Democracy and Progress

I enjoy eating at the faculty club on campus, but not for the
food. Its the company. And I particularly like eating at the “big”
table, the one where business school (and some other) faculty
eat. Mostly the older senior faculty, and then there’s usually some of
us younger ones. But for me, there is much wisdom here, as well as a
change of pace. Discussion flows freely in the absence of youthful
ambition.


Sukhi Singh from Engineering the other day explained something most
profound to us all. Since the elections has just finished back in my
native country India, and had resulted in an overwhelming defeat for
the ruling party, despite their presiding over one of the biggest
economic success stories in Asia, we were talking about what had
changed and what had not.


Sukhi (which means happy) said that India would not taste real success
unless a fundamental aspect of its culture changed. He called this the
“premise of distrust”. Every bureaucratic institution in India is
pervaded with this, resulting in a system of intricate checks and
reviews, requiring approval at many levels. You see, since everyone in
India is expected to break the law if not checked repeatedly (and this
is quite a valid assumption mostly), there are stages of checks,
overlaying great chokes on economic endeavor. And then the checkers
too need checking, which greatly raises the possibility of corruption,
which becomes endemic.


In contrast, Sukhi said, the United States functions in a manner with
a premise of trust. Everyone is expected to follow the law, and mostly
everyone does. The checks are ex-post and not ex-ante, for breaking
the law is severely punished, with no exceptions. Creative people are
free of bureaucratic hinderance unless they break the law. But they
are not checked, reviewed, second-guessed or exploited by people with
no ability to provide a proper input on their work.


What struck me later was that this was it. Just trust versus
distrust. While we may continue to fool ourselves that it is democracy
in the U.S. that makes us so productive, it may not be. Freedom surely
paves the way for trust to work its magic, and that freedom is ensured
by democracy, but in the end, its the culture of trust that does
it. Democracy alone would be insufficient. Otherwise, India would be
the most successful country in the world! It is a country with over
80% Hindus, yet the President is Muslim. In the most recent election,
it almost had a women executive head, of Italian origin, born in Rome
(and she would have been the second women to run the nation). The
final choice for Prime Minister is now a sikh, with a degree from
Oxford. If anyone needs evidence that democracy is a western
prerogative, let this be the best counterexample. Compared to India,
democracy in the U.S. is infantile.


But, the culture of trust does make the U.S. unique. We are taught
early to trust ourselves and believe in our thoughts. How many
countries preach this gospel. Which religion even comes close? So,
when the state starts to mistrust us, big brother us, use the Patriot
Act to smother us, it makes us really unhappy. When we are told to
trust them, not ourselves, something is wrong. When government tells
other nations to trust them, not themselves, we insult them with
distrust. And we need to be really careful, because if carried too
far, we will lose the mother lode that makes this country what it
really is. In any case, lets trust in ourselves, instinctively and
surely.

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