Does the Modi government have a notion of the ‘common good’? Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman seems to have a vague idea about it. While presenting the budget on February 1, quoting a famous Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar, she said, “A king or ruler is one who creates or acquires wealth, protects and distributes it for common good”.
The finance minister who is not otherwise known for her literary sensibility has been remarkably uncanny in characterising a part of present-day reality. There are three important elements in this quotation.
First, she sees no distinction between a king of a pre-democratic and pre-republican age, who both treat their citizens as subjects that are to be bulldozed into a ‘common good’ for they know not what is good for them, and the rulers of today.
Second is the task of “creating and acquiring wealth, protecting and distributing it”. Taxation, either direct or indirect like the Goods and Services Tax (GST), or simply printing money or selling national assets built with the taxpayer’s money to their favoured capitalists are the known means of “creating and acquiring wealth” for the state. The budget is an instrument to inform the public as to how the state intends to do it.
Thirdly, “distributing it for common good” is the stated goal. This is a bit more problematic because the notion of “common good” that this king or ruler has is yet unclear. Common good is a much-misused term, and often times it is neither common, nor good.
What is common good?
Let us go by the commonly understood idea of ‘common good’. Firstly, it is different and considered higher in the value chain than ‘individual good’. Secondly, it is not a statistically derived notion of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ but an aspirational goal to be achieved by various policy measures, including the budget which is intended to allocate scarce resources in a ‘just and equitable’ manner. At the root of the conception of the ‘common good’ is a notion of justice and equity. Both these terms require further elaboration.
Political philosophers from ancient times have grappled with questions of justice, equality, freedom, right and wrong, rights versus duties, and what constitutes a just society, among others.
Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University has explicated these crucial terms that often confound politicians and policy makers in his excellent lecture-series on justice.
He says that there are three ways of thinking about justice and they revolve around “maximising welfare, respecting freedom and promoting virtue”.
Maximising welfare is now reduced to a mechanistic calculation of the growth of gross domestic product (GDP), though ‘welfare’ is a much broader term than economic prosperity and includes several non-economic indicators.
Most economists now believe our GDP numbers will rise but then we are headed into a trajectory of ‘jobless recovery or growth’ which means that the hundreds of millions who lost their jobs either due to pandemic or due to the great national lockdown are unlikely to get their jobs back but the industry will become lean and mean and recover its chutzpah.
And the four Labour Codes passed on the same day as the three farm laws are aimed at helping the industrialist or the employer to squeeze the maximum out of the labour force by making them work longer, without paying overtime and sacking inefficient workforce.
Promoting freedoms is another essential component of the ‘common good’ as that liberates a human being to pursue his interests and talents, but as Amartya Sen points out there can be no pursuit of freedoms without social and economic development. Thus, it appears that welfare and freedoms are intricately intertwined.
The curbs on individual freedoms have ranged from control of their diet to ruination of jobs and livelihoods and arrest of journalists for reporting facts or even arresting stand-up comedians for jokes they did not make.
Further, the national lockdown led to millions of children suffering malnutrition due to the stoppage of mid-day meals in schools and the school-closure continues in large parts of the country even today. While poor children are neither getting food nor education and their parents have lost livelihoods, talking about freedoms is a mockery of their condition.
Now coming to one of the great questions of political philosophy: Does a state seek to promote virtue of its citizens? Can the state tell them what to eat, dress, or who to marry? Or should the law be neutral towards competing questions of virtue, so that citizens can be free to choose for themselves the best way to live?
Professor Sandel suggests that modern political philosophers from Immanuel Kant in the 18th century to Professor John Rawls in the 20th century argued that the principles of justice that define our rights should not rest on any particular conception of virtue, or the best way to live.
Instead, a just society respects each person’s freedom to choose her own conception of the good life. That in essence seems to be the ‘common good’ as it is understood today.
Free market and common good
Let us take one of the above notions and contextualise it: the concept of ‘maximising welfare’ in a free-market economy, as this is at the heart of the neo-liberal economic reforms that we are now witnessing in the agricultural sector with the passage of the three farm laws.
Professor Sandel points out that “the standard case for unfettered markets rests on two claims – one about welfare and the other about freedom. First, the markets promote the welfare of society as a whole by providing incentives for people to work hard supplying the goods that other people want. Second, markets respect individual freedom; rather than impose a certain value on goods and services, markets let people choose for themselves what value to place on the things they exchange”.
There is, however, an important and valid criticism of both these arguments. Firstly, the free market is not truly free. And the buyer and seller do not have equal strength to bargain, or that the playing field is never level.
Secondly, the welfare of the whole society is never served when a seller sells his goods at exploitative prices, and the buyer with his enormous resources can drive a section of the population to penury or servitude. This results in outrage, a feeling of injustice, a feeling that people are not getting what they deserve.
The outrage of the farmers is justifiably intense due to two pernicious clauses that are patently unjust and deny them a fundamental right such as Article 32 – ‘Right to Constitutional Remedies’ that has been regarded as one of the ‘basic structures of the constitution’.
They are Sections 13 and 15 under Chapter V of The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020. They state:
Section 13: “No suit, prosecution or other legal proceedings shall lie against the Central Government or the State Government, or any officer of the Central Government or the State Government or any other person in respect of anything which is in good faith done or intended to be done under this Act or of any rules or orders made thereunder.”
Section 15: “No civil court shall have jurisdiction to entertain any suit or proceedings in respect of any matter, the cognizance of which can be taken and disposed of by any authority empowered by or under this Act or the rules made thereunder.”
These two sections not only deny their right to access justice but also codify a potentially unequal bargain, thus perpetuating injustice. What kind of ‘common good’ is envisaged in these farm laws? And how does a king or a ruler treat those who feel a deep sense of injustice?
Does he treat them as enemies of the state, and block them with barricades, barbed wires and iron nails on their path of commerce, or does he negotiate with them and remove the source of their grievance?
Does he turn a blind eye to the deaths of over 180 farmers dying of hypothermia in the bitter cold of Delhi winter, while protesting against these laws? This is certainly not what Thiruvalluvar thought of a good king or ruler. But why go that far, while our constitution itself is a sufficient guide on the subject.
A clearer perception of the ‘common good’ will emerge if our rulers go back to the constitution and just read the preamble. If only the rulers held their legislations to the bar set by the preamble and see that they pass the test of the four goals enshrined in it, the ruler will go a long way in ensuring the ‘common good’.
“Justice, social, economic and political;
Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
Equality of status and of opportunity and to promote among them all;
Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation.”
Ravi Joshi, formerly in the Cabinet Secretariat, is visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.