On ideology

  • Blog Post Date12 September, 2012
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Ashok Kotwal

Editor in Chief, Ideas for India; University of British Columbia


In recent debates over issues such as the National Food Security Bill or the use of the Unique Identification, we seem to find people with similar values in opposing ideological camps. This editorial seeks to understand why that might be, and argues that we should steer clear of misidentifying the mechanics of achieving certain goals as fundamental ideological differences.

Ideology plays a big role in the way we judge policies, politicians and even the people we meet in our daily lives. It colours our vision and fuels our passions. It could even affect our choice of friends. How could it not? Ideology is after all the manifestation of one’s value system. It is often difficult to see eye to eye with someone with very different values. And yet, sometimes we see people with similar values in the opposite ideological camps as we witnessed in the recent debates over the National Food Security Bill and the use of Unique Identification (UID) in various poverty programmes. This editorial asks why that might be.

Ideological differences can exist along many different dimensions: economic (what role should the government play in the economy?), cultural (modernity versus tradition), and communal (what weights should be put on the well-being of different groups?). I will focus only on the economic dimension leaving out the rest. The commonly used ideological tags in this context are ‘Left’ and ‘Right’.

What is the difference in the ways the Left and the Right view the role of government? Does it have anything to do with their value systems or is it merely what they regard as the better means to achieve the same ends?Also, is the criterion that defines the ideological divide context specific? In other words, is it possible for a person with the same values to be on the left in one society and to be on the right in another?

The two aspects of our value system that are crucial in determining our ideological leanings are: (i) our sense of fairness and (ii) how we weigh individual freedom against social cost. The two are not totally independent of each other but nor are they synonymous with each other. Our sense of fairness leads us to a judgment on the income distribution we desire. The weight we put on individual freedom circumscribes the government’s actions to inhibit socially costly individual actions such as damaging the environment. Both these aspects are important in determining what sort of society we want. However, in the context of this editorial, we will focus on the first one.

By fairness, I do not mean a highly sophisticated notion of fairness acquired through readings of philosophers like Nozick or Rawls. Very few of us are privileged enough to have undertaken serious philosophical readings and yet most of us have a strongly held sense of fairness. By a sense of fairness, I mean something that is almost instinctive - such as the notion thatone deserves to enjoy the fruits of one’s efforts but not to suffer the consequences of a misfortune. Manywould instinctively accept that an industrious worker should be paid more than a lazy worker but a disabled worker deserves societal help. In other words, one is responsible for those things that one can control but not for those one cannot such as an accident. Being born in a poor family with illiterate parents is also a random event that can disable you from fruitfully participating in the economy. Just like an accident, it is just a bad draw. This notion of fairness may be why the Left wants to give the government the mandate to act on our behalf and offer societal help to the poor in the form of guaranteeing employment or subsidising food through government programmes.

If we agree that this notion of fairness is instinctive for all, it begs the question why is there ideological polarisation?Is it that the assumption is flawed – does the Right have a different sense of fairness? One possible answer is that in the context of any given society, people hold different views on whether the economic outcomes are indeed outside one’s control. Our preference for redistributive policies and consequently the role and size of the government then follow from our perception of whether most citizens have enough control on their destiny. Certainly, in the present US Presidential campaigns we see polarisation along these lines.

What is interesting here is that one can be on the right in the context of one society and on the left in the context of another. For example, in a Scandinavian country, with free education and affordable healthcare, the person who thinks that the economic class of one’s parents may matter less than one’s efforts in determining one’s own quality of life may think the opposite in India.

Given the sorry state of public education, healthcare and credit institutions in India, there is little reason to expect high upward mobility in Indian society. Initial conditions of one’s birth station are a good predictor of one’s quality of life. If many of us do not believe that the multitude of poor in India will walk out of poverty if they work hard enough,why should we be cynical about the poverty alleviation programmes? My sense from reading the op-ed pages is that it is because of the waste and corruption they see in many government programs.

Indeed, there is pretty much a consensus that something has to be done to reduce this waste and corruption. In fact, there are some promising experiments being carried out in a few states. For example, Chattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh are making clever use of information technology to curtail graft in their PDS and MGNREGA schemes respectively. Jharkhand is trying out UID linked bank accounts to channel the wages to MGNREGA workers. Bihar wants to try cash transfers in lieu of the in-kind transfers through PDS. The only way to find solutions to these difficult problems is to allow a great deal of experimentation and to hope that successful experiments will be copied in other parts of the country.

Interestingly, in most public debates over these issueswe find the Left in a gridlock. The two sides butting heads are both on the Left in the sense they share the same sense of fairness but disagree about the means (e.g., market versus government). Notice that so far we have discussed ideological differences only in terms of ends rather than the means.But many who associate any market-based solution - such as cash transfers - with the Right and any government-based solution - such as the PDS - with the Left would disagreebased on a strong association between the ends and the means. The use of markets in poverty programmes appears to be an oxymoron; almost as if the use of markets would promote wrong values.

The labels – Left and Right -- take on the significance of group identities with almost a religious fervour. If I am on the Left and support a market-based solution for improving the implementation of a poverty alleviation scheme, must I worry that it would be considered blasphemous? Similarly, if I am on the Right, must I always harbour distrust of any government intervention in the economy? I believe that this misplaced emphasis on the means rather than the ends has been detrimental to the interests of the poor in India.

The crux of the matter is that I think some in the Left make the mistake of lumping all their ´enemies´ into a monolithic pro-market camp. In truth, there are two distinct groups within the pro-market group. One group (the Right) is unsympathetic to their cherished goals, while another shares these goals but disagrees about the best means of achieving them. The conflict with the first group is one of values, while that with the second is based on empirical questions regarding what works. The second group is a potential ally, because of shared goals and values. However, to realize this alliance, I think the Left needs to be open to policy experimentation and be willing to take an honest look at the data that it generates. By failing to distinguish ends and means, the Left has created an internal stalemate.

To sum up, one’s ideology stems from one’s value system that should be about the normative goal. Market and the government are both necessary for achieving any such goal. In the effort to improve the lives of the poor, one should steer clear of misidentifying ideology with the mechanics of achieving certain ends.

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