The common good, market economy and politics By Kumudu Kusum Kumara

( The following article was originally published in The Island on 8th and 9th of February 2005 under the name Citizen-Ordinary. The article was written in response to the proposals made by the then Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe inviting public discussion on what should be the ‘podu yahapatha’ or the common good of Sri Lanka. The gist of the proposals was that our common good should be based on democracy and the market economy. The issues raised in this article as to whether we want to accept the market as the guiding principle of our collective life are more relevant today when Ranil Wickremesinghe is the Prime Minister of the country and is at the helm implementing market driven reforms in the economy. The original article is republished here sans only the specific references to the then political context.)

The market as a legitimate part of the economy has also come to stay even though the manner in which the dominance of it was forced upon us in the post-1977 period has wreaked havoc on the Sri Lankan society, the unfolding of the serious ramifications of which will take a long time to come, as shown by one of its prime examples, the privatized public transport, experienced by the ordinary folk who travel around by bus. The real issue about the market is not whether it can be considered a legitimate partner in the national economy, but whether we want to accept the market as the guiding principle of our collective life.

When we say that the Industrialised western countries or countries such as Singapore have achieved high levels of ‘development’ following the model of democracy and market economy, what we express seems to be our fond hope that Sri Lanka also can be ‘developed’ following the same model, rather than being realistic on how different countries achieve ‘development’ each in its own unique way, subject to specific historical conditions and cultural factors. It is also outside the consideration whether we in Sri Lanka would necessarily want to follow such a model of development even if we could succeed in such an attempt. Our penchant for Singapore as the model of development may be due to our desire to find an easy solution to the messy situation of being citizens of a country full of internal strife in all areas of collective life that do not seem to be resolvable ever. It is no wonder that in a context where there is so much of conflict, instability and social unrest, many of us would dream of doing a Lee Kwan-Yew in Sri Lanka as if human world can be put in order by the sleight of hand of a clever magician. We need to remind ourselves that even Singapore itself could produce only one Lee Kwan Yew in its life time. But more importantly, even if one of us is clever enough to become a Lee Kwan Yew as if by a secret magical act, the possibility is that being the political beings that they are, Sri Lankans would not tolerate a Lee Kwan Yew in their midst.

While the Fukuyama doctrine of End of History which can be taken to mean that the unfolding of history in the world culminates in the entire world embracing neo-liberal economic policies which give dominance to the free reign of market forces, may seem to sound generally valid in the aftermath of the collapse of the state-centred economies of the socialist bloc countries, one cannot necessarily conclude from the latter event that politics has come to an end, or for that matter should come to an end, even in a world dominated by liberalism. The dominance of liberalism itself is the reason to revive our sense of politics, to preserve and advance the political gains won by the public in such a world, as otherwise unhindered liberalism tend to be heading in a direction which generates forces of self-destruction within its own territory. This is in addition to the resentment generated from without liberalism against it due to the action of its overzealous advocates to export liberal democracy by force to the territories of the ‘non-believers.’

The State or the Market? Both!

The other side of neoliberal myth that insists markets can solve every problem is the belief that the government can do little other than making the life of people difficult. Neo-liberalism turns the idea of collective good into an issue between the free market economy and the government. To pose the question in terms of whether to choose between the private capitalist sector and the government which is the political instrument of the collective life is to raise a red-herring.

On the other hand, the state centred economy is not the only option to market-centred economy. In industrialised countries in the West, onefinds the state playing a considerable, if not a major role, in maintaining the important sectors of public transport, health care, education, child care, taking care of the elderly and welfare assistance in varying degrees. Quite a few of these countries have a strong welfare system which is jealously guarded against the intrusions of immigrants from the poor countries.

In my view, it is a sensible idea to agree that the priority given to the market mechanism in certain areas is a necessary component of the national economy as we have already come to realise and accept now in practice, instead of going back to a fully state regulated economy, the latter being a move which no one with a sense of practical reality would want to suggest. However, what aspects of the economy, to which extent, under what conditions should be subjected to the dictates of the market, is a matter to be collectively decided on the merit of each case, and therefore should not be a forgone conclusion that accepts the virtue of the market forces as a panacea for all ills in society. We know from our general experience that allowing capitalism unhindered free play in the market place, whether it is in production, trade or consumption has the general tendency of bringing into the open the rapacious character of individual human beings at the expense of public interest.

By now, with the benefit of hindsight we should be able to realize that the decision to privatize the public transport subjecting it to the dictates of market forces was the wrong decision. That it continues in its present form is only a testimony to the priority given by our politicians and bureaucrats to their ideologies and therefore the desire to place the perceived benefits of the private bus operation to the economy above the welfare of the ordinary public.

The helpless public who has no effective say in determining how collective affairs are run, daily suffer in the hands of private bus operators whose inhumanity towards fellow public is guided solely by the profit motive. These private operators of public transport have become a powerful political force unto themselves and probably a vote bank. The public, I am sure would be vigilantly watching the political alliances of these bus operators when it comes to their decision to whom to vote for in the elections. Anyone who takes the trouble to find out about the public transport in industrialised countries in the West will realise that in many cities in those countries public transport is not run on the basis of profit but as a public service, in most part funded by the city, provincial/state and national/federal governments. It is so because the public in those countries demand that the governments treat their citizens with common decency and consider that their labour force should have access to comfortable and convenient transport as they make a valuable contribution to the economy. Both the private sector in those countries and their governments are sophisticated enough to know that the productivity of labour increases under healthy working conditions of which transport to and from work is an essential part.

In fact, how we answer the question what sectors of our public services should be privatized in what manner, is not a secondary issue but one that is integral to, and hence one that itself would reflect, our understanding of our common good. In this sense any discussion of our common good need to go beyond simply stating that it should be based on democracy and market economy, but examine for which understanding of the common good we want to have democracy and market economy as its basis. I want to suggest that in determining what is our common good, the crucial issue is whether our understanding of our good life is one that gives priority to the individual good or the collective good.

Priority: Individual good or collective good?

I want to suggest that when we say that in the industrialized West, the market economy is the basis of the common good, what we, in fact, mean is that it is the individual good and not the common good that is given priority in the collective life of those countries. The belief underlying taking market as the determining principle of the economy is that individuals freely determine what is good for themselves in the exchange in the market place. Here, the good of collective life is conceived as the sum of the goods of the individuals who make up the community. The chief concern of such an understanding of the ‘common good’ is the ‘welfare’ of the individuals through the provision of individual goods. Hence, when we propose the market economy as the guiding principle of the common good, the underlying idea is that the individual good is supreme and not the common good.

The individual good, as it is concerned with the urgent needs of life and self preservation often go against the interest of the collective or the public good, and hence itself cannot be the public good. In other words, accepting the market as the governing principle of the economy cannot be the basis of the collective good except by interpreting the collective good as the sum of the individual goods. Hence, in discussing what should be our our podu yahapatha, we need to discus whether we accept the idea of the rational, autonomous individual who freely chooses his individual goods in the market place as the basis of the common good, which is, ironically, equivalent to saying that there is no common good but only the individual good. We need to ask whether the right thing to do is to place the individual good before common good or the public interest . It is not the least reason for such a questioning, that unhindered individualism and the predominance given to the free market bode no good for the common good is borne by that, as commonly observed, they produce alienation of individuals from the collective life resulting in much discussed forms of social dislocation found not only in the Industrialized West but also in the industrializing East.

In a world characterized by individualism, politics becomes not an end with intrinsic value but simply a means to assure “welfare” to the individuals in the community by determining government policy. The ‘minimum state’ or the ‘welfare state’ as different understandings of liberalism would have it, is the instrument of such a politics. Thus, the dominance given to the market in an economy makes the idea of democracy itself hollow reducing politics to looking after individual welfare, and citizenship to exercising one’s voting right to elect mangers to run the welfare programs for the individual benefit. Politics thus becomes the business of politicians, bureaucrats and technocrats. Citizens become the recipients of welfare, and consumers and voters. Civil society individuals who seek the restriction of the state to its necessary minimum considering the state as the threat from which the individuals need to be protected, demand for themselves the political power, which they want to deny to the state. Interest groups and lobbyists take precedence over citizens.

I want to suggest that the stronger understanding of our collective concern with politics is that it understands that politics requires an attention to the good of collective life conceived of as other than the sum of the goods of the individuals who make up the community. Without an overriding sense of the common good and a politics based on that, the ordinary citizens have no say in how their lives are governed. I also want to suggest that our common good needs to be based on the political equality of citizens, democracy, not simply in the form of electoral representation, but a democracy where citizens can actively involve themselves in determining what is good for us as
a collective. It is in developing such an understanding of our collective life which actively involves citizens beyond electoral politics and therefore being passive recipients of individual welfare whether under liberal or socialist rhetoric, that lies the possibility of developing a Sri Lankan ethos.

Economy or Politics: Which comes first?

Therefore, it can be argued that establishing a market economy is not a prerequisite of democracy. It is rather the place we assign to the market economy in our understanding of collective life that will define our democracy. We have to accept that entrepreneurship can be utilized for the common benefit and that markets are immensely productive but if we are to preserve our humanity, we ought not allow the free play of elementary human desires at the market to determine how we understand ourselves as human beings. If we want to excel as human beings we cannot allow the market to dictate terms to us, but instead we must use the free play of market forces to our collective benefit in areas where it is appropriate.

Instead of allowing the economy to decide our politics we should make our politics determine the nature of our economy. No politician true to his vocation can seriously say that economics takes priority over politics without losing his credibility as a politician. What we need is to make our democracy work politically. It is politics that reflect the public interest unlike a pre-determined economic model prescribed by technocrats and only ideologically taken to be a collective good but not in practice. This is borne by that around the world, under the neo-liberal market economy the very idea of citizens having their say and act in determining their own collective good has come increasingly under siege. If people have the opportunity for active involvement, to have their say and to act in public life they will be able to choose the economy that they consider is compatible with their aspirations. It is the public that should determine how to organize our national economy, and what should be considered private goods that are appropriate to be left to the relative free play of the market and what are the public goods that should be collectively managed as to ensure our collective well being. For example, it is not politicians with their pre-determined neo-liberal ideological myths of the virtues of a free market, but the ordinary public, the citizens who use public transport who should collectively determine how we should run our public transport.

Our present understanding of democracy is that we periodically elect representatives to govern us and in the interim we hand over our responsibility as citizens to politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats, civil society individuals, interest groups and lobbyists. This form of representative democracy we inherited from the British needs to be moulded anew into a vibrant public democracy to suit our national ethos. If to invite the public to debate the collective good is togive them the opportunity to participate in determining the collective good, in other words, the first move in the direction of a genuine democratic practice, then we need to take such an invitation to develop a new political culture, to its logical conclusion, by developing a rich public life beyond the level of election rhetoric, where in all matters of collective life, the public is purposively given the opportunity to get actively involved. It is of such imaginative mind and action that true statesmanship is made.

We have to agree that the key to developing a new political culture for the new generations to come is to move away from the rancorous nature of much of politics which has become the bane of Sri Lanka lately, and engage in political dialogue and conversation based on civility. The civility we need to inject into our political life has to be based on the respect for the other whose different opinion we must try to understand as presenting us with a different perspective of the world we commonly share, which appears true for him or her just as much as our own perspective appears true for us. The real political issue is to develop a common understanding out of such diverse perspectives on our common world to make our collective life stable and peaceful.

(For some of the ideas in this article, the writer is indebted to Benjamin R. Barber’s book Strong Democracy, University of California Press.)