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The greatest obligation of a liberal

by Sanjeev Sabhlok 14 June 2003

I am a man, a woman, a child. And I am afraid. I am born with a sense of fear of dark spaces and creatures of the dark. My fears are difficult to express, for they are so deeply embedded in my heart, that at the slightest suspicion of danger, my heart rate increases dramatically, and I display symptoms of distress. But of all my fears, it is other human beings I most dread -- with guns, knives, poisonous arrows, spears, and ropes to strangle. The most dangerous wild animal appears benign in comparison.

I am afraid of human beings even in situations that appear to contain no possibilities of violence. When a workman comes to my house, I am cautious and conscious of possibilities of unforeseen behaviour. I contain these possibilities through various methods. For man can become dangerous, unexpectedly. When a man with religious passion declares his determination to exterminate a fellow human being if that human being continues to express an undesirable view, I am keenly afraid. Salman Rusdies fear haunts me at night. I am oppressed by man. Man could be a white man destroying my village and occupying my lands in the hunt for gold. Man could be the one that separates me from my family to make me a slave. Man could even be my own uncle that assaults me for his pleasure.

I find it difficult to believe that we could survive as a society in some relative peace without organising ourselves into kingdoms, or nations, essentially based on the regulation of human interaction. If I were to claim that every interaction between human beings can be voluntary, and that we have agreed to form a nation through choice, or that interactions in the marketplace are representative of the various interactions between human beings, I would be guilty of folly or even deceit.

But it is a fiction that we have contracted to have a government. The truth is that we had no choice in the formation of our nations or kingdoms. The more ferocious amongst us, the more brutal amongst us, the more clever amongst us, invariably dominated us, and conquered us. This is a law of nature. History is replete with thousands of examples where a vacuum of power is immediately filled up by an alternative source of power: human beings are extremely political animals. Oppressive regimes spring up spontaneously and easily in every human society.

The fiction of the social contract is a rationalisation of an existing law of nature. We like to assuage ourselves that we have had some role in letting ourselves be governed. While it is not true that every piece of potential property in this universe came into existence as somebodys property (cf. Nozik), it is true that all of us came into being as subordinates of another human being. A king or a Prime Minister -somebody always exists, who dominates us. Most of us are born as ordinary citizens -- of a nationality or tribe owned or controlled by somebody else. Man is everywhere in chains.

Do I like these chains? I guess that given an option I would have preferred to be in my own heaven, the king of all I surveyed. In other words, I would have put others in chains. But obviously, everyone else ever born in this world would have done the same: indeed, such speculation itself is so idle, that no one ever really pursues it sensibly. But this illustrates the paradox of human nature -- that it is possible for all of us to be as good as we can be, yet it is from this power hungry side of our own nature that we are all afraid. We recognise in ourselves the dichotomy that drives us into chains. We would rather be in chains, as subordinates of a nation, tribe, or even caste, than face fear from unexpected attack and depredation. Anarchy is not a feasible option for this species.

So the first principle of the Liberal is that life is a battlefield, where man is always on the defensive, likely to be cheated, attacked, or in some other way divested of his self-respect. From the word go, a child can be bullied or insulted in the school or elsewhere, and this situation continues, no matter how old the child gets or where he lives. The Liberal therefore requires an extremely strong government, strong enough to prevent the loss of dignity, property, and integrity through coercion.

There is nothing arising from this principle that requires a government to be limited to particular geographical area. We could have a government occupying a town, or a government covering the entire earth. The key requirement of the government is that it would protect individual dignity, property and integrity.

Man needs a system to control government

But governments are made of men! Men as we saw above, are potentially very dangerous creatures. Once they are armed, they become potentially even more dangerous. So have we created a monster in our desperation to protect ourselves from other men? The answer to that is a definite yes! Throughout history, man has suffered not only the attacks of fellow citizens, but even more dangerously, attacks from governments that have gone berserk. There is nothing more dangerous than a government without controls. It is vital therefore, that the design of government is such that control vests with the citizens at all times.

But can we design such a system? It is not practical that a citizen exercise control or oversight over the government at all times. And therefore there are huge gaps in the exercise of this control. Indeed, we are frequently at the mercy of rogue governments precisely because of these gaps. There is no known, foolproof method by which a rogue government can be ousted by the citizen. When Indira Gandhi declared the state of emergency, there was no way that a common citizen could have ousted her had she not chosen to voluntarily go back to the hustings.

The only known way that has some, small, probability of success in controlling government at all times is that citizens who are conscious of the dangers of governments, continuously attempt to run the government, for if they were not to do so, the dangers would increase inordinately. Even with the best of intentions, some of us who believe in a controlled and limited government, may actually find power to be an extremely heady brew and become a danger to the rest of the society. But if people who do not even understand this risk are allowed to run the government on our behalf, simply because we are too lazy or too intelligent to do so, then the risk of a government turning against its own citizens is enhanced exponentially.

Therefore the greatest obligation of a Liberal is to take all possible steps to actually control and run a government. As societies develop into open societies, these chains of government can actually be chosen. If we really do not like a particular government or society, we could have the option of exit. I am being a bit over-optimistic when I state this. We know of innumerable instances in history where society as a whole bore down on certain individuals in a manner that left them with no options of exit. This characteristic of the society has to be watched for very carefully, since societies are easily prone to group psychoses that they may repent in future, but which create life-threatening situations for individuals who find themselves at the receiving end of the psychosis. In the long run, if the process of contesting the dangerous tendencies of human beings within and outside government is carried on for the next few millennia, through running governments and building institutions, we may actually have in the end a genuine social contract with guaranteed options of exit.

The Liberal is obliged to deliver the social contract that he talks of.

Liberals are team players
(added on 17 August 2003)

A liberal understands that he or she is a mere ordinary mortal possessing something known as human nature - a complex of abilities that are available to us through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. Unlike a cow which is not likely to attack a tiger, or a tiger which is not likely to eat grass, a human being has the potential to behave in the most complex manner possible, which includes attacking a tiger and eating grass. Each of us is capable of a range of behaviours, from the highest level of honesty and integrity and goodness, to the worst level of atrocity that can be imagined (or even beyond that). The liberal recognises that our behaviour is strongly impacted by our understanding, which is extremely variable on any given topic, ranging from no knowledge upto possibly the cutting-edge knowledge in the subject. In general, however, our knowledge is superficial and is supplemented by assumptions, stereptypes, biases, and prejudices. Further, limitations of time and attention, or the influence of drugs such as alcohol, can dramatically affect our behaviour.

This is the raw material from which our leaders (people in the past who were elevated to eminence) are built. Pioneers like Gandhi recognised this problem and spent a lifetime perfecting themselves. And yet, imagining ourselves to be gods, we do tend to pass many unfavourable judgements on even the best amongst us. And that is all for the good, if it reminds us again that we are mere mortals with enormous need for improvement. But more significantly, our ability to find scope for improvement even in men like Gandhi, is an enormously valuable asset. Unique to all creatures on this planet, man can determine, when judiciously applying his or her mind, what is good and what can be better. Despite that, individually we will still err, frequently, but working together, I suggest, we may make the right choice most of the time. This judiciousness of human teams is put to good use in the jury system of justice.

The liberal taps this reservoir of judiciousness that all men have, as distinct from other creatures.

The liberal therefore refuses to work individually. Our limitations as humans rule us out as capable of taking good decisions all the time, no matter how much we may think we know about a particular situation. The liberal therefore never wishes for any old-fashioned or pre-liberal leadership status. The liberal works in teams. The liberal believes in Joint Leadership on important decisions.

In addition therefore, to being obliged to provide the government and social contract which will genuinely protect the rights of all of us as citizens, the liberal is obliged to renounce any fictional and anachronistic aspirations to any leadership. Liberals are open to ideas and criticism from all sources; they allow the wisdom of judicious thinking of concerned citizens to be openly aired before any decisions are taken. Liberals can represent others, as representatives, but they are not leaders.

Finally, each liberal is obliged to perfect himself or herself throughout life. Any so-called greatness which is recognised by others is only another fiction - when we have reached the point when we understand how little we know and how much we need to improve ourselves, we are no longer in search of greatness but in search of internal perfection. That is our internal battle and we fight it every day as ordinary human beings. Recognition by anybody else is not only irrelevant but impossible - how can anyone know what terrible thoughts I thought or dreamt yesterday? When I (only I) recognise that Im closer to perfection, I will be happier within myself. Unfortunately, at least in my case, the internal journey is very long and arduous.

Therefore I intend to do my duty as a liberal to promote good governance in India, but in the end that is a very small part of my obligations to myself as a human and to others around me.