‘King’ and ‘Common Good’

‘King’ and ‘Common Good’

Governance Fundamentals

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, while presenting the Budget on February 1, quoted Thiruvalluvar -- “A king or ruler is one who creates or acquires wealth, protects and distributes it for the common good.” The Finance Minister who is not otherwise known for her literary sensibility has been remarkably uncanny in drawing attention to present-day realities. There are three important elements in this quotation. Firstly, she seemed to make no distinction between a ‘king or ruler’ of a pre-democratic, pre-republican age and the ‘rulers’ of today, who both treat their citizens as subjects that are to be bestowed with the grace of their rule. 

Second is the task of “creating and acquiring wealth”. Taxation, either direct or indirect, such as the GST, or simply printing money, or selling national assets built with taxpayer’s money, are the known means of “creating and acquiring wealth” for the State. The Budget is an instrument to inform the public as to how the State intends to do it.

Third, “distributing it for the common good” is the stated goal. This is a bit more problematic, because the notion of ‘the common good’ that this king or ruler has is unclear. ‘Common good’ is a much-misused term and often, it is neither common nor good.

Let us go by the commonly understood idea of ‘common good’. First, it is different and considered more valuable than ‘individual good’. Second, it is not a statistically derived notion of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number,’ but an aspirational goal to be achieved by various policy measures, including the Budget which is intended to allocate scarce resources in a ‘just and equitable’ manner. At the heart of the conception of ‘common good’ is a notion of justice and equity. Both these terms require further elaboration.

Political philosophers from time immemorial have grappled with questions of justice, equality, freedom, right and wrong, rights versus duties, and as to what constitutes a ‘just society’. Harvard University’s Prof Michael Sandel has explicated these terms that often confound politicians and policymakers in his excellent lecture series on ‘Justice’. He says that there are three ways of thinking about justice and they revolve around “maximising welfare, respecting freedom and promoting virtue.”

Maximising welfare is now reduced to a mechanistic calculation of GDP growth and a few development schemes, though ‘welfare’ is a much broader term than economic prosperity and includes several non-economic indicators. ‘Promoting freedoms’ is another essential component of ‘common good’ as that liberates a human being to pursue his interests and talents. But, as Amartya Sen argues, there can be no pursuit of freedoms without social and economic development. Thus, welfare and freedoms are intricately intertwined.     

Now, coming to one of the great questions of political philosophy: Should the State seek to promote ‘virtue’ among its citizens? Can the State tell them what to eat, dress or who to marry? Or should it be neutral towards competing questions of virtue so that citizens can be free to choose for themselves the best way to live?

Prof Sandel suggests that modern political philosophers from Immanuel Kant in the 18th century to John Rawls in the 20th century argue that the principles of ‘Justice’ that define our rights should not rest on any particular conception of individual virtue or the best way to live. Instead, a ‘just society’ respects each person’s freedom to choose her own conception of the good life. That, in essence, is the ‘common good’ as it is understood today.

Let us take one of the above notions and contextualise it: the concept of ‘maximizing welfare’ in a free-market economy, as this is at the heart of the neo-liberal economic reforms that we are now witnessing in the agricultural sector with the passing of the three farm laws.

Sandel points out that ‘the standard case for unfettered markets rests on two claims – one about welfare and the other about freedom. First, the markets promote the welfare society as a whole by providing incentives for people to work hard, supplying the goods that other people want. Second, markets respect individual freedom; rather than impose a certain value on goods and services, markets let people choose for themselves what value to place on the things they exchange.

There is, however, an important and valid criticism of both these arguments. First, the free market is not truly free, and the buyer and seller do not have equal power to bargain -- the playing field is never level. Second, the welfare of the whole society is never served when a seller sells his goods at exploitative prices and the buyer, with his enormous resources, can drive a section of the population to penury and servitude. This eventually results in outrage at the injustice, a feeling that people are not getting what they deserve.

How should a ‘king or ruler’ treat those who feel a deep sense of injustice? Should he treat them as enemies of State and block them with barricades, barbed wires and iron nails on their path of commerce or should he negotiate with them and remove the source of their grief?   

A clearer perception of the ‘common good’ will emerge if we go back to our Constitution and read the Preamble. If only our ‘rulers’ held all their legislations to the bar set by the Preamble to see if they met any or all of the four goals enshrined in it; the ‘ruler’ will go a long way in ensuring the ‘common good;’

Justice, social, economic and political;

Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

Equality of status and of opportunity;

and to promote among them all

Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual, and the unity and integrity of the Nation.

(The writer, a former Cabinet Secretariat official, is Visiting Fellow, ORF, New Delhi)