Empowering citizens is better than entitlements

Democratic governments should prefer empowerment as the greatest form of virtue and must direct all energy in developing the capabilities of citizens

Himanshu Arora | September 7, 2018


#Empowerment   #entitlement   #good governance   #middle class   #GDP   #Democracy  
Illustration: Ashish Asthana
Illustration: Ashish Asthana

Is nature more than just good and evil? Is civilisation bad? Does nature perpetuate inequality? Does civilisation perpetuate inequality? These questions have been debated by philosophers since the very beginning. Modern philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that “nature is good and civilisation is bad; that by nature all men are equal, they become unequal by class-based institutions.” Friedrich Nietzsche on the other hand argued that “nature is beyond good and evil; that by nature all men are unequal; power is the supreme form of virtue.” 
 
The psychological, moral and economic dilemmas that bother human society and provide endless topics for debate like the nature of the government, need of a welfare state, morality of the rich, rising inequality, etc. are discussed and analysed by great philosophers the world over. They all differ in their analysis but reach a common conclusion: Empowerment is the greatest virtue. Some sophists argued that the “man should do as he pleased so long as he remained within the law.” Plato argued that “men are not content with a simple life; they are competitive and acquisitive, they soon get tired of what they have and pine for what they don’t have.” The result is encroachment of one powerful group on the resources and the territory of others and class divisions perpetuating inequalities. He further said, “Any ordinary city is in fact two cities: one, the city of the poor, the other of the rich, each at conflict with the other; you would make a great mistake if you treated them as single state.”  
 
The rich class seeks social and political position through wealth and the changed distribution of wealth produces political changes, with feudal aristocracy giving way to plutocratic oligarchy – wealthy traders and bankers ruling the state. However, every form of regressive government tends to succumb to the excess of its flawed principle. Aristocracy ruined itself by limiting itself to a narrower coterie; oligarchy ruined itself by concentrating on greed and incautious wealth. In either case, the end is ultimately people demanding change. 
 
The change springs from the results of grave and accumulated wrongs of the past systems; when states are weakened by neglected social and economic ills, decimating the masses and prospering the classes. Then comes democracy, a system wherein the masses ask for equal share of freedom and power, the equal right of all to hold public office. The rule by the masses is a delightful arrangement; however, it can also become disastrous if the people are not empowered to select the best leader.
 
Now the question is, how will people get empowered? Do they get empowered on their own? Or they need an external agency/state to empower them? These questions are difficult to answer in an aristocratic setup where the ruler decides what is best for its people. The aristocratic form of government will always prefer ‘entitlements over empowerment’. Aristocracy will entitle its people with freebies so that they do not revolt. Aristocratic and totalitarian governments weaken the institutional checks, where the leaders exercise full control claiming it to be in people’s interest, so that no obstacles come up their way. However, a democratic setup ensures, without any hypocrisy of voting, perfect equality of opportunity, speech and education for all. Every man shall have an equal chance to empower himself. Democracy, therefore, is about preferring ‘empowerment over entitlement’. 
 
The debate about ‘empowerment versus entitlement’ has become relevant in today’s world due to the rise of populism. Populists are coming to power in the West and other parts of the world riding on the insecurities of the masses and by promising prosperities through an entitlement-based approach of freebies, subsidies and protectionism.
 
The entitlement-based approach suffers from the problem of time inconsistency: short-term interest often demoralises the pursuit of more desirable and stable long-term policies. For example, imagine that the residents of the state ‘Kings landing’ are offered by its government a choice between voting alternatives of a colour television or loan waiver and residents of state ‘Winterfell’ are offered by its government to make a choice between a school or a hospital. 
 
The residents of ‘Kings landing’ will fall in the entitlement trap and would choose either the colour television or loan waiver, forgetting the prospect of a school building for their children that would produce gain in the future. The residents of ‘Kings landing’ will remain dependent on such entitlements and the government will not invest in public services; the situation of societal goods, schools and hospitals will remain dismal and the state will fail to provide basic services like health, education, sanitation, water and power. The situation will give rise to clientelism where the poor do not have the money to buy public services that are in fact, their right. However, the poor voter does have a vote that the leader wants. Thus, in return the leader will develop a system of patronage and clientelism, helping the voter by simply handing over entitlements to gain support. The government of ‘Kings landing’ will be happy providing them mobile handsets, TV, loan waivers etc., in return for their votes, creating a political-client relationship.   
 
On the other hand, the residents of ‘Winterfell’ will chose to empower themselves by selecting the alternative of school or hospital for their children that would produce massive gains in near future. The residents of ‘Winterfell’ will not be dependent on their governments for the entitlements because they chose to empower themselves by developing the capabilities. 
 
In our hypothetical example, one government chooses the populist path of entitlement and the other chooses the path of empowerment. The populist government provided individuals with freebies to win votes whereas the virtuous government provided health, education and good infrastructure to empower its citizens. 
 
In the context of moral and economic dilemma discussed above, the populist and totalitarian government will always choose not to empower its poor and vulnerable people by under-investing in public services and not developing a welfare state. They will forever make the poor dependent on entitlements and will contribute to a growing imbalance between the rich and the poor, thereby perpetuating inequalities. This situation was observed in Latin American countries where weak welfare states and populist policies enriched the classes and decimated the masses by yawning inequalities. 
 
The lesson for the democratic governments, therefore, is to always consider empowerment as the greatest form of virtue. It must place all its energy in developing the capabilities of its people. The capabilities can be developed by creating a strong superstructure of welfare by heavily investing in basic health and education, rule of law and vital infrastructure like roads, highways, water supply and sanitation. The capabilities can also be developed by creating an atmosphere that promotes freedom of thought, speech, expression and harmonised debate. All these capabilities are essential to empower people and ensure long-term growth.
 
Therefore, it makes sense for democracies like India to embrace the empowerment-based approach to development by directly empowering poor residents through schools, hospitals, libraries, infrastructure, etc. These assets are public goods and generate a multiplier effect on society which benefits everybody in an almost equal measure thereby bringing equality. However, this is not to say that the government should not enact welfare programmes like old-age pension, employment generation schemes for the poor, housing for the poor, poverty eradication and welfare schemes for women and child development. These are a critical part of the social security net and welfare state. 
 
To conclude, nature is neither bad nor good; it does not perpetuate modern day inequalities. The modern-day inequality is the invention of man through class-based institutions and weak moral structures of the governments. The moral solution to the problem is therefore empowerment of the masses so that they can develop the required capabilities and freedom to live a dignified life on their own without depending on entitlements. 
 
Arora is a young professional with the Economic Advisory Council to Prime Minister. Views expressed are personal.

(The article appears in September 15, 2018 edition)

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