Produced below is part of an essay by Minoo Masani, published in the 1970. The essay was originally published by the Indian Liberal Group, founded by the author. Among the most prominent proponents of classical liberalism at the time, in this essay, Mr Masani outlines the essentials of Liberalism. The original publication can be accessed on the Freedom First website.
The word “Liberalism” derives from liberty. In other words, the individual is in the centre of the picture. Society is there to serve the individual and not the other way round as certain other systems of thought like communism or socialism try to make out.
The essential elements of Liberalism are all-pervasive and touch every aspect of life. Insofar as matters of the spirit are concerned, tolerance, particularly tolerance of dissent, is basic. Whether an issue is religious, communal, regional, national or pertains to small groupings like caste and linguistic groups, tolerance of the other point of view and willingness to argue about it are of the essence of Liberalism.
Insofar as religion is concerned, Liberalism is not anti-religious but it is non-denominational and perhaps sceptical. A good Liberal does not attack all religions equally as a ‘secularist’ would do. A good Liberal would tolerate and respect all religions equally. In that sense, Gandhiji’s attitude to religion was much more liberal than that of those who call themselves ‘secular’ and who look at all religions with an equally malevolent eye. The Indian Constitution is, in that sense highly liberal and extends equal respect to all religions and religious institutions.
Another basic characteristic of Liberalism is its pragmatic approach to whatever problem there may happen to be at a particular time. The Liberal does not approach any problem with a dogmatic or preconceived attitude. He is open-minded on all issues. Thus, for instance, in so far as democratic socialism is concerned, the Liberal would be quite prepared to accept a large dose of State control as the circumstances of a particular country, case and time may warrant. While holding the view that competition, consumer preference and the laws of the market should predominate, the Liberal is flexible about the exact nature of the mixed economy which would be desirable in a particular context.
The Liberal is of necessity a pluralist, that is, he does not accept the predominance of any one line of thought or dogma or even one class of society. In the Liberal’s mansion, there are many chambers and there is room for everything. The Liberal, therefore, believes in a pluralistic society where there are checks and balances between different organs of government, such as the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. In a federal form of government, there have also to be checks and balances between the federal government on the one side and the state government on the other. ln the case of countries with multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multilingual groups, such as India, the Liberal believes in the protection of the rights of the minorities. ln the conflict between the individual and the state, there should be fundamental rights for the citizens with an appeal to the Courts of Law. There should be a separation of political and economic power. In other words, the Liberal believes in limited government. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”. God, in this case, is the conscience of the individual.
The Liberal is never a determinist. He never says that such and such a thing is bound to happen, as does the Marxist. All he can say is that, on the basis of a rational analysis, certain things are likely to result if certain things happen.
Justice And Modernity
The Liberal stands for justice for the underdog, whoever he may be. Thus, he is for equality of women with men, though he may not be for Women’s Lib with all its aberrations. The Liberal stands up for the rights of children and decent treatment for them. So too, the Liberal pleads for sympathy for the criminal and the odd man out.
The Liberal is a modernist. He is an advocate of change. He welcomes and cheerfully accepts modern technology with all its implications. He stresses the role of managerial skills in industry and business and other walks of life. He accepts the importance of science in modern society. It is not an accident that technology only thrives in freedom and, where freedom is denied to the scientist and technologist, there is stagnation.
ln the conflict between modernism on the one side and obscurantism, whether that of the nation, caste or religion on the other, the Liberal is on the side of modernism and change. The Liberal is not against tradition. On the contrary, the Liberal respects what is good in the tradition of people and seeks to build and change on the basis of the tradition. ln that sense, the Liberal is not an incendiary or disrupter but a constructive element of change.
“Bread Or Freedom?”
The Liberal rejects the false antitheses between freedom and bread which the communists and the fascists always pose. They ask: “Do you want bread or freedom?” As if we have to choose the one or the other. As if, when you have freedom, you don’t have bread or, to have bread, you must give up your freedom? Now this is a huge hoax. Because, actually you don’t get bread except through freedom. There is no known instance in human history where a country of slaves get bread. Now, by bread, we don’t mean only bread. By bread we mean the good things of life – the material values of life, consumer goods, as we call them. There is no known example in human history till this day where, by denying people freedom, you give them a prosperous life. On the contrary the ‘Affluent Society’ comes only where there is maximum freedom.
Which are the countries where you have the most bread, to put it like that, that is, the best time? Obviously, the U.S.A. leads, Canada, Australia and New Zealand come very close, then come the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, then comes Switzerland, then you get West Germany, France, Italy, Japan and so on. Right down at the bottom along with us, you get the Soviet Union ahead of us, and China below us. In other words, when you do deny people freedom, you take away their bread also. That is natural. Why should slaves be well fed? Why should any government feed its slaves well? The Egyptians, who used slave labour to build pyramids, did not treat them well. They flogged them until they built the Pyramids and died in the process. It is only the free man who has a right to ask for bread. Because he has the right, he has got the strength, he has the vote, whatever you like to call it.
A Free Economy
A free economy therefore means that government has to play a rather limited and restricted part. Social control must be limited to a minimum. The whole idea of control is to interfere with people when something is going wrong. You stop a man from stealing, you stop a man from hitting somebody else, you stop a man from cheating somebody else, you stop an employer from cheating his worker – that is fair. But you don’t stop a man from doing something which he should be doing. So controls are only police measures to stop somebody from doing something he should not. The government should not be like the mother who told the nanny: “Mary, go and see what Johnny is doing and tell him not to”! Johnny should only be stopped when he is really doing something which he shouldn’t.
The second characteristic of a free society is that “the consumer is king”. Everything must be done to serve the needs of the consumer, not of the industrialist, not of the businessman, not of the factory worker, but of the man who consumes, because he is the ordinary citizen. We all consume. There is not a single human being in India today who doesn’t consume. He would be dead if he didn’t. We consume, you consume, our children consume. Now what does “the consumer is king” mean? It means that the consumer must determine the pattern of production. The consumer must tell the industrialist what to produce and what not to produce. The consumer can do this by his purchasing power, by the little money in his pocket. The industrialist or businessman only produces what he thinks will make a profit. In other words, if there is a demand for a commodity, you produce it. If there is no demand, you are a fool if you produce it because nobody will buy it and you will lose your capital. In this way, the smallest consumer can determine the pattern of production in a free country.
Every time we go shopping, we cast a vote. As you buy a ticket to back a horse, so you go to a shop and say “I want Hamam” or “I want Liril”, or whatsoever it is. You cast a vote for that particular brand of soap against another brand, just as you vote for the Congress Party and not for me, or just as you back one horse and not another. Now, all these preferences for soaps and perfumes, for bread and biscuits and cakes, and whatever else you like, are totalled up on the economic tote and, by looking at the economic state, the business community and industrialist decide what is popular, what is favoured. They shift their production according to the demand.
That is what consumer being king means. It has led to the highest prosperity known in history, the highest standard of life and also of equality of opportunity and status. This is a paradox. The countries where there is greatest equality – there is nowhere perfect equality, nor can there be – but wherever there is equality of opportunity and of status, it is in the capitalist countries. Which is the country in the world where the worker calls his boss by his first name? The American worker never call his boss Mr. so and so. He always says Tom or John. That is the United States. People in Europe are shocked at this kind of “vulgarity” or lack of good breeding because they are still class bound. So you get this strange phenomenon that you get not only the most prosperity but also the greatest measure of equality, which is supposed to belong to socialism, only in so called capitalist, or what I call liberal countries.
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the very intelligent Prime Minister of Singapore, who is a socialist came to Bombay to meet Indian socialists some years ago and he asked a question of them. He said: “It is pertinent to ask how is it that in Asia, countries like Japan, Hongkong, Formosa, Thailand and Malaysia, which are bustling free enterprise economies, have achieved success, while countries professing Socialism have failed to produce satisfactory results?”
Prof. Kenneth Galbraith, who was American Ambassador in Delhi and who was an ardent socialist and planner in Mr. Nehru’s time wrote a book called The New Industrial State. This is what he writes in this book:
“In India and Ceylon, and also in some of the new African countries, public enterprises have not, as in Britain, been accorded autonomy. Here the democratic socialist prerogative has, in effect, been fully asserted. India, in particular, has a legacy of colonial administration, has an illusion of official omniscience which extends to highly technical decisions… The effect in these countries of this denial of autonomy has been exceeding inefficiency in operations by the public firms… In India and Ceylon, nearly all public-owned corporations operate at a loss. The situation is similar in other new countries… One result is, that a large number of socialists have come to feel that public corporations are by their nature, in the words of a minister in the Wilson Government, ‘remote’, irresponsible bodies, immune from public scrutiny or democratic control”.
The reason why this should be so is very simple. The body politic is like our own bodies. It consists of organs developed by society over the last few thousand years since we were primitive apes or beasts. Now as human society develops, it throws up institutions. The Joint Stock Company has been thrown up in the last two hundred years to run business. The Government or State has been thrown up to rule, to maintain order. Our bodies are like that. We smell through our nose, we eat through our mouth, we hear through our ears, we breathe through our lungs, we digest in the stomach and so on. Now what would happen if we tried to distort our organs and asked them to do something different from what they were meant to do. Supposing we tried to breathe through our stomach and digest with our lungs or hear through the nose and smell with the ear? What would happen? It just wouldn’t work. That is exactly what happens when we try to misuse an organ of society. Governments were thrown up by society and civilisation to protect the country from attack, to stop one person from attacking another, to see that justice is done. In other words, governments are there to keep law and order, do justice, protect people, protect the country from attack. That is where the basic functions of government stop. When government tries to run a factory and to produce either penicillin or steel or whatever it is, it makes a flop because governments are not made to make profits or to produce goods. Governments are not made to produce anything. Governments are meant to consume things, to keep order and give you a chance to produce. So State Socialism and Communism are a perversion of the laws of social growth. Therefore, they are bound to fail. The conclusion to which one is driven then is that we have got to turn to Liberalism from this barren path.