Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Economics of intolerance

“I have seen great intolerance shown in support of tolerance”. This is a cynical but wise statement made by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an English poet, literary critic, philosopher and a friend of William Wordsworth. This oxymoronic observation   only highlights the importance of tolerance. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding”.

We as a nation are passing through a phase of aggravated intolerance, aggravated by many politicians, right and left. (Bihar elections have brought it to a boil.) This has necessitated the resort to moral suasion by our President. Pranab Mukherjee has pointed out that we are a country of 1.3 billion people speaking 122 languages and 1,600 dialects and professing seven faiths. He has exhorted that multiplicity is India’s collective strength which must be preserved at all costs. Politicians on both sides of the political divide need to remember this.

Dr.S.Radhakrishnan, a former President, has philosophically defined tolerance as the homage paid by the finite mind to the inexhaustibility of the Infinite. Swami Vivekananda explained the essence of India’s heritage in the Parliament of World Religions at Chicago thus: We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth.”

We are used to statesmen, philosophers and monks emphasizing the need for tolerance. But when even central bankers, industrialists and research arms of credit rating institutions speak out on this theme, it means that the society is on razor edge and it is time to wake up. This is what happened on October 31st when the RBI Governor, Raghuram Rajan delivered the Convocation Address at his alma mater, IIT Delhi.

Choosing to speak on “Tolerance and Respect for Economic Progress”, he explained why India’s tradition of debate and an open spirit of enquiry is critical for its economic progress. Economic growth will flourish only in the presence of innovative rebellion against fossilized thoughts and practices and absence of prejudice or intolerance towards alternative viewpoints. “So what does an educational institution or a nation need to do to keep the idea factory open? The first essential is to foster competition in the market place for ideas. This means encouraging challenge to all authority and tradition, even while acknowledging that the only way of dismissing any view is through empirical tests. What this rules out is anyone imposing a particular view or ideology because of their power. Instead, all ideas should be scrutinised critically, no matter whether they originate domestically or abroad, whether they have matured over thousands of years or a few minutes, whether they come from an untutored student or a world-famous professor.”
 Does this not remind us of what Sage Thiruvalluvar said a couple of millennia ago? “From whomsoever one hears an idea, it is wisdom to understand the true import of it.” (Thirukkural 43:3)
Raghuram Rajan pointed out that ideas start with questioning and alternative viewpoints, sometimes seemingly silly ones and that without this competition for ideas, we have stagnation. To drive home the importance of accommodating alternative approaches, he gave instances like Raja Raja Chola, in building the magnificent Brihadeeswara Shaivite temple at Thanjavur, also incorporating sculptures of Vishnu as well as the meditating Buddha thus admitting to alternative viewpoints. When Shahenshah Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar invited scholars of all manner of persuasion to debate the eternal verities at his court, he was only following older traditions of our Hindu and Buddhist kings, who encouraged and protected the spirit of enquiry.
Both intolerance and licentiousness are equally bad because as Rajan clarified, excessive political correctness stifles progress as much as excessive license and disrespect. Therefore, there is an economic price to be paid if we entertain either dogmatism or disorderliness.  
Rajan gave a robust definition of tolerance saying it means not being so insecure about one’s ideas that one cannot subject them to challenge – it implies a degree of detachment that is absolutely necessary for mature debate. In the process, he quoted Mahatma Gandhi who had said, “The golden rule of conduct is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and we shall always see Truth in fragments and from different points of vision.” (This Gandhian rule is analogous to the concept of ‘multiple equilibria’ in Economics.)
Industrialists like N.R.Narayanamurthy and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw have also voiced concern over the spread of strife and intolerance in the country. The Infosys founder has remarked that that no country can make economic progress unless it removes strife and reassures its minorities, religious and others. Moody’s Analytics has also signaled the urgent need for reining in the fringe elements engaging in the cacophony of intemperate messages and eroding government’s credibility. Intolerance is not unknown to other countries. Racial hatred is a defining characteristic of America. Many Islamic countries barring exceptions like Indonesia do not know what tolerance is. Communist countries like Russia and China were never paragons of tolerance. But let us not compare ourselves with these notorious examples.
To conclude, bigotry is poor politics and poorer economics. Promoting tolerance will pep up our GDP growth. Hopefully, the conclusion of elections in Bihar will cool the social temperature in India.

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