Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The convenience of the citizen or the convenience of the government?

Road safety is a problem in India. The authorities are getting push back from the citizenry about the carnage on the roads. What is convenient for them is: to shut down roads.

Finding terrorists is difficult. Terrorists can use open wifi networks or trains. What is convenient for the authorities is to shut down open wifi networks or trains.

Achieving safety in public spaces late in the night is difficult. What is convenient for the authorities is to force all establishments to close down at 10 PM.

In similar fashion, I was disappointed to read Chanpreet Khurana in Mint write about how the Delhi Metro is trying to achieve safety of women: through gender segregation. This is profoundly wrong. Women must have complete flexibility to dress as they like, go where they like, and at any time they like. Anything less than that is a reduction of personal freedom of women. It is the job of the State to achieve extreme levels of safety while never interfering with the freedom of women. Gender segregation is a cop out. It will lead to a worsening of safety of women, by emphasising to the authorities that they actually don't have to figure out how to achieve a sound criminal justice system. The next time a woman gets attacked in a mixed-gender coach, she will be blamed for having been in the wrong place.

The rules of society must be designed to maximise the freedom of citizens. It is only in a police state that a policeman's job is easy. Decisions should not be taken which make life convenient for bureaucrats and politicians. Achieving a capable State is hard work! That is what politicians and bureaucrats must do, as opposed to finding easy ways to dodge the problem. We have to hold their feet in the fire, else they will readily wriggle out using these excuses which are bad for citizens, avoid the problem of building State capacity, and perpetuate an incompetent State. On a related note, see Faulty tradeoffs in security, on this blog.

It is very convenient for bureaucrats to ban things in Indian finance and cut Indian finance off from the world. This reduces their work. Why bother learning about credit default swaps when you can just ban them? Blocking a capable financial system is easier than restructuring regulatory organisations, enacting new laws, recruiting high quality staff, and setting up sound business processes. The strategy of blocking the emergence of a capable Indian financial system is self-serving and convenient; it avoids the difficult work of actually constructing capable financial regulators. As Percy Mistry says, in Indian finance, instead of regulators adapting themselves to the needs of the financial system, we have the financial system distorting itself to fit the needs of the regulators. In an accountable democracy, it must be the State that constantly adapts to achieve freedom for each citizen.

There is a principal-agent problem between citizens and State. The principal wants the agent to serve their goals, i.e. to produce public goods at the lowest possible cost, and to not abuse power by meddling in the lives of citizens. The agent wants to be lazy and inefficient, to steal, and to abuse power. We should be cautious: we should not hear the views of the agent on what the principal should do, and we should not accept solutions that are convenient for the agent such as gender-segregated coaches in Delhi metro.

1 comment:

  1. As a woman, I agree that women should have complete freedom to dress as they please. But the article in the Mint just glamorised the gender segregation in the Delhi Metro. It has been practiced in the Mumbai local trains for ages. It allows the Mumbai ladies (relatively one of the most independent in the country) to travel freely (unescorted) in any part of the cıty at any time of the day or late night.


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