Mommy-Daddy, go away!

This is the 25th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

One of my favourite quotes about politics is this one from David Boaz: “Conservatives want to be your daddy, telling you what to do and what not to do. Liberals want to be your mommy, feeding you, tucking you in, and wiping your nose. Libertarians want to treat you as an adult.”

This was said in an American context, and the liberals referred to are the Leftist ‘liberals’ of America, not the classical liberals who believe in individual freedom. It would be tempting to apply this quote to India, and to point to the religious right, with their moral policing and disregard for free speech, as the Daddy among us, and the socialist left, with their belief in big government and fantasies of a welfare state, as the Mommy.

But the truth is more complex and much sadder. Our government, regardless of the political party in charge, has always tried to play the role of both Mommy and Daddy. Like infants, we acquiesce.

As a Daddy, the state tries to regulate our personal behaviour. It assumes that we aren’t old enough to make our decisions, and that Daddy must make them on our behalf. This is all for our own good, and Daddy knows best what’s good for us. We are not mature enough.

This applies to the entertainment we take in. Censorship is classic Daddygiri. Daddy assumes that all of us have impressionable minds, get easily influenced, and cannot weigh things for ourselves. Things like sex and violence will corrupt the nation of a billion people, where children are presumably mass-produced in stork factories. (Note that if actual children had to be ‘protected’ from adult films, certification would suffice, instead of outright censorship.)

The health ministry, led by uber-Papa Anbumani Ramadoss, even banned smoking scenes in films a couple of years ago. (Film-makers are allowed to depict murder, though, as that is presumably less injurious to health.)  Of course, censorship applies not just to sex and violence, but also to ideas, as Anand Patwardhan’s travails illustrate.

All moral policing is Daddygiri, for any responsible Daddy must ensure that you get up to no mischief in your bedroom. The Indian Penal Code is full of it, with the worst of its laws being Section 377, which bars “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.” This effectively makes homosexuality illegal, and the law is routinely used by cops to harrass gay people, as if they are juvenile delinquents and not responsible adults trying to live their lives as they wish.

Most licenses, when they require government approval, are examples of Daddygiri. In their classic book, Law, Liberty and Livelihood, Parth Shah and Naveen Mandava pointed out: “Entrepreneurs can expect to go through 11 steps to launch a business over 89 days on average, at a cost equal to 49.5% of gross national income per capita.” It’s 89 days here, but two in Australia, and eight in Singapore. Besides the costs it imposes, this Daddygiri is also morally wrong – if people want to start a business satisfying the needs of other people, which is the only way a business can survive, why does the government have to come in the way?

Mommy, as it happens, is no better than Daddy. Mommy does not believe that its tiny tots can take care of themselves, and thus gets up to all kinds of strange behaviour. If she finds that Ram is better off than Shyam, she takes 20 rupees from Ram and gives three of those to Shyam. (Don’t ask about the other 17.) She also takes one rupee from Shyam. All our social welfare schemes, such as the ruinous National Employment Guarantee Bill, run in this manner. Rajiv Gandhi once said that only 15% of such spending reaches its intended recepient, but such wastage is not the only problem. Exorbitant taxes act as a disincentive to work and business, and harm the economy.

All protectionist laws are Mommy behaviour. Tariffs and subsidies coddle favoured groups and act as a barrier to competition, thus reducing our choices while raising the price we pay. Mumbai’s rent control act, which reduces the supply of real estate and drives up rents, is Mommy behaviour. Our labour laws are Mommy behaviour. (Indeed, they’re Daddy behaviour as well, from another perspective.)

Not surprisingly, this mai-baap way of functioning has much popular support. Many of us like the idea of a benevolent Mommy, not noticing the manner in which this Mommygiri harms the family. Daddygiri also has much support because many of us disapprove of the behaviour of others, and would like such behaviour to be regulated. As far as I’m concerned, I think of myself as an adult, capable of making my own choices, responsible for my actions, and extending the same courtesy to others.

What about you?

*  *  *

You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.