27 April 2007

Oldest Democracy?

Any article about the Indo-US relationship invariably talks about "the world's largest and oldest democracies". We are the world's largest democracy, no doubt. But is the US really the world's oldest democracy? The date considered by people making this case is 1776 (or 1783). But when did American women get the right to vote? In 1920. And when did American blacks get the right to vote? In 1965. So America became a full democracy only in 1965. Whereas we went in for universal adult franchise in 1947 (or 1950) itself. Britain's case is similar to America's. The "mother of democracies" granted her the women the right to vote only in 1928. [The only reason Britain became a full democracy before the US (1928 as against 1965) is that it didn't have a significant racial minority like the latter]

So calling America the "world's oldest democracy" is a stupid joke. The sooner we dump it, the better.

18 April 2007

The Enlightenment

I mentioned that liberalism was a product of the Enlightenment. A few words about this movement are in order.

For a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire (in AD 476) Europe lived in the Dark Ages. Science, art and philosophy were lost. Ignorance and superstition were rampant. The Catholic Church ruled the continent with an iron fist. Then the Scientific Revolution happened. Beginning in 1543 with the discoveries of Copernicus and Vesalius, it climaxed in the 17th century with the work of Galileo and Newton.

Intellectuals were in awe of these achievements. It set them thinking: the foundation of mathematics and science is reason, and if reason could reveal universal truths for science, couldn't it do the same for human life? Couldn't it be applied in politics and economics? Couldn't it be used to fight against ignorance, injustice and inequality? Couldn't it be used to build the perfect man and the perfect society?

The movement began in France (Voltaire, Rousseau) before spreading to other European countries like England (John Locke, Adam Smith) and eventually to America (Jefferson, Franklin). This period (1600's and 1700's) in European history is also called the Age of Reason. Today if we take democracy, liberty, equality and fraternity for granted, it is due in no small measure to the Enlightenment.

17 April 2007

Starvation In Jalpaiguri

1100 people have died of starvation in Jalpaiguri (in West Bengal) in the last two years. The tea gardens that employed these people had been closed down as they were unprofitable due to (what else?) rigid labour laws. When will the so-called protectors of workers see the light? 1100 starvation deaths is a crime of monstrous proportions. In any other country, the bloody government would have been toppled. How many more people must die? Reform labour laws NOW!

16 April 2007

Conservatism (contd)

Modern conservatives look up to Michael Oakeshott (1901-90), not Burke, as their guru. Oakeshott defined conservatism as, "To be conservative is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, the tried to the untried, and the actual to the possible". This sounds more like a definition of timidity and cowardice. However, one could argue that while boldness and risk-taking are good for an individual, at a societal level it is better to go in for incremental change.

As an aside, this article points out that Margaret Thatcher - the darling of conservatives - was anything but conservative. She was a radical.

13 April 2007

Conservatism Vs Liberalism

I've been reading a bit on this topic. Here's an attempt to set down the nuts and bolts of the subject.

The word 'liberal' comes from the Latin word 'liber' which means 'free'. The word 'conservative' comes from the Latin word 'servare' which means 'to preserve'. Liberals thus consider individual liberty as important, whereas conservatives consider tradition as important.

Liberalism arose out of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason. John Locke laid the foundation with his Second Treatise of Government (1689) in which he introduced concepts like rule of law, property rights and freedom of speech. The missing brick was individual liberty, which John Stuart Mill provided in his On Liberty (1859). The case for individual liberty is made based on rational and logical arguments.

Conservatism arose as a reaction to liberalism. The ideas of the Enlightenment inspired the French Revolution (1789). A year later, Edmund Burke argued in Reflections on the Revolution in France that tradition is a better source of wisdom than reason. Society is so complex that it is impossible to conjure a perfect society merely by our reason. It is better to rely on tradition, which is accumulated social experience.

Side note: The intellectual divide of tradition vs reason translates into a practical divide of culture vs politics. Daniel Patrick Moynihan summed it up best when he said, "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success or failure of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change culture, and help save a society from itself."