Critics are valuable and fair

Arun Kumar

A brief but powerful meditation on the politics of reasonableness and unreason.

IS it not reasonable to expect reasonableness in discourse?

A doctor friend set me thinking when she commented that such and such person is reasonable. In TV debates, after a critical comment, the anchor often asks the panelist, is there one thing that the policy maker has done right? In heated conversations, often it is said: be balanced— which is similar to saying be reasonable.

What does it mean to be reasonable? The dictionary meaning is ‘in accordance with reason’ or ‘moderate’. But aren’t these subjective categories? What is ‘in accordance’ with reason or ‘moderate’ is not agreed to by all in society.

Often, it depends on the individual’s situation in society or on society’s stage of development and the dominant discourse set by the ruling elite. Here, the focus is on the economic aspects but this analysis could also be extended to social and political aspects.

System’s idea of reasonableness

In a feudal society, the landlord holds the land and extracts rent from the farmers. Being reasonable might mean not being too exploitative lest it leave the farmers destitute.

Even if moderate, exploitation persists. In this system, any talk of eliminating landlords and giving land to the tillers would be considered unreasonable. But, with the advent of capitalism, (Adam) Smith and (David) Ricardo characterised landlords as wasteful and argued for ending their dominance. Were they being unreasonable? In the old framework, yes, but not in the evolving framework.

What does it mean to be reasonable? The dictionary meaning is ‘in accordance with reason’ or ‘moderate’. But aren’t these subjective categories? What is ‘in accordance’ with reason or ‘moderate’ is not agreed to by all in society.

Capitalism is even more wasteful than feudalism. Enormous waste is generated by consumerism deliberately promoted by advertisements and the example set by the corporate culture and government. The result is environmental damage, climate change and extreme weather events. But, would the ruling elite accept this as a reason to eliminate capitalism and go for, say, a Gandhian alternative? Undoubtedly much needs to be fleshed out about such an alternative, especially, given the technological changes that have occurred since M.K. Gandhi’s time.

Talk of a Gandhian alternative to create a better world is considered unreasonable by the current ruling elite. They are already well off and not sure that in the new world their privileges will survive.

So, in their self-interest, they are status quoist and would characterise talk of alternatives as not only utopian but unreasonable. Clearly, reasonableness is associated with individual and class interest and not societal interest.

Gandhi in Hind Swaraj critiqued British parliamentary democracy. He argued that political parties work for narrow interests and not for society as a whole. He argued that leaders work for their self-interest and the PM for the narrow interest of his backers.

Further, the members of Parliament do not have the freedom to represent public interest since they have to follow the party whip. So, politics is all about exercising power to serve the interests of the financiers of the party. This is visible in post-Independence India where politics is controlled by black money and vested interests.

So, the current ruling dispensation would characterise Gandhi as unreasonable. But not openly. He was striking at their interests. He was asking people to reject the present set of rulers— not through violence since he believed in non-violence. He propagated change through making people conscious about who they should choose as their representatives. In today’s circumstances, this would even be termed as seditious.

Individual’s idea of reasonableness

The ruling elite identify with the existing system since that has given them privileges that they may lose in an alternative. Thus, they would term any major change as unreasonable and would work against it.

Since the elite set the public discourse, critics of the system are in a minority and overwhelmed by the dominant narrative. It requires courage for critics to stand against the tide since they have to pay a price for their defiance.

But workers in a capitalist system would not consider the critique to be reasonable? For workers, there is a daily struggle for survival while for the well-off, the goal would be to preserve and advance their gains.

Because of low wages, the elite can afford servants, drivers, gardeners and office peons. Life is comfortable. For the workers, a higher salary or wage is essential to improve the prospects of their family. This proposition is not unreasonable for workers but the elite would consider this as unreasonable. But the workers do not set the agenda of the public debate and get marginalised and so do the critics.

In a feudal society, the landlord holds the land and extracts rent from the farmers. Being reasonable might mean not being too exploitative lest it leave the farmers destitute.

In brief, the individual’s viewpoint on reasonableness depends on her situation in society. Some members of the elite may accept the need for an alternative but such critics of the establishment comprise a tiny minority and are branded as unreasonable by the ruling elite.

Critics of policy

Should not the policies that sustain rapacious capitalism and lead to growing inequalities be critiqued? Can this be termed as unreasonable? In public debates, the critics are often asked, is there not something right that is being done by a policy?

A trick question that sidesteps the important time dimension. Namely, over what time frame is the policy under discussion being analysed? While in the short-run, a policy may appear to be necessary, but over the long-run, they may lead to growing problems, like environmental decline and growing inequality.

The role of policy is to make things better. Even if the government does not do much, the economy has its own momentum. Technology is changing and new and better products become available.

Automatically, there will be transition from typewriters to word processing and landlines to mobile phones. The role of policy should be to optimise change, enhance people’s welfare and resolve society’s problems.

By definition, governments justify their actions. Using selective data, they present their policies in a positive light and downplay the negatives. A phalanx of media, politicians and favoured experts rise to reinforce the government’s views. The government spends enormous resources to create a climate of acceptability in society.

In contrast, critics who point to alternative facts or faulty official methodology and hold a mirror to the policy makers are branded as unreasonable.

Since the elite set the public discourse, critics of the system are in a minority and overwhelmed by the dominant narrative. It requires courage for critics to stand against the tide since they have to pay a price for their defiance.

What is needed is data-based critique of policy pointing to its long term consequences for society. This has to be theoretical since it is about the future for which data has not been generated yet. Only projections from the past are possible.

Hence, one is talking of a hypothetical change. A critique then helps devise better policies or prevent society from going astray. After all, many ‘solutions’ proposed by policy makers from which some sections gain materially have turned out to be ‘non-solutions’ leading to growing social problems.

Consider the completely misconceived policies of demonetisation and Goods and Sales Tax (GST). The problems these policies have led to in the long-term were ignored for short-run considerations. In the short-run they seemed to be rational and reasonable to the ruling elite but critics pointed to the problems that will follow in the long-run. Were they unreasonable?

Conclusion

In brief, calling something unreasonable is relative to one’s position in the system and is often determined by the self-interest of the ruling elites. In spite of all the ‘social progress’ since Gandhi’s times, we now recall what Gandhi cautioned us about and the alternative he proposed is becoming more relevant.

Society needs critics who look at the long-term perspective since they point to the pitfalls and the correctives required. There are perks for being with the system so it is costly. But critics come for free— they are priceless.

Society needs critics who look at the long-term perspective since they point to the pitfalls and the correctives required. There are perks for being with the system so it is costly. But critics come for free— they are priceless.

Arun Kumar is a retired professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is the author of Demonetization and Black Economy and Indian Economy’s Greatest Crisis: Impact of the Coronavirus and the Road Ahead.

The article was first published in The Leaflet as Critics are priceless and not unreasonable on November 26, 2023.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgement: This article was posted by Nikita Saha, a research intern at IMPRI.