The Matunga Racket

A version of this piece was published today as the eighth installment of my column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Last week I had begun my piece on victimless crimes by asking you to imagine a dystopia where sex is banned. Smugly, I had referred to it as a mere thought experiment. I apologize for that: for millions of Indians, it isn’t a thought experiment, it’s reality. They’re gay.

I’m sure you all know about Section 377, the archaic law in the Indian Penal Code that bans “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. While it seems to deal just with anal sex, the way the law has been used effectively makes homosexuality illegal in India. Still, until recently I assumed that this law would be used only occasionally, and that too for non-consensual sex, and that gay people had more reason to worry about social attitudes than the legal system.

Well, I was wrong. I met a couple of friends over the weekend who told me about how Section 377 is used as a tool of extortion. Note, I said “is used”, not “has been used” or “can be used”. There are systematic rackets run throughout the country to extort money from gay people scared of having a case filed against them under Section 377. These rackets are run by the police. One example of this is what activists refer to as The Matunga Racket.

Here’s how The Matunga Racket works. Say you’re a gay man in an internet chat room, trying to connect with other gay men. Someone asks you if you want to exchange some porn. It seems harmless, and even if you’re generally wary of sexual encounters with strangers, you agree. You fix up a rendezvous at Dadar station. You land up and meet this guy, who seems quite nice. He suggests that you walk over to his motorcycle.

While you are doing so, a plainclothes policeman swoops down on you. He accuses you of breaking the law. (You know which law.) Your gay porn is on you, which he says is proof. He bundles you off to a place in King’s Circle, just near the police chowki there. A cop duly comes and slaps you a couple of times, and threatens to file a case against you under section 377. There is a way out, of course. Money.

If you have what they ask for, it’s cool. If not, they simply take your ATM cards and suchlike and empty them out as you wait there. They have picked you, of course, because you seem closeted, and are likely to be terrified of your family finding out that you’re gay. What they are doing is illegal, a criminal act, but you will never file an official complaint. If you show any sign of defiance, or try to call your lawyer, they will let you go. Indeed, if you had seemed to be that type, they would have parted ways with you at Dadar itself. They will never actually file a case of Section 377 against you: it is just an immensely potent threat.

Another organized racket, my friends told me, is run on some railway stations of Mumbai, such as VT and Andheri. A cop will hang around inside the toilet, pretending to masturbate. If he finds someone looking longer than expected, he will ask that person to come and touch his penis. (He will always be well-endowed: “do these policemen compare sizes and make the biggest guy the bait?” the friend who told me this story wondered.) Just as any straight person would be tempted at the chance to feel up a nice pair of breasts, the prey will often go ahead. As soon as he touches it, four or five cops will jump on him, drag him out onto the platform, beating him as they do so, and take him into a room where cops hang out. Then they’ll put him through the grinder: 377 or money? You know how this story ends.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the cops do this. Our policemen are tenured and effectively unaccountable, and while we would like them to focus on crimes such as murder, rape and robbery, there are few disincentives to punish them if they do not do so. Instead, considering that they are generally poorly paid, their incentives are aligned towards seeking alternate revenue streams, if I may call it that. Laws against victimless crimes provide a perfect opportunity.

In Goa, I am told, cops often stake out foreigners staying there, raid them, plant small quantities of drugs if they cannot find any, and then extort money. You’re a foreigner in a strange land in trouble with the cops, of course you’ll pay up. Driving a motorcycle without a yellow license plate is illegal in Goa – a rather ludicrous victimless crime – and all motorcycles there have white license plates. Thus, anyone who rents a motorcycle can be randomly stopped. And so on and on and on and on.

Of course, homosexuality is different from other victimless crimes because it doesn’t involve choice. We can choose not to gamble or to do drugs, but sexual orientation, like the colour of our eyes, is something we’re born with. If you’re straight, imagine one more time the dystopia gay Indians live in, where not just sex but love and companionship are elusive. Isn’t that criminal?

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Many thanks to Vikram Doctor and Alok Gupta for spending time with me and sharing their insights in the subject. If you want to read about the history and scope of Section 377, there is no better place to start than Alok’s fine essay, “Section 377 and the Dignity of Indian Homosexuals.” (PDF link.)

Don’t punish victimless crimes

This is the seventh installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Imagine a dystopia where a mad dictator comes to power and decides to ban sex and dating. Sex is ruining the moral fabric of our nation, he decides. Men and women must not be allowed to get together. What will happen?

Here is what I imagine: One, immense copulation will still take place behind closed doors, and as no one engaged in consensual sex will complain, the state will have to spend considerable resources and do invasive policing to make sure people don’t break the law. Two, the underworld will get involved in enabling encounters between the sexes, as those won’t be legal any more, and couples will no more be able to shoot the breeze at a Barista. Three, there will be more rapes, as repressed men denied normal outlets will resort to force.

What a silly thought experiment, you say, it could never happen. After all, what two consenting adults choose to do together, harming no one else in the process, should never be the state’s business. And yet, while sex and dating are thankfully allowed in our country, many other consensual, harmless acts are banned. Allow me to give you a few examples of such victimless crimes.

First, take betting. Betting on cricket matches is, ludicrously, illegal in India. (Other forms of betting are allowed, such as speculative investments in the stock market or in real estate or betting at horse races, which all amount to the same thing.) If I choose to bet with another private party on the outcome of whatever, it should be no one else’s business.

Now, what happens when you ban something that has a high demand? The underworld gets in. As it operates beyond the arm of the law, there is no transparency, and the cost to consumers is higher. It is hard to monitor and, since it’s illegal, there is no industry mechanism to do so. Match-fixing becomes more possible. (People speak of betting and match-fixing in the same breath, but that’s really like conflating sex and rape.)

If betting was legal, though, the underworld would find little scope to be involved. In a competitive market, legitimate companies would raise customer service and transparency while driving down costs. Like your bank gives you a demat account to invest in shares, it might provide one for betting. You’d have various vendors to choose from and the chances of getting ripped off would be less. It wouldn’t be a panacea, but it would be an improvement on what exists. Consider that match-fixing in cricket has germinated from exactly those countries where it is illegal.

Another example of a victimless crime: prostitution. A consensual transaction between two adults is nobody else’s business, but prostitution evokes sordid images of young girls being kidnapped and beaten and forced into the profession. Why does such violence happen? It is because prostitution is effectively illegal in India and, therefore, the underworld is involved.

If it was legalised, it would be easier to police, and to safeguard the rights of the women involved. Legitimate companies in the hospitality industry might choose to get involved. To attract clients, they would have to have standards and practices. Yes, it would be sad that some women would choose to be prostitutes for a living, but they would do so because they prefer it to other available choices. Why should we pass moral judgement on them, or deny them some of those choices?

Again, legalising prostitution would be no panacea, but would cut down on much of the criminal abduction-rape cycle that forces so many young girls into the business in the first place. A perfect example of how legalised prostitution can function without coercion is the Netherlands, where prostitutes pay taxes and are part of unions, which look after their interests, and brothels advertise like other respectable businesses.

One more example of a victimless crime: taking drugs. A study published recently by the Lancet shows that alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than LSD, cannabis and ecstasy. If an adult chooses to smoke a joint, is it not immoral to stop them and impinge on their freedom? You might argue that people commit crimes under the influence of drugs, but then, punishing those crimes should be deterrent enough. (Tobacco is an exception, though: I support banning smoking in public places because it harms other people.)

Indeed, the drug trade is the lifeblood of the underworld in many countries. Consumers have none of the protections that a well-functioning free market affords, and might end up buying adulterated drugs at exorbitant prices. In contrast, consider the Netherlands, where drugs are legal and cannabis is purchased mainly in coffee shops. They have the lowest rate of drug-related-deaths-per-million in Europe.

While our cops are busy busting “betting rackets” and “dens of vice” and “rave parties”, do note that I am not endorsing either gambling or prostitution or drugs use. I am simply speaking out for individual freedom, and pointing out that the costs of denying such freedom are generally greater than any intended benefits.

General Musharraf’s incentives

This is the sixth installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

In our new age of terror, General Pervez Musharraf is both Gabbar Singh and Veeru. In the global War on Terror that began after 9/11, he is a frontline ally of the US, the man given the task of finishing off the Taliban and catching Osama bin Laden. He is also the pivotal figure in the local conflict between India and Pakistan, talking peace to the international community but taking a harder line with his domestic constituency.

Much of the talk about Musharraf that I see around me arises either from wishful thinking or from false preconceptions. Without passing any judgement on his performance, it would help to consider the incentives that drive him. If Musharraf is to look after his interests, as any rational person would, how should he behave?

Firstly, consider the War on Terror. I spent a couple of months last year travelling through Pakistan, and it was common among journalists and economists to speak glowingly of Pakistan’s “9/11 economy”. Akbar Zaidi, Pakistan’s best-known economist, told me that through its history the biggest spurts of growth to Pakistan’s economy have been fueled by foreign aid. (It has been happenstance that dictators have been in charge when this has happened, giving rise to the myth that Pakistan economy does well under military dictatorship.) Pakistan received these boosts of aid under Ayub Khan in the 1960s (when the US adopted Pakistan as a strategic hub in South Asia), Zia-ul-Haq in the late 1970s (when Russia invaded Afghanistan), and General Musharraf found himself a beneficiary after 9/11.

“We refer to Al Qaeda as Al Faeda,” a journalist told me in Islamabad. Pakistan’s economy under Musharraf was in bad shape before 9/11, but as Pakistan quickly became key to America’s plans of countering Al Qaeda, the foreign aid poured in. Farrukh Saleem, an economist, wrote an article last year estimating the benefit to Pakistan to be worth US$40 billion, which included the bilateral debt forgiven by the US, the US$100 million a month that the US department of defence reportedly transfers into Pakistan’s treasury, and the other bilateral debts that the US persuaded the Paris Club lender nations to “reschedule … on easy terms.”

Pakistan’s economy also benefited in other ways. Land prices shot up as non-resident Pakistanis, unsure about investing abroad, parked their money in real estate back home. An entire support economy sprung up around foreigners who came to Pakistan because of its strategic importance and newsworthiness, and I was told that the dollar would have been far stronger against the Pakistani rupee (one dollar equalling 90 rupees instead of 60) had 9/11 not taken place.

All this means that it is overwhelmingly in Musharraf’s interests to be an ally in the War on Terror. But is it in his interests to win it, to finish the Taliban and catch Al Qaeda’s top leadership, and secure his region from these influences? Would that not kill the goose that laid the golden eggs?

His incentives in the conflict against India aren’t tailored towards peace either. Musharraf’s power comes from heading the army, which is the most powerful institution in Pakistan by far. Armies thrive on conflict, and Pakistan’s military has used the conflict against India to acquire a dominant position in Pakistani society. If the two countries were to suddenly resolve all their problems, it would be harder for the military to justify its massive budgets, its untramelled power, its command over civil society. Dictators often use the threat of war to suppress civil liberties and concentrate power in their hands.

Musharraf has to talk peace, of course, to keep up the façade of respectability in the international community. And to be fair, the incentives described above are just part of the story. It isn’t easy to root out Al Qaeda and the Taliban from the NWFP, which is virtually autonomous, and elements within the Pakistani establishment might well be supporting them, as they probably do the terrorists who routinely cross over into India. But the important thing to note here is this: Musharraf isn’t the villain of the piece, per se, because any rational person in his position would behave exactly as he is. That is why the speculation over the US replacing him, if at all they’re capable of such a thing, is silly. The problem isn’t the man, it’s his incentives.

There are no easy solutions to this: increased trade could help Pakistan’s economy reduce its dependence on foreign aid, and create disincentives to conflict. People-to-people contact could counter the demonization of India in the eyes of Pakistan’s people. Both the US and India could try a different balance of sticks and carrots to make this come about, maybe by taking a harder line, which has its attendant set of risks. Dick Cheney’s visit to Pakistan last month, ostensibly to tell Musharraf to get his act together, was an indication that the US has changed its approach. Will it work? I don’t know. But it’s better than wishful thinking.

This piece is an elaboration on a series of blog posts that I’ve written on the subject in the last few months. Here are some of them: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

A beast called government

This is the fifth installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

There is nothing in the world as dangerous as blind faith. No, no, this is not yet another rant against organised religion: there is enough damnation already scheduled upon me. There is another beast that benefits from blind faith quite as much as religion, and that causes as much harm from our lack of questioning: a beast called government.

Don’t get me wrong, we need government. We need it to take care of law and order, of defense, and for a handful of other things. (I don’t have a very large hand.) But the governments we have, not just in India but virtually everywhere, are vast, monstrous behemoths that are many multiples of the size they need to be. The cost of this, of course, is borne by us: we pay far more tax than we should need to in order to keep government going, and to justify its size the government clamps down on private enterprise and individual freedoms.

Part of our blind faith in government comes from the way we view it. Governments are not supercomputers programmed to work tirelessly for the public interest, nor are they benevolent, supernatural beings constantly striving to give us what we require. On the contrary, governments are collections of people, individuals like you and me, motivated by self-interest. The actions of government are the actions of these men and women, and the best way to understand how they are likely to behave—and therefore, how governments are likely to behave—is to consider their incentives.

Outside of government, we get ahead, whether in our jobs or doing business, by giving other people goods or services that they require. There is a direct correlation between what we give and what we get, and clear accountability: if I overstep my deadline for this column one more time, for example, Mint will surely find another columnist to fill this space!

But the incentives in government are different, and they do not drive a bureaucrat to work in the public interest. This is superbly illustrated in C Northcote Parkinson’s delightful classic, Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress. Parkinson, examining the British civil service, found that it tended to expand by a predictable percentage every year, “irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.” He explained this with “two almost axiomatic sentences”: “(1) “An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals” and (2) “Officials make work for each other.”

In other words, it is in bureaucrats’ interest to expand their departments and get greater budgets allocated to them so as to increase their sphere of power. Indeed, mandarins who solve problems and increase efficiency actually risk making themselves, or their departments, redundant. Do we really expect them to be like the proverbial fool on the tree, who cuts the branch he sits on?

If bureaucrats want to increase the power they have, politicians want to build vote banks. That is how they rise in the political system, and it is silly to expect them to stop when they get to power. This means giving sops to interest groups that have supported them when they come to power, and reaching out to others. One illustration that speaks for itself is the Haj subsidy. Indeed, it would be irrational for a politician to focus on anything else but what will get him elected.

But we’re a democracy, so why don’t we just vote such politicians out? Well, to begin with, our system of government has what public choice theorists would call “concentrated benefits and diffused costs.” In other words, what is hundreds of crores of subsidy for a troubled industry or a free TV to a Tamil Nadu voter is just a few paise a year for you. Who do you think is more likely to lobby a politician or bother to go out and vote?

Of course, a few paise a year for thousands of pointless causes each add up to the majority of your tax money, but now we come to another reason for why people don’t vote against government wastage: what economists call ‘rational ignorance’. Besides earning a living, there are many good uses of your time, and finding out a break-up of where your tax money goes would simply take too much of your time. This is exacerbated by the fact that many taxes are indirect and hidden away – indeed, inflation often functions as a form of taxation – and that the politicians you have to choose from, all driven by the same impulses and catering to different interest groups, really aren’t too different from each other.

I had promised last week to elaborate on how a lot of well-intentioned and seemingly sensible government spending actually harms us all, and I shall do so in the weeks to come. I wanted to first highlight how wastage in government is not an aberration, but is written in the DNA of our system, and is integral to its nature. Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” Understanding that process is the first step to turning it around.

Your maid funds Unani

This is the latest installment of my column for Mint, Thinking It Through. It is an elaboration of my concerns behind my ongoing series, Where Your Taxes Go, and I’d like to thank all the readers and bloggers who have sent me links for that. Keep them coming, and keep expressing your outrage on your own blogs as well.

These are good times for Unani. In his latest budget, the honourable P Chidambaram allocated Rs. 563.88 crores for the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy. I kid you not, I am not making this up for your satirical amusement. That departments exists. And you work your ass off, and make sacrifices, so that it can be funded. You and your maidservant.

On my blog, I have a section called “Where Your Taxes Go,” where I document strange instances of how our taxes are put to use. There is much there that is trivial and amusing—a moustache allowance for a havaldar in Lucknow, compensation for a bank employee mistakenly declared dead, salary for an 11-year-old teacher, relocation of monkeys from New Delhi to MP (only Rs. 25 lakhs). There is also much there that underscores the irresponsibility of our politicians—toilet refurbishment allowances for Jharkhand legislators, parliament hold-ups that cost 20k a minute, the 90 lakh free TVs that the DMK promised in Tamil Nadu to get elected there. Most of us are so used to government wastage that we shrug this off. “Pata hai yaar,” we say together in a gruff chorus of a billion nonchalant voices. “So what is new? Gorment is like this only.”

I feel outraged, though, angry and helpless. I never used to bother about such wastage earlier, largely because I had built a mental wall between the money that I pay as taxes and the money that the government spends. It was almost as if they were two separate things, and there was an endless supply of the latter. As a college kid, I am ashamed to admit, whenever I saw a worthy cause that needed support, I saw virtue in government money heading that way. It never struck me then that this money had a cost, and I never thought about who bore that cost.

Indulge me for a moment: take out a handkerchief and write down the taxes you have paid since you began working. List out all the things you would buy if 90% of that money was still with you. Consider, if everyone else did this, how much money would go into the economy, and the vast number of jobs created by this. All the people in those jobs, better off than they would be otherwise, would then be earning money and spending it. Think of the virtuous cycle that would then result. That is the cost of that money. Now put that handkerchief in the laundry and use a notepad next time.

That old saying about death and taxes being inevitable equate the two, which, as libertarians never tire of pointing out, is unfair for one reason: you are not dead one-third of every year. But if you are a typical Indian taxpayer, you pay more than a quarter of your income in taxes. For more than three months of the year, your salary goes to the government. (Sounds like part-time slavery, doesn’t it?) If you are reading this article on its date of publication, consider that you haven’t started working for yourself yet this year. That is still a few days away.

Indeed, it could be a lot more than just a few days away, because my calculation is based on your probable income tax. That is not where the matter ends. Every single thing you buy in the supermarket or the bookshop has taxes levied on it. You cannot spend your money anywhere without a chunk of it going to the government, indirectly or otherwise.

And this is not just the case with you, an educated, reasonably well-to-do reader of Mint [or India Uncut]: it is the case with every Indian. My maid, for example, may not pay income tax, but large chunks of every purchase she makes go to the government. Whenever she buys pulses or rice or soap and schoolbooks for her children, she is helping to fund the government’s activities, including moustache allowances. If she realised the extent to which she is being robbed, she would be rather upset at Sania Mirza asking the government to allot her land for a tennis academy, or Amitabh Bachchan getting tax relief on his KBC earnings of more than 50 crore. My maid bears their burden.

Now, I am not suggesting that we pay no taxes, despite the fact that they involve coercion. We need a government, and the government needs money to spend on maintaining law and order, providing public services and so on. But most of our taxes are simply wasted—I shall elaborate on the pointlessness of most government spending, even when well-intentioned and seemingly sensible, in my next column – and I wish we protested more at this waste. Not only is this money badly spent, but it would have been better spent elsewhere, and would have done more good for the economy as well as for us.

And remember, I am not just speaking of us decadent middle-class folk, but also my maidservant and her family, living a precarious existence in the slums of Mumbai, funding Unani with her backbreaking work. Isn’t that simply criminal?

Don’t think in categories

This piece is the third installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through.

As a blogger, I often get phone calls from journalists who have been instructed to write a story on blogging. Generally, all they know about it is that it is some new kind of buzzword, and they have often not read any blogs. Their questions invariably include the phrase “blogging community.”

Oh how they generalise. “What does the blogging community feel about the new KBC?” they ask, or “What do bloggers write about?” I try to be polite and say that I can only speak for myself, but I won’t deny that the image of hanging a journalist upside down just above a vat of boiling oil gives me great glee at such times.

Bloggers have a community as much as drivers have a community. Would you ask a random person in a car, “So sir, what do drivers feel about abortion?” You wouldn’t dream of doing that, because you know that drivers are just individuals who happen to drive cars. And yet, we lump all bloggers under one convenient label.

And we have many convenient labels like that. Imagine someone saying, “Some Indian bloggers have been seen cheering for Pakistan during cricket matches. Therefore, all Indian bloggers are anti-national.” Or “Some bloggers burnt a train full of drivers, therefore we drivers will slaughter all the bloggers we can find.” Or “Bloggers have been discriminated against in the days before the internet, when they didn’t have access to any readership, therefore we will reserve a set amount of newspaper space for them.”

Would it not be equally ridiculous to take a poll of bloggers, find out that the majority prefer to use the blogging service Blogspot, and then force all bloggers to use only that service? “This is the will of the bloggers,” you could say, or “the bloggers have given their mandate.”

The above examples sound ridiculous, but you would have recognised the references. We tend to think in categories, and ignore individuals in the process. We are pattern-seeking creatures, and this can be a useful cognitive shortcut: classifying things into groups of things helps us make sense of the world. But it has its perils when we take it too far.

And we do. Millions have been killed citing the good of ‘nation’ and ‘race’ and so on. Every day, individual rights are trampled upon under the guise of the good of ‘society’ or ‘community’. This is a mistake committed on both extremes of the political spectrum, both by ‘pseudo-secularists’ and those who have coined that term.

The Hindutva parties in India and their supporters do this all the time when it comes to terms like ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ and ‘Pakistan’ and so on. Claiming to speak for all Hindus, as if that is even possible, they whip up hatred against Muslims in general citing the acts of particular Muslims. They demonise Pakistan and Pakistanis because of the acts of its government, as if that government is a representative one. They oppose globalisation in the name of ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, as if those two things lie preserved in a glass case.

The Left parties aren’t behind. How much generalising do they do against ‘multinationals,’ ‘imperialists,’ ‘upper castes,’ ‘the middle class’ and so on? They praise democracy but speak darkly of ‘free markets’ as if they represent anything other than individuals being empowered to make their own choices. They claim to speak for some mythical beast called ‘workers’, though all their policies harm individual workers, and as if workers aren’t also ‘consumers,’ a kind of beast that they don’t quite like.

The classic example of thinking in categories gone wrong is our reservations policy. Under the pretext of clearing up historical wrongs done to one group of people by another, we effectively redistribute opportunities and resources by taking them from one bunch of individuals and handing them to another. Some individuals suffer, others get lucky, and that’s all there is to it. What is worse, they actually perpetuate such thinking in categories instead of bringing an end to it, and make the problem worse instead of solving it.

It reminds me of Ayn Rand’s famous quote, “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.” But do we really care about individual rights, and personal freedom, in India?

Reason vs Rationalisation

A shorter version of this piece was published today as the second installment of my column, Thinking it Through, in Mint. I also posted this on the old India Uncut.

Often when I argue with friends, or on the internet, I am dismayed by how intransigent some people are. No matter how many facts I throw before them, or how solid my reasoning is, I simply cannot convince them of my point of view. No doubt they feel the same about me. “He refuses to listen to reason,” they think, even as I bemoan how unreasonable they are.

This is not a phenomenon peculiar to me: we live in deeply polarised times, and around half the world believes that the other half ignores reason altogether. Well, it is my belief that we overestimate reason to begin with. The Scottish Philosopher David Hume once described reason as “the slave of the passions,” and I believe that much of the time when we feel we are being reasonable, we are actually rationalising conclusions we have already arrived at, positions that we already hold.

An excellent illustration of how our mind does this comes from neuroscience. In the 1960s, neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry carried out a series of experiments on patients with split-brain epilepsy. A common treatment for such patients used to be to sever the corpus callosum, the part of the brain that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. This effectively splits the brain into two: rational thought is carried out by the left hemisphere, but the two halves of the brain stop being aware of the happenings the other half.

Describing the experiments in his book, “The Blank Slate,” Steven Pinker wrote of how “the left hemisphere constantly weaves a coherent but false account of the behaviour chosen without its knowledge by the right.” One example: the experimenters would flash the word “walk” in the visual field of the right hemisphere. The patient would get up and start walking. But when asked why he did so, his left brain, which would be unaware of what the right brain had seen, and would effectively be doing the replying, gave answers such as “to get a coke.” The remarkable thing is that the patients actually believed their explanation, even though the conscious mind arrived at it after the unconscious mind prompted the body to start walking.

Pinker called the conscious mind “a spin doctor, not the commander in chief,” while Gazzaniga referred to the left brain as “the interpreter.” In his book, “Phantoms in the Brain,” VS Ramachandran wrote, “[t]he left hemisphere’s job is to create a belief system or model and to fold new experiences into that belief system. If confronted with some new information that doesn’t fit the model, it relies on Freudian defence mechanisms to deny, repress or confabulate – anything to preserve the status quo.”

In other words, the left brain’s job to to make sense of the world and build a coherent worldview. This isn’t easy. The world is full of complicated phenomena, and the most intelligent among us would not be able to make sense of it all if we tried to place each disparate event in its proper perspective. We would be perpetually bewildered.

To deal with this, our brains evolved to seek patterns in everything. Michael Shermer, in his book “How We believe,” wrote: “Those who were best at finding patterns (standing upwind of game animals is bad for the hunt, cow manure is good for the crops) left behind the most offspring.” Of course, while we are especially good at seeking patterns in everything, not all patterns are meaningful, and many simply come from confusing correlation with causation. Thus, a cricketer who makes a century when he happens to have a red handkerchief in his pocket may carry that handkerchief with him for the rest of his career.

Indeed, this explains religion. For much of our existence, science hasn’t been around (or able) to answer the big questions of the day. We’d have gone mad thinking about it all if we didn’t have religion to give us ready-made patterns that explained everything. Similarly, in the modern world, we have all kinds of belief systems that help make sense of the world around us, and provide us with cognitive shortcuts to think about the world.

When these belief systems are attacked, it is natural for us to not want to have to rethink them. As an economist would say, that would be inefficient, wasting too much time and energy. Thus, various kinds of defence mechanisms originate for this purpose, such as the confirmation bias, which is a tendency to consider only evidence that fits our existing beliefs. A believer in astrology would do this, for example, by considering all correct predictions by an astrologer to be proof of its validity, while ignoring the ones that turn out false.

And indeed, this is why most arguments, especially about politics and economics, are so frustrating. If both sides have firm beliefs, they stand little chance of convincing the other person, for most reasoned argument in such cases is rationalisation couched as reason. The next time you get into one of those arguments, and witness one of them, you will actually be able to observe this happening. The delight of it all is that the people involved will not be aware of this process, and will honestly believe themselves to be open-minded individuals who are, well, thinking it through. But that is mostly self-deception.

Where’s the Freedom Party

My weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through, kicked off on February 8, 2007. It will appear every Thursday. This is the first installment, also posted on the old India Uncut.

It’s frustrating being a libertarian in India. Libertarians, broadly, believe that every person should be have the freedom to do whatever they want with their person or property as long as they do not infringe on the similar freedoms of others. Surely this would seem a good way for people to live: respecting each other’s individuality, and not trying to dictate anyone else’s behaviour.

Naturally, libertarians believe in both social and economic freedoms. They believe that what two consenting adults do inside closed doors should not be the state’s business. Equally, they believe the state should not interefere when two consenting parties trade with each other, for what is this but an extension of that personal freedom. And yet, despite having gained political freedom 60 years ago, personal and economic freedoms are routinely denied in India. Even worse, there is no political party in the country that speaks up for freedom in all its forms.

Consider our Left parties. They speak up for personal freedoms (though often as a matter of convenience), such as for free speech and against censorship, but, bound by dogma, they oppose economic freedom. They do not understand that when two people trade with each other, they do so because they both benefit, and that allowing people to trade freely creates prosperity better than government handouts can. They do not see the good that our limited reforms of the last 15 years have done. They point to the existence of poverty as evidence that the reforms have failed, not admitting that the reforms have not been carried out in the areas that affect our poor the most.

The Left claims to speak for the poor, but most of the policies it supports, such as the labour laws and the minimum wage, harm poor people the most. It does not accept that poverty is a result of inadequate employment and insufficient productivity, and that unleashing private enterprise, by removing all the barriers to it that still exist, would solve these problems. It opposes foreign investment, as if anything but employment and prosperity could result from it. It views economics as a zero-sum game, and assumes that the only way to enrich the poor is to steal from the rich.

Then consider the Right. The religious right routinely tramples on personal freedoms in the name of religion and tradition and suchlike. It takes offence at any criticism, and is an enemy of free speech. The extreme elements of it, which are more common than we acknowledge, and even won a state election resoundingly not long ago, treat an entire minority as subhuman. And yes, inspired by nationalistic fervour, they often oppose economic freedoms as well.

But why blame the political parties? Politics is all about demand and supply: our politicians do not value freedom because our people do not demand it. There are a variety of different reasons for why this is so.

When it comes to economic freedoms, it so happens that many of the great truths of economics are deeply unintuitive. The fact that markets aren’t zero-sum, for example, or that the spontaneous order of millions of individuals working separately towards their self-interest can produce and distribute goods far more efficiently than central planning can. Also, most of us have grown up in a socialist framework, and instinctively look to our mai-baap state for solutions. We look to the government to provide jobs, to lift people out of poverty, to provide free education to all, and so on. “What does a poor man care about freedom?” an IAS officer friend recently asked me. “All he wants is food.” And indeed, the connection between economic freedom and jobs and food on the plate is not one that is immediately obvious.

When it comes to personal freedoms, we are so used to living in a country where they are denied to us that we don’t even notice their absence. As a matter of routine, films are censored, books are banned, and our personal and sexual preferences are restricted. Free expression is endangered in this country, and whether it’s MF Hussain painting a Hindu goddess nude or an Orkut forum about Shivaji or a comedian making fun of Mahatma Gandhi, our default reaction is to ask that it be stopped. How can free speech thrive in a country where giving offence is treated as a crime?

Am I hopeful for things changing? Yes and no. Yes, because as the cause and effect of economic freedom becomes clearer, people will see through socialist rhetoric and realise that only free enterprise can provide jobs, lift our living standards, and raise this country out of poverty. On the other hand, such a clear-cut utilitarian case is harder to make for personal freedoms, and political parties, in any case, thrive on catering to special interest groups. They are, thus, generally likelier to restrict freedom even further instead of removing existing restrictions.

Immense sighs emerge. Perhaps I should simply have been a Communist or a Fascist.