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The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has given birth to some serious questions. Countries with tough regulations, boisterous state control and big governmental infrastructure have fared rather well in comparison to the nations with institutionally protected civil liberties which struggled to contain the pandemic. For now, the world’s most powerful democracy (United States) and the world’s largest (India) seem to be in a competition to get the most citizens infected. Meanwhile, China, whence the virus originated, appears to be totally in control, with life back to normal and the economy moving full steam ahead. Here and there you may find some exceptions like New Zealand where the government’s proactive approach and general goodwill have almost vanquished the disease but they are what they are – exceptions. This, more than any other academic discussion, has given rise to the question about the future of democracy and the balance between regulations and freedoms.
The neoliberal economics tells us that big governments are bad. That the only job of the government is to act as a reluctant moderator. That the private sector is best regulated by competition, not a nosy government. And yet the crisis of neoliberalism, democracy, and libertarianism is quite evident from the disaster the pandemic has wrought. The citizens of free societies are usually not accustomed to the kind of restrictions that were imposed during the Coronavirus-related lockdowns. Consequently, protests, sometimes verbal, sometimes physical, occasionally violent, have erupted in democratic societies. In clear contrast, the countries with controlled democracy or authoritarian governments have witnessed little disruption. This makes the cause of overregulated societies quite tempting to be very honest.
But the critics of authoritarianism point out that it is in the fundamental nature of these societies to be less transparent. Therefore, the data from the states with big bureaucracies, larger than life government control, and less individual freedoms, in their view, will always remain suspect. Let me introduce an intervention here before we disconnect China from this discussion altogether. It is interesting to note that in China’s case you can see an evident exception to this rule. China’s post-COVID economic progress and other indicators unrelated to official data like pollution emission indeed show that the Chinese society and economy have really returned to normalcy and in very good shape. China, to many of us, is an enigma wrapped in a mystery where many universal generalizations do not apply. However, with countries like North Korea where the ruling strongman had allegedly ordered to shoot dead the patients suffering from COVID-19, you see a clear example of subterfuge and obfuscation.

The question then comes down to the fundamental nature of human beings. Is it good? Can a citizen be trusted to make to the choice that is best for him? What about the social fabric? Do individual freedoms pose any threat to society? Will you wear a mask and ensure social distancing when no one is around to ensure the implementation of the rules? More importantly, if you are a business owner, will you voluntarily want to implement the COVID-19 related SOPs even if it means a substantial dip in your profits if not a total loss? See, in these cases, there are two questions, not one. The first is about the goodness of an individual. The other is of self-preservation. Wearing a mask and ensuring social distancing is a matter of self-preservation. If you are properly informed and no conspiracy theory or paranoia finds home in your mind, you are likely to take these precautions in any case because you know a failure to do so will result in you being sick. The other aspect, about human nature, is harder to answer. We know many people are capable of unethical, even criminal behavior. So, should this automatically result in the assumption that man by nature is evil? Far from it.
It is true that even the world’s most liberal democracies have regulations and law enforcement systems. But in any society, may it be underregulated or overregulated, stability exists primarily owing to a citizen’s conviction and choice. In other words, in any society, the number of people who are likely to abide by the laws and respect the sanctity of the system outflank those of miscreants. There is a reason for that. Government is just one reason why anybody would be loath to disrupting society. Man is barely anything without society and within the societal framework, we survive because of our sub-collectives or hives. There always are more social controls at play than any government or authority can possibly think of introducing. All behaviors are pre-determined in some way by an individual’s social context. And society at large is seldom evil. For a society to be so would be counterproductive to its very raison d’etre. Our parents, siblings, offspring, friends, colleagues, religious leaders, cultural and political symbols, even characters of fiction, all exert influence on us. So, there is a good chance that even in the absence of regulations in a society hitherto overregulated life will carry on like before barring some initial disruptions caused by the realization of their absence.
In democracies, the people and the authorities trust each other and the relationship is not forced. Governments in such societies do not gain legitimacy by herding citizens like cattle or sheep, but by being useful. The function of the law enforcement apparatus then is not to intimidate the citizen into submission but to keep a vigilant eye out to ensure that if a citizen is wronged by someone there is legal recourse available for the redressal of grievances. Imagine a government that is more concerned about providing healthcare and other civic amenities to its citizens even if it is not the agent responsible for doing so rather than the one that is obsessed with imposing discipline in the lives of its subjects. The need for discipline, when it organically grows, stems from the society itself. That is why constitutions are often referred to as social contracts. In countries where constitutions evolve historically, they become enduring documents. Where they do not, even when the document exists, they are made irrelevant and redundant. The U.S. constitution has endured for centuries because it naturally evolved. In Pakistan, the reason why every unelected government has struggled to get rid of the 1973 Constitution and eventually failed is that at the heart of it, it was a consensus document. In India, when a segment of the society which was overlooked by the then ruling elite while framing the constitution came to power it made the document redundant. The ruling BJP has made India’s secular, democratic and federal constitution irrelevant along with all institutional safeguards. In short, societies do not remain stable because of the regulations that are in place but because they grant legitimacy to such laws and regulations, and choose to adhere to them.
The question then is if democracies do a better job of providing stability to their societies why is it that the U.S. and India are having such a tough time? The answer lies not in the democratic nature of the polities but in the erosion of democratic institutions or public faith in those institutions. In America’s case, for people troubled by the devastating effects of 9/11 the first instinct was to repose trust in their government and empower it to go after the terrorists. But then the Bush administration thoroughly abused this trust and waged a totally unnecessary war in Iraq on a deceitful pretext. While this brought the old paranoia about a military-industrial complex back to life, the Bush administration’s parting gift was an economic recession. And when the Obama administration could not bring an end to foreign expensive wars in the middle of an economic downturn it also fell from grace. I have seen many average Americans lose their composure while discussing how much money the U.S. government has spent in Afghanistan alone even as the infrastructure around them kept crumbling due to disrepair and lack of funds. This fracture of trust was not caused but only highlighted by Donald Trump’s victory and the COVID-19 pandemic. Bottom line: Never cheat your own people.
I think I have covered some aspects of the Indian crisis of democracy above but the true root cause of India’s miseries is its inefficient colonial-styled bureaucracy and authoritarian state structure. India claims to be a democracy and in a procedural sense, it is so. But since its inception, it has relied solely on government machinery left behind by its former colonial rulers. To borrow from Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson’s rich political vocabulary, originally conceived as an extractive institution the Indian bureaucracy’s sole purpose was to extract as much riches from the people as possible, ship them to the United Kingdom and ensure that the local population did not rebel in the face of such exploitation. While the masters changed after independence, the extractive nature of bureaucracy and crony capitalism in South Asia did not. That is a big reason why all South Asian countries still grapple with the specter of corruption. Even when Dr. Manmohan Singh tried to bring reforms, despite some immediate success, every time he left power, the bureaucracy worked hard to make them redundant. There is a myth in South Asia which claims that the military apparatus in these countries functions as the establishment. In reality, however, it is the bureaucracy with its extractive torments, which continues to call the shots. Even a military ruler like General Musharraf had to lean heavily on his old friend and a bureaucrat of legendary proportions, Tariq Aziz, to conduct the business of the state. The only country with moderate success in transforming an extractive bureaucracy into an inclusive one is Bangladesh and that is why this year its economy will grow faster than the economic powerhouse that once was India. Bottom line: Never treat your own citizens as foreign or colonial subjects.
The biggest problem with forced regulations is the stifling effect they have on productivity and the chilling effect on creativity. Even today the democratic west is a powerhouse of creativity and innovation. The recent U.S. ban on Huawei produced some instructive evidence. From Google’s Android software, major apps on the play store to hardware like guerilla glass, SD cards, WiFi technology and even microprocessors all turned out to have the U.S. or Western patents. Right now, from Tesla to Amazon, Google to Microsoft, all major innovative companies originate from freer societies. Creative minds gravitate towards open societies because these places offer them leeway to exist and grow in spite of their idiosyncrasies and quirks. This results in national wealth creation. Richer societies can afford better law enforcement system involving better technology and skilled manpower, and smarter mechanisms to ensure stability without compromising freedoms.
At first glance this may seem like an argument against regulations. It is not. Every society needs common sense laws and a mechanism to enforce them. But the relationship of a state with its subjects is like yours with your child. You obviously would go an extra mile to keep your child from harm’s way. But today you are there and the child does as he is told. Tomorrow you might not be with him or not looking and the young man may find himself incapable of making choices and mistakes that are necessary for progress. The key then lies in winning hearts and minds, convincing and educating rather than compelling and coercing.
Soon after 9/11, the first Arab Development Report came out. While it was a commentary on Arab societies, its foundational principles still apply here. The report found that the Arab countries were suffering from three deficits, those of freedom, women empowerment, and knowledge. Think about these deficits and you may find them in your society too. No wonder then that such societies are often left behind in progress.
Those who obsess about overregulation do so because they think human beings cannot be trusted either out of fear for one’s own wellbeing or for ideological reasons. In some cases, that might be true. But usually, when someone else decides what is good for you, there always is the chance of abuse, exploitation, and corruption. The better way is to educate people, motivate them, and then put trust in them. The best government is the one that is the least visible to the naked eye and yet only an earshot away to come to the rescue of a citizen in distress.
To paraphrase Yuval Harari, ideas like freedom, regulation, and stability are all stories, commonly held myths and constructs. The only thing that makes them real is public faith. Hence, regulations should only be introduced when there is a publicly recognized need for them and not when a ruling elite arbitrarily chooses to introduce them. And even then, they should not be the reason to unduly curtail freedoms. Freedom, regulations, stability and the need for progress all must be put in sync to support the growth of individuals, state and society.

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