## Friday, May 21, 2010

### There is an undersupply of criticism

Freedom of speech, and trenchant criticism, is of course central to civilisation. Too often, people jump to the conclusion that in communist China there is no freedom of speech, but in democratic India, all is well on this score. This represents an underestimation of how hard it is, to get to freedom of speech.

The heart of the problem is: The people who are supposed to speak up maximise for themselves and not for society. The costs of being a critic -- by being at the receiving end of hostility from a government or a corporation or a powerful individual -- are paid by the individual. The benefits of having a critic mostly accrue to society at large and are not captured by the critic. The individual engages in criticism upto the point where personal benefits are balanced against personal costs. The solution to this optimisation is a point where the production of criticism is too low, from the viewpoint of society at large.

Most people think about this in a simple way: A person speaks up, offends the rich and powerful, gets into trouble. Here is an example of that trajectory - a story by Andy Mukherjee about how Lim Teck Ghee lost his job, and here is contentSutra on these classic threats to freedom of speech. The organisation Freedom House' produces an annual measurement of Freedom of the Press. Their 2010 results show India at rank 72nd in the world (alongside Hong Kong) with a score of 33 and classified as Partly Free'. The BSST countries do better with South Korea (rank 67), South Africa (rank 70) and worse with Brazil at rank 88 and Turkey at rank 106.

I feel there are three larger dimensions to this problem, going beyond the simple direct attacks on freedom of speech.

### I. Official cooperation that corrupts

A Western researcher invests his entire human capital in China studies. But to produce papers on China critically requires cooperation from the Chinese government. Hence, the incentives which apply at the level of the individual lead to an undersupply of criticism.

Read Emily Parker, in the New York Times, on how the world is engaged in self-censorship when it comes to China. In this context, it is worth reading Have all China scholars been bought? by Carsten A. Holz in the Far Eastern Economic Review (we loved thee well) from April 2007.

For a striking contrast, look back at Sovietology, which was done without cooperation from the communist regime. There, the supply of criticism was plentiful since the unhappiness of the USSR did not influence the intellectuals. I do believe that played a role in shaping the minds of people like Andrei Sakharov or Nadezhda Mandelstam, and that made all the difference.

A critic of China would say: Where is your Andrei Sakharov? One Chinese response would be: Where is your Darkness at noon'?, for part of the answer lies in the treason of the intellectuals in the West.

I have seen many similar examples of official control leading to incentives for researchers to not speak up. For example, for all practical purposes, it is hard to do monetary economics in India without cooperation from RBI. It is not surprising that most monetary economists in India do not criticise RBI.

### II. Profit maximising firms have little commitment to enlightenment values

The second dimension of this problem is the difficulties faced by private firms and their employees. Barring Google, all large Western firms have cooperated with the Chinese communist party. When faced with a hostile State, the firm focuses on profit maximisation and forgets about enlightenment values.

I noticed this paragraph in an article Foreign Companies Chafe at China's Restrictions also in the New York Times by Keith Bradsher:
They say, Don't show us broken models; we're looking for a completely different way,' and you see a much greater willingness to experiment with completely untested policies,'' said a senior executive at a multinational who insisted on anonymity for fear of retaliation by Chinese regulators.
This highlights the atmosphere of fear which shapes information and opinions about China in the public domain.

In India, employees of RBI-regulated firms do not have the freedom of speech to criticise RBI. The retribution which has been applied in the past is quite mild. But not much is required in order to scare people from speaking up; to get to the outcome where people working for RBI-regulated firms practice self-censorship. This yields an environment of diminished discussion which hampers sound decision making by RBI.

### III. Blackmail by a surveillance state

The third dimension is related to the larger problems of privacy and protection of the individual. Every critic has personal foibles. A society in which the government has ample information about critics is one in which a critic can be blackmailed by the government. This is one factor generating docility amongst intellectuals in China.

As Janet Reitman says in the Rolling Stone:
... whistle-blowers are almost always complex, often compromised outliers. And while moral outrage surely plays a large part in a whistle-blower's decision to come forward, so may a combination of anger, revenge, hurt feelings, opportunism or financial benefit. The question, ultimately, is whether their questionable motivations or checkered past make their words any less credible.
India is rushing headlong into an environment where the government controls vast amounts of information about citizens (all neatly indexed by a single key, the UID). We should think twice about this, for it could threaten the foundations of democracy.

### Genuine freedom of speech is hard to achieve

We often think freedom of speech is a natural state, particularly for us argumentative Indians. But genuine freedom of speech is actually a difficult state to achieve, since relatively small threats and abuse of power are enough to stifle criticism. We need to, hence, go out of our way to strengthen the position and personal incentives of critics.

Conversely, when a country steps out from dictatorship and tries to become a democracy, this is truly hard. It has taken many decades for India to build up to the existing half-decent quality of public discussion. This soft infrastructure, of the checks and balances of liberal democracy, is hard to achieve.

### Goverment versus individual: Singapore versus India

A few years ago, the Singapore government got unhappy about some remarks by a Morgan Stanley analyst named Andy Xie. They forced the firm to sack him. The offending text -- from a personal email that he wrote -- was:

The dinner was turned into an Oprah with PM Lee Hsein Long (sic) at the center. The topic was on the future of globalization. People fawned him like a prince. Of course, he is. There are two reigning princes in the world that the Davos crowd kiss up to, Jordan and Singapore. The Davos crowd are Republican on economic issues and democratic on social issues. Somehow they manage to put aside their moral misgivings and kiss up to Lee Hsein Long and Abdullah.