By W.A. Wijewardena –
The development philosophy of the present Government, as pronounced in the Annual Report of the Ministry of Finance and Planning for 2011 released two weeks ago, is a blend of social justice with economic progress (p 14). This is a laudable goal which goes well with the current development thinking of the world.
The Ministry report has further clarified its philosophy as one that does not concentrate merely on the economic progress. Instead, it will endeavour to bring prosperity to Sri Lanka by developing social, cultural, religious and environmental aspects as well. It has prided itself on being first to introduce this philosophy to Sri Lanka.
All past development philosophies of Sri Lanka, according to the Ministry of Finance, have been either growth without social justice or social justice without growth. For instance, the policy package adopted prior to 2005, the year in which the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa took office as President of the country, had been biased toward economic progress at the expense of social justice.
The reference here is to the policy adopted by Sri Lanka since 1977 when the country moved to a free market economy policy till the installation of the incumbent President in 2005. Then the policy package which had been adopted by the country prior to 1977 had been on the opposite side.
The Ministry has branded it as a policy that had tried to establish social progress at the cost of economic progress. Hence, according to the Ministry Report, the period since 2005 offers a unique case where both economic progress and social justice have been blended together thereby carving out a more holistic path for the nation to tread on.
Incidentally, in a substantial part of the period prior to 2005 and 1977, it was the same political force that rules the country today that had tried to implement the economic philosophies of these two polar ends which have now been condemned by the Ministry of Finance as inappropriate for Sri Lanka’s destiny.
Government’s strategy: Attain high economic growth
However, the strategies which the Government is planning to employ in order to build social justice, again as laid down in the Ministry Report, are all concerned about attaining economic progress and not about those social, cultural, religious and environmental developments.
The only strategy that has some relation to them is the development of some ‘green cities’ around the country but the environmental sustainability of development is much wider and more complex than the mere establishment of a dozen of green cities.
While such green cities would definitely add value to Sri Lanka’s urban life, it is merely a marginal gain in the vast field of what economists today call the sustainability of environment. Environmental sustainability, for that reason, requires a nation to maintain a proper balance between the use of environment and environmental degradation so that environment will continue to remain intact over the longer cycle of economic progress.
The Ministry Report has predicted that Sri Lanka’s prosperity will rise in leaps and bounds in the next five-year period. According to the Ministry, the country’s total output, also known as the Gross Domestic Product or GDP, will rise from $ 59 billion in 2011 to $ 98 billion in 2016, recording an annual growth of 13 per cent on average year after year. This would also increase the country’s per capita income from $ 2,836 in 2011 to $ 4,470 in 2016, again a growth of nearly 12 per cent per annum over this period.
Since the annual average inflation during this period is projected to be at around six per cent, to make these targets a reality, the country has to grow in real terms at seven per cent every year while maintaining the exchange rate at the current level or if the exchange rate depreciates from the current level, a faster growth than seven per cent per annum.
Fixing the exchange rate at the current level for such a long period, despite the obvious higher inflation in Sri Lanka than its global trading partners, is a daunting challenge faced by the country’s policy authorities. Such a policy necessarily calls upon the policy authorities to sacrifice a good part of the planned growth prospects as has been shown by the recent events where growth had to be downscaled from a targeted rate of above eight per cent previously to below seven per cent in 2012 after there was a massive forced exchange rate depreciation.
Government’s plan: Develop the domestic economy
The Government will, as presented by the Ministry of Finance in the Annual Report, adopt a multi-pronged approach to achieve its goal of development. It plans to transform Sri Lanka to a modern knowledge-based, environmentally friendly economy with a well-connected rural-urban network providing benefits to everyone.
The basic framework of the economy to be established within the country is a market based economy in which the Government would intervene to tackle market failures and market manipulations by interested parties. The Ministry has emphasised that “building a domestic economy and adding value to domestic resources are important aspects of this strategy” (p 14).
In essence, the type of the economy which is being designed for Sri Lanka under this new philosophy in which the Government is taking pride is an economy that produces all its requirements within its borders. If some or a major part of these goods are not sold to foreigners by way of exports, the local population will have to consume almost all of those products to make the economy sustainable.
Aim of social justice: Attain self-perfection
‘Social justice’ is a wider concept than the social, cultural, religious and environmental aspects which the government is planning to promote in its new development philosophy. The ultimate aim of social justice is to help people, both individually and collectively, to harness all opportunities in the society to attain a state called self-perfection.
Amartya Sen’s view of social justice
Economics Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, in his 2009 book ‘The Idea of Justice,’ has presented social justice in a form different from what is perceived as social justice by the Ministry of Finance.
Social justice for the Ministry is economic growth plus social, cultural, religious and environmental upheaval. But according to Sen, social justice is fairness and freedom and its first pillar is democracy.
Sen’s version of democracy is not the popular version known as ‘the government of the people, by the people and for the people’ credited to onetime US President Abraham Lincoln, but ‘government by discussion’ originally proposed by the 19th century English philosopher and liberal thinker John Stuart Mill.
The discussion takes place, according to Sen, at every stage when new policies are introduced or existing policies are amended by a government. Such a discussion enriches the understanding of both the people and the rulers of issues of the society involved. The advantage of discussion is that it enables the rulers to amend their policies in accordance with the views of the people if their policies are not acceptable to them.
Lichchavis in India: Democracy by discussion
The regular discussion which Sen has emphasised as an essential ingredient of democracy had not been unknown to Asians. In fact it had been practised faithfully by Lichchavi clan leaders who ruled the first Republican state in India during the Buddha’s time.
As preached by the Buddha in the Saarandada Aparahaaniya Sutra, canonised in Anguttara Nikaya, of the seven good governance principles which Lichchavis had practised and made them indomitable, the first three are relating to good discussion.
Accordingly, Lichchavis had been meeting regularly to make decisions for their wellbeing, they had been united as a single force and they had taken great care not to enact laws that had not been enacted and not to violate laws that had been enacted. As long as the Lichchavis practised these principles, the Buddha preached, that they could not be defeated.
Kautilya’s recommendation: King should entertain public petitions
Even Kautilya, the 4th century BCE Indian economist, philosopher and statesman who wrote the first treatise on economics, The Arthashastra, has recommended that the king should spend at least one and a half hours in the morning to hear petitions of the city and the country people on various aspects of government policy.
Kautilya has further recommended that the king shall not make petitioners wait at the door but attend to them promptly himself. What it means is that, though a king is an absolute monarch, should make himself accessible to people for discussion of government policy concerning them.
The first pillar of social justice: Democracy by discussion
Accordingly, the first pillar of social justice is democracy and an essential feature of democracy is the opportunity afforded to people of a country to be consulted at every stage of decision making. But it is necessary for governments to create conditions for people to engage themselves in ‘reasoned and interactive discussions’ supported by the availability of necessary information.
The foremost act of facilitation which a government should do in this connection is the creation of suitable ground conditions for the free dissemination of information, irrespective of whether such information is favourable or adverse to its very existence. If there are impediments for information dissemination, information becomes costly and it is unlikely that private citizens would sacrifice resources to keep themselves armed with information; in such an event, there cannot be effective and productive discussion in the society leading to a failure of democracy.
“Democracy has to be judged,” says Sen, “not just by institutions that formally exist but by the extent to which different voices from diverse sections of the people can actually be heard”. Hence, the second pillar of social justice is the freedom of thought and freedom and expression.
The second pillar of social justice: Freedom of thought and freedom of expression
The freedom of thought is suppressed by societies at all levels of their operations to ensure the realisation of a single objective: conformity of people’s beliefs and values to an established order. As long as people speak of thoughts confirming or endorsing the established beliefs and values, it is supported and promoted by society. Accordingly, governments, religions, ethnic groups, castes and different sub cultures of society support conforming views and oppose what is called rebellious or heretic views.
However, it is not the conforming views that usher prosperity, wellbeing and perfection of the members of a society, loosely categorised under ‘social justice’. Such conforming views cause a society to stagnate and eventually perish. They help a society to maintain the status quo, a state of non – growth. It is the rebellious or heretic views that question the established views, beliefs and values that usher prosperity, wellbeing and perfection of society’s members.
The third pillar of social justice: Equality and liberty
The third pillar of social justice – arising from the first two pillars – is the equality and liberty, which Sen has categorised as materials of justice. Sen says in The Idea of Justice that in an earlier book he wrote in 1992 under the title ‘Inequality, Reexamined’ he commented “on the fact that every normative theory of social justice that has received support and advocacy in recent times seems to demand equality of something” (p 291). That something encompasses such diverse equalities as equal liberty, equal income, equal treatment of everyone’s rights and utilities, etc.
The respect for equality demands liberty since equality cannot be ensured without ensuring liberty which looks at people from an impartial and objective point: You respect my liberty so that I respect your liberty and therefore for me to ensure your equality, you should ensure my equality. According to Sen, liberty touches the lives of people “at a very basic level and it demands that others should respect these deeply personal concerns that everyone tends to have” (p 299).
The fourth pillar of social justice: Rule of Law
The third pillar of social justice gives rise to a fourth pillar, namely, the Rule of Law which was discussed in detail in a previous My View under the title “Rule of Law or Rule of Men: What will usher prosperity and development?” (available at http://www.ft.lk/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/DFT-131.jpg).
It was argued in that paper that respecting the Rule of Law will help a nation to maintain law and order and maintaining law and order is essential for the protection of property rights – the wealth which people accumulate in both material and intellectual form and held individually and collectively.
The long term prosperity of a nation is very much dependent on the undiminished desire of its people to enterprise, innovate and create new things and that desire is stunted if property rights are not properly protected in a society.
This is because when the violation of property rights is tolerated, one person could rob another person and still walk out with impunity and it is not the best atmosphere for people to develop the properties of their own to make a worthwhile contribution to the society. It makes everyone a robber and a society of robbers cannot prosper because very soon no enough wealth is produced by honest people to enable the robbers to rob. The result is obvious and that society will perish pretty soon.
Pluralistic society and pluralistic freedom
In a society where diverse people of ethnicity, religious beliefs, cultural values and beliefs live, liberty means that they should have freedom to pursue their own goals unhindered and unsuppressed. Accordingly, freedom takes a pluralistic form and society should ensure the realisation of such pluralistic goals by its members.
Sen says that if a person’s religious belief is what the government wants to promote through its power and resource base, then, his goal of pursuing a religion of his own is automatically fulfilled. But what is important is what happens when a person pursues a religion which is not favoured or supported by the government. There, the government should not intervene in his choice and provide every support for him to pursue his own religious beliefs.
The best example in this case is, as Sen has mentioned in The Idea of Justice, the Moghul Emperor Akbar who ruled India in the 16th century pronouncing and legalising that “no one should be interfered with on account of religion and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him” (p 304). So, the religious freedom is not the freedom to practise the religion of choice of the state; on the contrary, even to do the opposite if it pleases him.
Social justice: Laudable but create ground conditions
The pursuance of social justice as the guiding philosophy of the present Government, as pronounced by the Ministry of Finance in its Annual Report for 2011, is a laudable act. But, it is not the mere social cultural, religious and environmental developments that have to accompany the pursuance of material economic growth. It requires the Government to lay foundations for the four pillars of social justice, namely, democracy by discussion, freedom of thought and freedom of expression, equality and liberty and finally respecting the Rule of Law.
Without these essential pillars, the social justice being established is incomplete.
(Writer is a former Deputy Governor – Central Bank of Sri Lanka and teaches Development Economics at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. This article first appeared in Daily FT – W.A. Wijewardena can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )