the circulation of sentiments and ideas in a great people than to conduct all its industrial undertakings. As soon as it tries to leave the political sphere to project itself on this new track, it will exercise an insupportable tyranny even without wishing to; for a government knows only how to dictate precise rules; it imposes the sentiments and the ideas that it favors, and it is always hard to distinguish its counsels from its orders.
The State’s largesse has several other knock-on effects.
One, a welfare state ends up becoming a perfect alibi for the selfish citizen. A citizen at the margin refuses to take up acts of compassion, empathy or philanthropy. This is because she considers that the execution of these functions are, in fact, the raison d’être of the State. Citizens are more likely to claim that their tax contributions are by themselves their generous contributions towards social and behavioural change.
Two, the welfare state then becomes a mafia lord. In its march to appropriate all tasks for reforming society, the State demolishes all other competing philanthropic agents that come in its way. The lack of competition reinforces our bias, making us ignore its crimes. Acts of wrongdoings by governments then become fait accompli — almost as a collective cost that the society necessarily needs to incur in order to ensure that the State performs its welfare role. Bryan Caplan’s warning in this context is very useful.
Welfare states melt people’s consciences, leading them to excuse and minimise the most horrible of crimes … When organisations that kill people for a living — like crime families or governments — loudly help the needy, we should indeed shudder. Why? Because their perceived philanthropy makes it easy for them to get away with murder. Maybe they’ll use their power over life and death wisely and fairly. But they probably won’t — especially if they’re surrounded by devoted fans eager to excuse their shortcomings.
The Indian Context
The problem of the welfare state acquires a whole new dimension in the Indian context. Created in the backdrop of a deeply fractured, poor, and unequal society, the Indian Constitution came hardcoded with a social revolution algorithm.
Until then, the idea of social revolution by constitutional methods was not common. A conservative document like the constitution served primarily to establish rights and institutions in a society, and protect its citizens from an eager, overreaching state. To use a document like that to bring about a social revolution in a society was a bold and imaginative experiment.
My bias is in favour of this laudable experiment. Maybe it was this that held India together in its infancy, but the project did have its share of unintended and unanticipated consequences.
First, as described earlier, the welfare state became an alibi for the citizen. Governments further exploited the State’s primacy, imposing cesses or even taking away forcibly from unsuspecting citizens to clean cities, to fund toilets, and to correct caste discrimination — goals that actually need massive societal and behavioural changes.
Second, because the State was overly concerned with reforming the society, it miserably failed at the task it was supposed to be doing: providing basic public services. How else can we explain that even after seventy years of independence, over twenty percent of our population continues to live in extreme poverty, many dense habitations have poor access to schools, water, and electricity, and law, order and public safety show little improvement.
Third, once the State failed in providing basic public services, even well-meaning civil society initiatives were directed towards plugging the government’s leaky bucket. Instead of complementing the state, civil society initiatives started supplemented the state. So, we do have philanthropy, but a lot of it is for providing basic amenities, which fall squarely in the domain of the State. Philanthropy for the big, bold tasks that governments can’t do, like Carnegie’s public library network, is yet to come of age.
Fourth, society’s own attempts at correcting market failures similarly attempts to substitute for the missing State. For example, The Ugly Indian is an anonymous group of committed volunteers that clears garbage from city streets every weekend. A wonderful civil society initiative indeed, but wasn’t exactly this the task of our governments? How can we expect a State that cannot provision the most basic of public services to end caste discrimination or ‘protect’ Indian languages?
Finally—and arguably—society’s attempts at self-reform have suffered. At the very least, the nature of social movements has changed. Once in a while, when civil societies manage to mobilise, they act as petitioners to the State, merely demanding quotas of various kinds.
So, the case for Societism is this: let the State not introduce new legs to the social revolution project. Let the State not invent new ‘rights’ in the name of social reform. Instead, let us hold the State accountable for intervening where there are acute market failures. Let the State be judged on its capability to provide water, jobs, electricity, safety, and security to every Indian. Given that we cannot undo the social revolutionary tenets of the Constitution with manageable costs, a compromise is to let the State continue to work on them. For the rest, Indian society can look out for itself.