COMMENT: Ghareeb awam Munir Attaullah - Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Source :\02\23\story_23-2-2011_pg3_2

In agricultural societies, where land was the basic resource, wealth acquisition was a zero-sum game; it was acquired at the expense of others. In modern urban society, wealth creation is a cooperative effort; I am better off if you are better off

The bad news is that our economy is in a mess. Worse, in such circumstances, few politicians or media personalities these days seem able to resist the temptation of projecting themselves as populists. After all, there are no costs attached to such rhetoric, and the posturing may — nay, surely does — help polish that all important public image.

It has come to this: if one does not — somewhere along the line — regurgitate that stock phrase, Hamare ghareeb awam musalsal ghurbat ki chakki mein pisste chaley ja rahe hain [Our poor public continues to be ground by the millstones of poverty], you are not a concerned citizen. Does it matter in what context the phrase is used? Why man, must you ask a stupid question?

It does not stop there, of course. For good measure, to further bolster their credentials as staunchly pro the ghareeb awam, it also seems obligatory to add that spicy bit about, Aik taraf yay haal hai aur doosri taraf hukmaraan tabqay ko apni ayyashion say fursat hi nahin miltee [While on one side we see this, on the other side the ruling class cannot have enough of luxuries].

Keep up the good work, folks! Do your little bit to promote the culture of hate that is the bane of our society. And why should you have any guilt feelings about the all too predictable natural consequences of such stirring of public passions? After all, are you not always the first to express your anguish, and condemn in solemn tones, senseless violence?

(As an aside, is there any good news in all the foregoing? Readers know my love for unlikely paradoxes. So, yes, there is some good news too. At least (and at last!), the truth is finally beginning to dawn upon us the hard way that the make-or-break issue we need to focus on as a nation is not Islam, Kashmir, jihad, India, or America. It is our economy, and our economic well-being. Give thanks for such small mercies.)

But let us get back on track. I, for one, am not a little irritated and tired of such constant and meaningless public display of gut-wrenching emotionalism. For, I suspect, there is more than an element in it of the hypocrisy that is standard operating procedure with most of us (actually, I wanted to use a much stronger phrase — such as ‘maddened’, or ‘incensed’ — to express my true inner feelings; but then I am a civilised sort of fellow who believes in public self-restraint). On the other hand, who can deny that such sentiments have more than a grain of truth in them? So what should I do?

As is my wont, I decided on a thought experiment where I would get together in my mind some typical protagonists to debate the issue to my satisfaction. So, let Messrs FOOL (Famous Oracular Obscurantist Looney), PBUH (Pious Boring Urban Hypocrite), and ICON (Intrepid Critic Of Nonsense) come centre-stage and thrash out between themselves this whole matter of the ghareeb awam.

FOOL (in a booming voice): Are the poor not as equally human as the rich? Is it not outrageous that a select few live extravagant lifestyles while the vast majority of our people do not even — as my friend IK is so fond of saying — have access to clean drinking water?

ICON (quietly): Agreed that qua humans we are all the same, though that does not mean we are all equal (or should be so considered) in all respects. I also agree glaring economic disparities are abhorrent to all civilised caring people and a blot on society. But tell me, what makes you think life is — or even meant to be — inherently fair? Have there not always been — and always will be — poor and rich? Are the rich duty-bound not to live extravagantly, but to use their wealth instead for the betterment of the poor? Conversely, do the poor have a right to a share of the wealth of the prosperous? If so, why, and, what should be that share?

PBUH: Why are you trying to confuse matters? If you agree with FOOL, that is the end of the matter, and your counter-questions are irrelevant. Anyway, as far as I am concerned, Islam is a complete and perfect code of life. All would be well if only everyone followed its injunctions, like I do. But what are you really trying to say?

ICON: I am not trying to confuse matters but clarify them. My point is, let us make a distinction between what may be socially desirable as a practical matter (in the interests of public harmony and political stability), and the more stringent concepts of rights and duties. Thus, I am not aware that Islam grants the poor any legal rights upon the wealth of the poor, or imposes any legal duties upon the rich (beyond the small percentage that is zakat) to either share their wealth or not spend it on themselves in whatever manner they like. So why bring in Islam?

FOOL: Suppose I accept what you say. But is it not unfair that the rich do not pay their due share of taxes? Taxes that, in turn, could be used to provide all those essential public services like public health, education, etc, etc?

ICON: Yes, agreed. But, once again, let us be clear about the whys and wherefores, instead of being swayed by impractical emotional rhetoric. The battlefield of social and political philosophy is historically littered with the corpses of attractive, beguiling theories that were eventually found wanting under testing field conditions. For, the protective defensive armour of our evolutionary heritage — the greed, ambition, and selfishness that is encoded in our genes as ‘human nature’ — proved too thick to penetrate for the battering rams of such theories. Let us not therefore repeat historical mistakes by fighting nature. Instead, let us seek solutions to practical problems in a realistic and reasoned manner.

PBUH: I have not understood a word of what you have said. Anyway, I don’t care. I know that Islam is the only answer. I say, abolish interest and bring in the just social and economic model that is Islam.

ICON: Where and when has that worked in the last 1,400 years?

FOOL: So what do you suggest?

ICON: What we need is to understand the modern and rational underpinning of social and economic theory. Until a century ago there was no concept of an income tax, or that education, health, etc, are public rights and government responsibilities. These are modern ideas that do not depend so much on emotional and moral rhetoric as on practical realism. In agricultural societies, where land was the basic resource, wealth acquisition was a zero-sum game; it was acquired at the expense of others. In modern urban society, wealth creation is a cooperative effort; I am better off if you are better off, so that you have the purchasing power to afford more of my goods and services. The raising of public finances through sensible taxation policies is not so much a matter of redistribution of wealth as it is to provide the infrastructure and long-term investment that will be beneficial to the community as a whole.

PBUH & FOOL (together): How do you expect the ordinary person to understand all your rubbish? Don’t they need something simple to hang on to?

ICON: You are right. This is a problem. But this is the challenge that modern politicians and media must confront. And, especially, to explain that all this will take time and can only be done gradually. Of course the commitment to the task must be absolute.

Are they up to this task? I will let you be the judge where most of our lot is leading us.

The writer is a businessman. A selection of his columns is now available in book form. Visit

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