Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Freedom and the Role of Libertarian Think-tanks in India



By Rahul V Kumar*

Everybody has a vision of freedom. This vision is created from the circumstances that prevail in the society of which they are a part. Oppressive regimes of North Korea to democracies like India exhibit the spectrum of social systems from which the concept of freedom gets its definition. Hence it becomes quiet subjective. However, the idea gets clearer when we club it with individual rights. Classical liberal thought considers the right to life, liberty and property as the natural rights of individuals. So freedom implies freedom to conduct oneself within the framework of these rights respecting the fact that the same rights exist for others. This entire idea gains recognition within the context of the rule of law and written constitution in the society.  
The big problem which faces democracies like ours is defining the extent to which we enjoy absolute freedom in the above sense. Irrespective of the political parties which constitute our federal government, ever since independence we have seen that it has been impossible for all individuals to enjoy freedom. Life, liberty and property have always been at stake in front of power. If this has happened irrespective of the fact that there exists a rule of law, then we have to look for the failure in implementing the law. The state as a custodian of law thus should remain under constant scrutiny. The challenge has always been to bring the power of the state under the rule of law.
When freedom is compromised, the natural response has been to demand freedom. While class struggle has been endorsed by certain theories, the violence associated with it rarely fit the conditions of a democratic environment and contradict the rights based system. Without infringing on the rights of others it becomes impossible to use conflict as a tool. Conflicts curtail freedom. Classical liberals rather envisaged a system where consent rather than coercion played a major role. But how do we obtain consent when there is a concentration of power?
It has been time and again proven in history that dictatorships and socialist regimes find it hard to survive. The more economically dependent we have become the more difficult it is for such system to succeed. The reason simply is that such systems weaken or distort signals which are necessary for to make successful economic decisions. These systems, in the course of time, become economically unsustainable forcing themselves into dependence with the rest of the world. In democracies we have more space for experimenting compared to other systems. This however does not imply that democracies are perfect systems. It will be a fallacy to project India as a country where power has been completely decentralized. Even after decades of independence we have an absolute concentration of power in the hands of a few. Given the character of our democracy it is but possible that we can obtain consent through voluntary exchanges between individuals and groups.

Libertarian Think-Tanks
The role of libertarian think-tanks gains traction in our system given the space provided by our democracy. These organizations primarily work elsewhere in the world based on classical liberal ideas and could provide a thorough evaluation of state activities. A major part of their functioning is to restrict the state from excesses.
The excesses of the state create markets where understanding these excesses carry value. Predicting the course of state action becomes important to contain and curtail these excesses. While instances of state excesses loom large in India, in the operational sphere, a corresponding increase in the number of libertarian think-tanks as a check and balance to power is still in its nascent stages.[1] Conceptually these think-tanks become relevant to objectively verify and challenge policies of the state. Primarily this is done through constant research of the facts and figures (data) generated by state agencies. These think-tanks are also necessary to create alternative thoughts/ideas and spread awareness on these thoughts/ideas. This task could stand in strict contradiction to the political conditions prevailing in the society and pose challenges to the existence of the think-tank.     
It is unfortunate that universities and educational institutions have become the only spaces in India where state power is challenged. I say unfortunately as most of these challenges are met with strong state repression and fade within a matter of months. Only if these challenges are systematically streamlined beyond the walls of universities can they create changes. Such a conversation could find a strong platform in the rise of libertarian think-tanks. Mostly symbolic struggles could thus be shaped into practical policies through these organizations.
The big question then is why are students not becoming part of such organizations? Of course the primary reason is that there is a dearth of libertarian think-tanks in India. But above all I believe that it is the method of operation which mostly dissuades people from becoming part of think-tank activities. Class struggle and coercion are accepted methods for the majority while voluntary exchange, cooperation or tolerance is rejected. Classical liberal ideas are rarely studied in depth in our educational institutions while socialist literature abounds. Such strongholds in the educational system mould conditions dissuading alternative thought.
Libertarian think-tanks are not merely restricted by our educational system it also faces serious challenges in finding apt investors to sponsor its activities. This is again inherent in a system where business and enterprise is seen with contempt. While it is difficult to change attitudes in a society in the short run the best option existing is to encourage alternative thinking. Removing state restrictions, if any on this front, would be a wonderful platform to attract further initiatives. A competitive environment for challenging and shaping policies will only benefit the society than bringing harm to it.

* The Author is Research Consultant at Centre for Public Policy Research. Views are personal and does not present that of CPPR. 


[1] India is a country with reportedly one of the largest number of think-tanks. (Refer: http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/ZWWNGHbZJl2eczrNWAF2sN/The-growing-tribe-of-think-tanks-in-India.html)

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