Two Views

ashokThe cartoon section of today’s Times of India newspaper showed everyone’s favorite mischief maker, Dennis “the Menace” Mitchell facing the corner in punishment for his misdeeds. His protest captioned underneath, “Rules shouldn’t be so easy to break”.

I am reminded of an idea expressed by the late humorist Terry Pratchett, that there are two ways of looking after people. The first is to look at what people should be like and then create a system of rules, rewards and punishments so that they conform to that ideal. The other is to accept them as they are along with all their faults and then try to achieve the common good despite everyone’s fault.

An outstanding example of the first category is emperor Ashoka, the Mauryan ruler who in 263BC converted to Buddhism and tried to enforce a Buddhist ideal throughout India. Ashoka’s edicts were put up all over the empire exhorting people to give up all forms of violence. It is recorded that hunters stopped hunting and fishermen stopped fishing. One wonders whether this actually happened and if so, what did these people do afterwards for their livelihood.


Stone carving believed to depict Ashoka

At the other extreme, the Duke of Wellington is said to have remarked that his soldiers were the ‘scum of the Earth’ and his strategy always took into account that fact. Also, consider Adam Smith’s idea of an ‘invisible hand’. In a capitalist system, farmers grow wheat and bakers bake bread only for their own profit but the whole society benefits. In contrast, models where people are made to work altruistically for the benefit of ‘society and the state’ have achieved some success in small and medium sized communities but have proved notoriously inefficient when tried on a large scale.

My own opinion is that a nuanced approach is needed. To force people is to provoke a backlash. Human nature is notoriously difficult to control. The Spartans were famous for the military discipline that pervaded their society. Yet it is said that once a Spartan was free from his discipline, he could descend lower than anyone.

In another example, writer Aatish Taseer went to theocratic Iran where a state sponsored moral police enforces their version of Islamic ideals. He met a woman who had repeatedly braved police harassment and arrest for her right to ‘have a party’ and enjoy a good time with her friends. There were two things that struck him, first that this was a very brave woman who had sacrificed much for her ideals. Secondly, the ideals for which she had made these sacrifices seemed so trivial and superficial when seen from the outside world. There was something wrong with a system that enforced such terror over trifles.

Another Iranian complaint ran thus, ‘earlier the government was irreligious though the people were religious, now the government is religious and the people have become irreligious’,

At the same time, people do change though often slowly and even over generations. Social morals have certainly evolved. Recently I re-watched some of the old TV programs I enjoyed in childhood. I was surprised by the amount of racial stereotyping and casual sexism that were taken for granted just one generation ago. So much behavior back in the 80s would be considered rude and unacceptable today. Some of this is due to awareness, but there is has also been a lot of push from the top with rules prohibiting some of the most egregious forms of discrimination.

Steven Pinker in his book, The Better Angels of our Nature showed how over centuries, violence and murder on a per-capita basis has declined. Consider, little over a hundred years ago, European statesmen took seriously the ideas of the ennobling spiritual benefits of war and the white man’s burden. While nuclear weapons may have restrained the great powers, smaller wars and pogroms are often stopped through international pressure.

In India, those places where the post-independence land reforms were most vigorously and ruthlessly applied developed the most socially and economically. A lassies fair system that did not attempt large scale societal reform would have doomed the nation into a semi-feudal dichotomy.

To go either way completely is risky, judgement is needed to achieve balance.


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