Friday, October 7, 2011

Law and Sophistry: Relevance of Frederic Bastiat in Today's India

         Last weekend, I viewed with bemused puzzlement the Law Minister’s take on the recent 2G imbroglio. Later, I read the transcript of the interview to jog my short memory. Two things, entirely unrelated, came to my mind, unbidden: Dr. Dolittle’s Pushmi-Pullyu and Frederic Bastiat’s exposition on law.
Many, my age, will remember the 1960s creature that simultaneously went in two different directions. Today the Pushmi-Pullyu has stepped off fiction and taken residence in the 2G spectrum, even astral, world. Last week saw the denouement of Pushmi-Pullyu: the fracture duly band-aided, the cracks unduly and hastily papered over hoping to consign the creature into the footnotes and minutiae of history.
But I recalled Bastiat; my mind getting back time and time again to his touching faith on liberty I once read as a young man – wondering if what he spoke against, about 160 years ago, weren’t being played out in front of our eyes. For the uninitiated, Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French economist, statesman, and author who mostly wrote around the 1848 French Revolution when France was flirting with socialism. His treatise – The Law – critiques socialism. That though is not relevant here. It’s his forensic skill, de-obfuscating and deconstructing legalese off its innate tangles it is often wrapped in, that’s eminently and uncannily valid in today’s India.
First, Bastiatism. Like many others before and after him, Bastiat saw in government the greatest single threat to liberty: “See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.
Eerily, often the law defends plunder, even participates in it. “The beneficiaries are spared the shame, danger, and scruple which their acts would otherwise involve. Sometimes the law places the whole apparatus of judges, police, prisons, and gendarmes at the service of the plunderers, and treats the victim — when he defends himself — as a criminal. In short, there is a legal plunder.” Strikes a chord, eh? Read Bastiat on.
“This legal plunder may be only an isolated stain among the legislative measures of the people. If so, it is best to wipe it out with a minimum of speeches and denunciations — and in spite of the uproar of the vested interests.”
How, then, to Identify Legal Plunder? “Abolish this law without delay, for it is not only an evil itself, but also it is a fertile source for further evils. If such a law is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system.”
No, he is not done yet. “The person who profits from this law will complain bitterly, defending his acquired rights. He will claim that the state is obligated to protect and encourage his particular industry; that this procedure enriches the state because the protected industry is thus able to spend more and to pay higher wages to the poor workingmen.”
Pause and think – and look around you. You will realize these are the same time-tested ways of the world: After the crime cometh the belligerence; and the urge to fool everyone around – with miles and miles of arguments to weave a tapestry that essentially says nothing but tidbits of inane nonsense, yet seeks sanctification through mindless fluff of arcane legal logorrhoea. So there goes Bastiat again – wanting to knock such profundities and punditry off its high moral ground, delivered from the sanctimonious pulpit it has climbed up to. “Do not listen to this sophistry by vested interests. The acceptance of these arguments will build legal plunder into a whole system. It’s an attempt to enrich everyone at the expense of everyone else; to make plunder universal under the pretense of organizing it.”
Bastiat echoes democratic rights of man. “Life, faculties, production — in other words individuality, liberty, property — that is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it.” Pray then, who is supreme – the parliament or the people and/or the Constitution the people have deigned to give themselves, willingly?
When the politician sees inequality in society, he tends to deplore deprivation. “Perhaps the politician should ask himself whether this state of affairs has not been caused by old conquests and lootings, and by more recent legal plunder,” Bastiat says. “Perhaps he should consider this proposition: Since all persons seek well-being and perfection, would not a condition of justice be sufficient to cause the greatest efforts toward progress, and the greatest possible equality that is compatible with individual responsibility?”
Instead, the politician attempts “to remedy the evil by increasing and perpetuating the very thing that caused the evil in the first place: legal plunder. We have seen that justice is a negative concept. Is there even one of these positive legal actions that does not contain the principle of plunder?” Think of 2G and all the double- and multispeak we suffered unremittingly the past one year – to hoodwink and obfuscate us, we the poor na├»ve citizens. Ain’t it time such rude ferment of the past is cast aside?
Winding down, I perhaps can do no better than quote Bastiat again in the context of our elected representatives wanting to play God: “The relationship between persons and the legislator appears to be the same as the relationship between the clay and the potter.” Understandably, Bastiat lashes out at these public servants of mankind, perhaps the only time in The Law where he pours out his venom openly: “Ah, you miserable creatures! You who think that you are so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why don’t you reform yourselves? That task would be sufficient enough.”
Look, how much the same sentiment suffuses many of us today – past centuries, even continents adrift, and cultures away. There are some innate human qualities that are of eternal verities that refuse to change over time and space, and even across different political beliefs. 
         Notwithstanding that and despite the passing of more democratic liberal times the world over the past two centuries, many megalomaniacs – the many elected and electable representatives we have alas conspired to give life to – still live under their grand delusion of born-leaders and indefeasible game-changers conferred upon by divinity, of their bounden duty to lead us through the enveloping dark maze we are consigned to as our lives buckle out from under us – determined to gird us out of this corralling ignorance we poor dears are irrevocably, even irredeemably, condemned to. And this, despite that the world around us and beyond has changed irretrievably – webbing one another, connecting continents, and streaming new ideas upon the derelict old. Amen.