Why we fear a free market

Imagine a scenario in which, following the American Civil War between the slave-owning South and the industrialised North, the freed slaves were to stage an agitation demanding that the chains from which they had been released be put back on them.

Sounds daft. But an analogous development is taking place in today’s India where farmers in Punjab and Haryana, instigated by politicians with vested interests, are protesting against the agrarian reforms initiated by the BJP-led government.

Even as a hullabaloo erupted in Parliament there were widespread demonstrations against the new legislation in the two states which together constitute the grain basket of the country.

So what’s all the ruckus about? The new laws seek to do away with the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) system by which farmers are constrained by law to sell what they grow in officially approved mandis run by politically connected middlemen.

The APMC – which traces its roots to a 1860s British raj decree by which the price of Indian cotton was kept artificially low to benefit the textile mills of Lancashire – is in effect a form of bonded labour, economic slavery by another name.

The mandi cartelisation forces farmers to sell their produce at depressed prices to middlemen who rake in huge profits by selling it on at increasingly inflated prices along a supply chain which ensures that the end user, the consumer, pays many times more than the value received by the producer.

By scrapping the APMC protocols and allowing agriculturists to sell their produce to whoever they choose in a free market, the new legislation will be good both for farmers as well as consumers. So why are farmers opposing their freedom from economic bondage? Though the government has made it clear that the Minimum Support Price (MSP) safety net will remain in place to safeguard them against exploitation, the farmers’ fears have been stoked by raising the bogey of a rapaciously exploitative Big Business which follows Gordon Gecko’s mantra that `Greed is good’, and the devil take the hindmost, which is the so-called common man.

Ever since Nehru chose the path of socialism over that of free market capitalism our polity has fostered dependence on a mai-baap sarkar which, among other things, will protect us from the machinations of capitalist moneybags who, if given half a chance, will defraud us, like a Vijay Mallya or a Nirav Modi have done.

Despite the innumerable scams and scandals in which politicians and bureaucrats at various levels have been implicated, we have been indoctrinated to place our trust in the sarkari-run public sector rather than in private enterprise.

The capitalist-socialist, or private sector-public sector, divide is specious to the extent that both use capital as their base, the only difference being that capitalism uses capital raised by an individual, or a corporate, while socialism uses state capital, in other words the taxpayers’ money.

Both systems can be misused, and often are. Venality and the temptation to make a fast and dishonest buck are the pitfalls of private capital, lack of accountability and efficiency is the bane of state capital: if it’s public money, everyone’s money, then its no one’s money, in that no individual or group of individuals is responsible for how it is used.

The Achilles’ heel of state capital is that it lacks competition, what Adam Smith called `the hidden hand of God’, the inbuilt checks and balances of a free market which ensure that everyone gets a fair deal.

But successive paternalistic regimes in over 70 years of Independence have made us dependent on sarkari sops, be they in the form of loan melas, subsidised rice or LPG cylinders, or reservations for jobs, all of which are antithetical to the functioning of a free market.

The current opposition to the agricultural reforms is one more indication of how thoroughly we’ve been programmed against economic emancipation in any form, and continue to embrace its opposite.

To paraphrase Marx’s rallying call, “Farmers of India unite! You have nothing to retain but your chains.”

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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