Part II of a long-forgotten post

You know what the greatest advantage of a democracy is? No, it is not that it gives us the power to elect the right person to power. In my view, the coolest thing about democracy is that it enables us to chuck out the wrong person after five years.

Democracy is a civilised form of civil war. In a real civil war, the winner can kill the loser – literally, not figuratively. Once the winner emerges victorious, he is more or less obliged to commit a huge massacre to give people a warning that any further rebellion will not be tolerated. That buys him some time – usually more than the five years that democracy gives its rulers. But sooner or later someone will plot against him. If not against him, they will plot against his son who, though he is a weakling, has ascended the throne after his father.

Now, in a usual democracy, you don’t get to do that. You can, in theory, have a “democracy” where the winner gets to be an absolute ruler for five years, but it would never work. That’s obviously because the winner can still kill the loser and all potential rivals so that there is no one to challenge him five years later. His rivals will know this, so the election campaign will quickly turn into an actual civil war.

So democracy is meaningless without limited government, which in turn is meaningless without rule of law, and rule of law is meaningless without institutions. This post is about institutions, not about democracy.

Rule-based institutions go against the grain of human nature, so they are difficult to establish. Human nature is to form hierarchies based on personal loyalty. A feudal structure fulfills that need perfectly. But it is neither scalable nor stable. In a rule-based institution, on the other hand, whose orders you take depends on what powers the rule-book gives whom. The bureacracy is a rule-based institution, the modern army is a rule-based institution, the modern corporation is a rule-based institution. In all these places, the structure is impersonal. It does not matter who is occupying the post. What matters is the powers the Rules delegate to that position.

Of course, I am exaggerating. It is not true that modern institutions are completely impersonal. It is also not true that the feudal code was completely based on personal loyalties, but as generalizations, I think that they are valid.

My point is, structures based on personal equations do not scale well. They are not a good way to organize large societies. For example, if you replaced traffic signals with an elaborate system where precedence on the road is decided by who is in the car, traffic would slow to a crawl, because everyone has to ascertain everyone else’s status before proceeding. Traffic signals are impersonal. It does not matter who is in the car, but it does matter whether the signal is red or green.

Likewise, a feudal army tends to be ineffective. The soldier’s loyalty is to his immediate superior, and the immediate superior may suddenly decide to shift his loyalty to the enemy and a big chunk of your army is lost.

There are conflicts within institutions too, but a rule-based institution has a process to manage conflict. You know that if your rival will challenge your authority, it is through a no-confidence motion, not through a midnight raid on your bedchamber, which of course means that you in turn don’t have to raid his bedchamber.

Finally, in good institutions, the process to select a leader not only is fair, but is also seen to be fair, which means that even if you may not like the outcome in one case, you will stay on because you believe that the process, being generally fair, will probably give a better result next time.

Where is this all leading to? Why, to the second part of this post. I had written it almost 18 months back. I had argued that the problem in Indian history was not disunity. I had argued that we were no more disunited than other peoples. I had also said that it was the BJP’s succession problems that caused me to start that post. Well, the BJP continues to have succession problems, so let me finally get to the point.

I think that a big problem among Indians is that we have not developed the culture of building institutions. We did not have that culture when the British attacked, and we don’t have that culture now.

The problem was not that we were squabbling among ourselves. The problem was that the lack of institutions made squabbles life-threatening. If two British officers disagreed, they could go to a rule-book to decide the issue. They could go to a superior officer and the dissenting officer could follow even those orders he disagreed with, because the rules said that he was supposed to obey a superior officer. If two Indian satraps disagreed, anything could happen, including treason.

If a British officer died in battle, his second-in-command could take over and give orders. When Vishwas Rao died in the battle of Panipat, there was utter confusion, even though the Maratha army was actually in a strong position.

Institutions last longer than humans. If the British encountered a strong king, they could simply wait him out. Sooner or later, he would die and there was an even chance that his heir would be a weakling.

For Indian kings, planning a campaign involved complicated alliance-building. For the British, it involved giving orders.

So my point is, we are still bad at building institutions, and that is hurting us. The BJP’s problems are a case in point, but I don’t want to single out the BJP. It is an Indian problem, not a BJP problem. Why are they finding it so difficult to elect a leader? Because they are not electing one. The next person to become president will not just be a president with well-defined roles and responsibilities. He will be a ruler. Everyone knows that whoever wins that struggle will have the power to make or break everyone else’s career – so it is not just an election for them; it is an epic battle for supremacy.

If they had set up a rule-based organization, the role of a president would not have been so earth-shatteringly important. Whoever got elected would rule for his term. His powers would be circumscribed by the constitution, so there would be a limit to the damage he could do. The organization would not have to experience permanent convulsions, as it is doing now. But faced with a choice between setting up clear rules where the outcome would be uncertain and manipulating the system so that they could get the outcome they desired, their instinct was to choose the latter. Of course, they hadn’t reckoned with the fact that everyone else would have the same instinct, so they’ll never come to an agreement. If they manage it, they will choose someone who they think will not be a threat to anyone, and the organization will be left that much weaker.

Once again, I want to emphasise that this is an Indian problem, not a BJP problem. The Congress went through the same thing and they got into the current state because of that. There are exceptions, but I will bet that if a group of Indians decide to set up an organization, they are more likely to set up a feudal system than a rule-based one. It is a cultural trait we have to overcome.

8 thoughts on “Part II of a long-forgotten post

  1. OK – Ravi, before I state anything, let me admit I have not read you post in full. Its too long for my ADD.

    Besides that, you have somehow assumed here that the war is between democracy and totalitarianism. That in my opinion is a non issue for a libertarian.The issue is, how much do I give away by virtue of my vote? What do I retain as my inalienable right – regardless of the nature of institution.

    And,I am still looking forward to that post you had promised – the one on Presidential system. Been over 2 years now 😛

  2. An insightful post.
    But you lay the blame for the lack of institutions on the culture; while
    I had this opinion too earlier, I think it is not quite true.

    The thing is that institution building is not a simple task; only the very
    ablest of people possess the capability to build institutions; give them rules and structure and so on. Think of entrepreneural spirit as a rough analogy.

    One question you could ask, as is implicit in the post, is what role does culture play in fostering such people? I’d say this is a wrong question because it is not the enabling aspect of culture which matters for such people but the (negative) preventative aspect. Which in turn comes not from culture but from the lack of institutions (a circular situation).

    We should be asking how are such institution building people suppressed? We do not need to concern ourselves with how to encourage them at all.

    This is of course, one reason why laissez faire governance has led to
    greater prosperity.

  3. Ravi,

    Good post. But what this implies may not be very appealing to libertarians. In my opinion, if, as you argue, the inability to build institutions is inherent in Indian culture, then there is a need for institutions to be imposed on society. You know what that means: legislation.

    If political parties are unable to distinguish between term-limited leaders vs rulers for life, then perhaps legislation to impose intra-party democracy is a good idea. What do you think?

  4. 7*6, it looks like we have switched sides, because last time you were the one arguing for culture.

    Nitin, are you sure you want to go down that route? Because if the guys “imposing” the institutions are Indians, they will be victims of the same culture that they are trying to remedy. So logically, you are asking for foreign rule.

    Of course, foreign rule, apart from being odious in itself, doesn’t seem to have worked. In fact, I happen to think that it did not work because the rule was foreign.

    Also, both 7*6 and Nitin, you must realise that all countries were under feudal rule at one time, and many of them got out of it. So just because I am arguing that something is cultural, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be changed. Just that we need to understand the problem.

    Also, this is not a libertarian vs. socialist issue. Libertarians should be interested in building institutions that keep the government limited. Socialists should be interested in builiding institutions that will get the government to do what they want it to do. I happen to think that the former is achievable while the latter is impossible, but neither side should wave away the problems because it is too hard to think of them.

  5. yes, I too was of the opinion earlier that cultural tendencies play a big role in the building of institutions.
    But then I realized that the building of institutions is only by a few ablest of people who are so far-right of the curve that the prevailing cultural tendencies do not matter as much.

    As you have rightly observed, most countries with institutions have come out of a feudal culture. So clearly, it cannot just be the culture which leads to the building of institutions.

    Basically, in the post, you allude to a tendency to build institutions as being a part of the Western/British Culture. My take is that this institution-building tendency is a part of the capable few in any culture; just like an entrepreneural spirit. The only question is why and how is it suppressed.

Comments are closed.