Reservations: A Moral Perspective

“Before you can be a partisan of the poor, you must first be a partisan of the truth.”-Thomas SowellJustify Full

“The market is color blind”, wrote the great Economist W. H. Hutt. How many of us have wondered about the caste or race of the people who produced the goods we buy? When we feel hungry, we go to the hotel which provides us the best food. We don’t care about the caste, race or childhood deprivation of the hotelier. We shouldn’t either. It is in the very nature of human beings to seek the best and that is what justice is all about.

Jews and Indian immigrants are among the most affluent groups in the United States, despite the Anti-Semitism and racial discrimination which prevails. In North America, due to a higher degree of economic freedom, blacks are much better off in comparison to their Southern counterparts. Racism was more prevalent in the feudal South America than in the more capitalist North. Racism is inversely proportional to the degree of freedom of a nation. As the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand had pointed out, “Racism was strongest in the more controlled economies, such as Russia and Germany—and weakest in England, the then freest country of Europe.” In unionized trades, higher the pay, lower the proportion of blacks, while it is not always the case otherwise. It leads us to the following conclusion- If there is any cure for racial discrimination, it is the unhampered market.

The high correlation between caste and poverty has more to do with past inequities than with present discrimination. I am not here to deny the obvious fact that discrimination might happen in individual cases. An employer might discriminate, but he will also have to bear the penalty for his arbitrary decisions. The impersonal nature of the market acts as a check against discrimination and favoritism. Some employers might be irrational, but the market effectively punishes them. Such discriminatory acts, moreover, will provide incentives for other employers to take advantage of the situation by hiring the talented. There will be biases and prejudices, but, discrimination would be at minimum because of the high price employer has to pay for it. Politicians and bureaucrats lose nothing when they discriminate against a person on the basis of his caste or race at the expense of the tax payer. Employers lose money.

It is perfectly moral to discriminate on a free market, on the basis of race or political affiliation as non-coercive boycotting does not violate any one’s personal freedom. One should also be willing to bear the consequences, and as a result, to go out of business. In a similar manner, workers and consumers too are free to discriminate and suffer the loss which comes with it! Even if discrimination is likely to happen on a free market, a cause can’t be made for more controls as it would make the victims worse off. It is the very regulations which pave way for coercive and sometime not so coercive boycotting.

One’s perceptions get muddled when guided by emotions. This fact was written large on the discussions of the subject. The word ‘Merit’ was the most debated one in the issue of Reservations. “What is merit?” Many sociologists screamed. It is said that merit is the difference between ones starting point and the ending point. ‘How fair is the competition between a healthy athlete and a crippled person?’ Very well! Will you buy an inferior product stating it was built under inferior conditions? The question will be more clear and specific if I put it this way: Will you buy vegetables from a market where production is done in biblical mode – dug using hand & ancient machinery, if the effort reflects in prices and products are way inferior? Which doctor will you go to – The one who has made the greatest traversal from his beginning point or the one who is more likely to save your life? Which school will you send your children to-Where the teachers had humble origins or where the teachers are more knowledgeable & intelligent?

There are other complications as well. How many of us will strive to be moral if such behavior is likely to be punished? I will put it this way: How many students would be willing to work towards it if they know seats are reserved for them ? The question might sound too simplistic, but not so when one realize the Government policy to shell out enormous benefits to single mothers in the US got millions of welfare mothers on the list. It doesn’t sound simplistic when one realizes people are willing to cut off their legs to live on public charity. The eagerness will be to prove ones deprivation and need than his own merit. As evidence, I point out the lower productivity in Public sector units, performance of Government doctors and school teachers. Men arguing for the under privileged should not fail to see the rights of the most unfortunate among them.

Though I am an opponent of Reservations, I don’t count myself among its most vociferous opponents. The casteist nature of their protests was too much for even people who sympathized with their goals. Some were shining shoes, sweeping streets and warning OBC’s to ‘remember their place’. There shouldn’t be reservations, they argue, not even for the poor. It doesn’t occur to them that they are talking of Government run institutions, and subsidized higher education is a transfer of wealth from the poor to the upper middle class and the rich. The upper middle class has no right to receive an education at the expense of the general public. The solution, of course, is not to implement reservations for the under-represented in these institutions, but to privatize them. Reservations in private institution, needless to mention, should be opposed on both moral and economic grounds.

The explicit hypocrisy of Anti-Reservation activists was pointed out by Barkha Dutt: “The problem is those who oppose the quotas are often pretty monstrous themselves. It’s never said out aloud, or in so many words, but all the remarks suggest only thing: for India’s elite, the ‘backwards’ are imagined as dark, ugly, dirty — a stain on their perfectly starched canvas. There’s also the innate dishonesty in their arguments. If we debate reservations in the private sector, they will say if you must block off seats, do it in schools and colleges, so you can create qualified people who can compete for jobs. If you talk about quotas in education, they will be just as indignant about the ‘decline of quality’. They will declare that cash is more of a barrier than caste, but try suggesting quotas for poor students in public schools, and watch them run.”

The nation-wide anti-quota protests held years back were of deep significance, though not quite in the sense the media have got it. It was an apparent demonstration of emotions taking precedence over rationality and youngsters being defenders of the status quo. When rationality would have taken them to a supposedly inconvenient conclusion, they had to repress it. The conclusion had to be the removal of education from clutches of the government. Instead, we saw students giving moral sanction to Government funded education, and yet, protesting at the expense of tax payers, their patients. How moral is to punish X for Y’s fault? How reservations are any different from subsidized education other than that one is based on alleged deprivation, while the other on supposed merit? It proved beyond doubt that most of the errors we think as intellectual are of a much evil origin.

If you are opposing reservations for the right reasons, go for it. I am with you. No double standards or undefined ‘values’ and ‘principles’. No compromise on ‘equality’, ‘efficiency’ and ’social justice’. No ‘free quality primary education’. No ‘public funded quality higher education’ for the meritorious or reservations for the ‘real poor’. Needless to mention, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. They were against reservations for the ‘backward’, but for reservations for the ‘meritorious’.

Irrespective of what the popular media tells you, education is not a birth right of the ‘meritorious’, just like it is not any one’s birthright. There is no such thing as a positive birthright. No one has the right to say: “I am smarter than all of you. So pay up for my education, and it means, at the exclusion of everyone else.” Who is the one to decide who is smart and who is not? Definitely, it should not be the Government. While it is true that the privileged among the backward classes benefit from caste based reservations, same goes for subsidized higher education where the relatively affluent gains access to privileges denied to the rest. The solution isn’t ‘Free quality Primary Education’ or “Reservations for the meritorious’, but an uncontrolled, unregulated economy. The meritorious wouldn’t have problems educating themselves, or paying up through scholarships on a free market. A homeschooled child wouldn’t be dragged into a public school at threat of a bayonet either.

Let us dig deep into the oft-repeated arguments against the quota system. Hues and cries are made over the likeliness of quota doctors to kill patients. I have no means to get to know opinions of each and everybody, but what I surmise is most, if not all believe in the prevalent politico-economic system. It is a system in which the rulers are elected by public polls, not on the basis of ‘merit’. It is a system in which the majority, which constitutes of the uneducated, illiterate, and the mindless sheep, votes out the minority, the intellectuals, and ones eligibility, is decided by public support, not by grasp of economic fundamentals or knowledge. A politician or bureaucrat can easily thwart the dreams of a nation of a billion people with its ill informed or evil intentioned populist policies. An ill informed Economic policy of a politician, however well intentioned it maybe, may lead to starvation deaths, many going penniless & committing suicide, more than any number of doctors can ever do. What about Government school teachers messing up lives of hundreds of millions of children?

Medical services are just like any other service. Government regulations deny medical advice at a low cost which would have been possible without it. It also prevents men with a different theory of medicine from practicing it. It would be better to leave it to the private sector and people to fix on which doctor to go to and not. Government in all probability is not the right body to tell us which one to choose and which to not. Is it right when one is forced to concede to the majority and wrong when one is let free to decide for himself?

While it is mysticism and the earlier social institutions that have made the blacks and dalits poor, it is collectivism, the welfare state that has kept them that way. Add to this: Labor unions restricting membership to the poorest. Add to this: Minimum wage laws which keep them from getting a job which they would have had otherwise. Add to this: License raj which expects them to report to a bureaucrat not driven by any objective standards, in proper legal language. Add to this: The fact that we hadn’t really a private sector until the 90’s.

If reservations aren’t implemented well, so isn’t government funded primary education. Why are reservations opposed, but public funded education given a blank cheque? Isn’t it social injustice? Isn’t forceful taxation from the ‘deserving’ social injustice? You say that 60 years of reservations hasn’t helped all the poor. “60 years of Public funded education” too hasn’t helped the situation. Why aren’t you opposing it when it is well evident it isn’t the right solution? You say if a student knows a seat is reserved for him he is not going to work towards it. Ask yourself – If a person knows that education is subsidized for his kids, food items are subsidized for him, is he going to work? Isn’t it harming the economy? Isn’t the highly subsidized education a classic example of social injustice?

It is often argued that a good primary schooling system is a permanent solution for all our woes. But,  such an argument will inevitably founder on a simple, but devastating question: “Is government subsidization of education a permanent solution?” Any well-meaning and intellectually sound person would ask either both or none of these questions. There is no other choice. Moral hypocrisy is explicit when one asks the first and evades the second.

Such questions are not to be asked. It’s a world where hypocrisy and intellectual bankruptcy is the default state. It is a world where Microsoft’s Intuit acquisition is considered as the ‘too much power’, but Government monopolization of education as an act of ‘social commitment’. It is a world where the denial of primary education by private schools is considered as denial of ‘social justice’, but the same act  is considered as “social good”, if done by the Government in elite colleges. It is ‘insane elitism’ when done by DPS, ‘meritocracy’ when done by IIT’s and IIM’s. It is ‘cut-throat competition’ when done in the primary education sector, but ‘recognition of merit’ when done in the higher education sector.

One is both cruel and unsympathetic if he says providing Quality Primary Education will be a solution to this problem. First of all, they don’t really mean it. Pay attention to the fact that they repeat Government must provide quality primary educations for hundreds of millions of children. It is the very same people who say Government doesn’t have enough funds to raise the intake of IIT’s and IIM’s. It only takes a half-wit to figure out their intentions. I won’t insult their intelligence saying they believe what they say.

How could one expect the government to educate hundreds of millions of kids free of cost? There are only two possibilities-1) They are too unaware of the economic situation 2) They pretend to be unaware of it. Which rings true? “There is ‘Free Primary Education’. There is ‘Quality Primary Education’. There is no such thing as ‘Free Quality Primary Education’. There is no such thing as free lunch.” The harm these schools have done is incalculable.

“If you say you are against reservations but for providing the poor quality primary education, you are contradicting the very principles of equality, efficiency and freedom you are projecting. Is Quality Primary Education absorbed from the atmosphere? Does Quality Primary Education grow simply in the nature? Quality primary education doesn’t grow on trees, but is at the expense of higher wages & capital accumulation.” The protestors who were against the ‘Kill of Merit’ later went on to claim that they are for economic reservations. Does an economic benchmark mean ‘merit’ is protected? No answer! Don’t ever talk of merit when you yourself aren’t meritorious, intelligent or knowledgeable by any normal definitions of these terms. Don’t ever go to the battle field without a well thought out ideology.

Public ownership always creates a lot of complications which can only be done away with an all out privatization-Giving it to the highest bidder. I can only suggest that the best conceivable solution is an all out privatization.

Quality Education at the expense of no one is the one and only solution to these problems – Friction-Free Capitalism, which means, Laissez Faire Capitalism.

Every Private School or College in India exists on Government permission and is bound by its bureaucratic control. Government is not only unable to innovate, but also impedes innovation in the private sector. If Government is not to stay out of it, our schools will all be the same even after decades. Government subsidization weakens the incentives one has in taking his child out of public school. Private institutions are forced to compete with ones providing a similar service at no cost. It undermines their profits, hence capital investment and later innovation.

The supposed goal of the Government policy to regulate fee structure is to make Higher Education within the means of the poor. So much for the façade! The adverse effect of this policy is less obvious to the general public, the mindless sheeps who can’t perceive beyond the proximate benefits. In the short run, a minuscule percentage of the poor may benefit from this policy. What then, is the long run story? The managements start responding slowly to the market conditions & regulations imposed on them. Less people start up institutions and create a huge gap in the supply-demand ratio taking the growing population in account. Much of the time, seats will be allocated to students willing to pay huge capitation fee and this will bring the fee much above what a free market could have ever reached. Some may give preference to students belonging to the same community or political pull. The managements lose spur to innovate and adapt to new technologies. Why should they when a college which invests heavily in infrastructure and one which just meets the stipulated conditions can charge the very same fees? Why should they, when students wait to get in? In the end students get poor quality education for fee higher than they would have paid otherwise. The benefits of fee regulations are seen immediately, while the cost, which is deterioration of the quality and the huge gap in the supply-demand ratio, may take years to manifest. One can’t be farther from truth if he believes the stipulated conditions by the Government will push these institutions to high standards. Should I tell you what the managements would do to meet the stipulated criteria? What if the certification restricted to a selected few will fetch them pots of gold? Will they have any incentive to innovate?

The welfare of the lowest strata of a society depends on economic freedom, not on reservations or subsidies. The price of a book came down from a wage laborer’s 15 years wages to less than half a days wages in 600 years not because of Government subsidies or consumer unions, but because of efficient means of production. The invisible hand, though not omnipotent is really powerful, powerful than the mixed economy, powerful than any other known system. Hope one day we all will open our eyes and wake up to the truth.

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