With a Grain of Salt: The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta
Over the past few weeks, I was reading in the newspapers about various decisions made, and I cannot help but wonder whether these people have simply taken leave of their senses. I know common sense is rather uncommon and depends largely upon where you stand, but one would think that governments would have a bit of a long-term perspective on their decisions. The four decisions/debates that I got bewildered about relate to the Muslim Policeman who refused to guard the Israeli Embassy in London, the European Union trying to force the working time directive in the United Kingdom, the decision by a state in India to remove learning of English in schools and concentrate on the vernacular language and finally the decision by the Iranian Government to restrict Internet speeds.
What is the connection? In each of these situations, one can clearly see that the government or public authorities have decided to take a step that is not thought through properly and is made for the short-term only, disregarding the long-term for quite silly reasons. But the problem with democracy as well as public institutional decision making is, that when a wrong precedent is established, it sits there, influencing and decaying future decisions. While, ostensibly, these decisions were good at the time they were made, over the medium and long term, they will cause some serious issues. Let us see how in each of these cases this wrong decision can play out in the long term. The impacts of these would be on the security of a country, the economic well being of a country/continent and finally the economic well being of an entire populace.
Take this situation with a Muslim police officer refusing to stand guard in front of the Israeli Embassy in London. Without going into the details, I found this amazing. The British Police or a civil service is considered one of the last incorruptible institutions left in the world. If there is anything that England can be proud of, it is their police force and civil service. Yes, I know about the unfortunate shooting of the Brazilian in the aftermath of 7/7, but over millions of yearly incidents, mistakes and accidents happen. If there is a health and safety issue, it is understandable. For example, some years ago, there was a question of Sikhs wearing the helmet and the result was that the police agreed to have Sikhs wear colour turbans. However, please note that this has nothing to do with the police's primary purpose of protection. Take the Metropolitan Police in London whose stated objective is, "working together for a safer London". By allowing religious beliefs to over-ride this primary purpose, this basic purpose is violated. What next? A Hindu vegetarian police officer refusing to guard a supermarket because it sells meat? The thin blue line has now got a dash in it which is not good for civil society at all. Being pragmatic is good, but this has moved into pandering.
While this police issue can be looked at as a triumph of individual rights over group/societal rights, the next issue flips the other way around. The European Union, in its infinite wisdom, has decreed that nobody can work for more than a set number of hours (depending upon the country, generally between 25-40 hours). One can immediately see the problem and the UK Government did, and negotiated an opt-out. In other words, when one joins a firm, one can choose whether to opt out or opt into this piece of legislation. What this allows is to let firms and employees decide and manage how they want to deploy their time. And as long as you don't violate health and safety laws (for example, airline pilots, train drivers, doctors whose productivity/efficiency drop over long hours and can cause serious physical harm to others), I see absolutely no reason for anybody telling me how long I can work.
As we have seen from the examples in some continental European countries, people go through seriously cockamamie ways to address this silly issue. So on the pretext that they are trying to save the work vs. life balance and stop the evil capitalists from working the workers to the bone, the EC pushed this through. One would have thought that people who think this is important enough would implement it in their countries and that would be it. But no! They have to make sure that other countries also follow their bizarre thought processes. Why did they do so? Because, as is with free labour, the United Kingdom started attracting the hard workers from across the continent. Also, partially because of the flexible labour market, the unemployment rate is lower in the UK. On the continent, it seems that keeping people in jobs is more important than generating jobs, but there you go. Only recently, a prospective French Presidential candidate declared that there have to be minimum social standards across Europe and this working hours exemption should be removed. More like, minimum stupid economic decisions across Europe. And more importantly, they want to hide their stupidity which gets shown up by other countries. A classic example of a good intentioned step, which causes greater harm in the long term.
The third classic example is that Karnataka, a state in Southern India, dithered on whether English should be compulsory in schools [ED: The Government has finally seen reason, and it is]. One may ask, how does this matter? Well, you may have heard about Bangalore, the offshore capital of the world, to where international companies and organisations make a beeline, to take advantage of the low cost English speaking highly educated labour force. So to protect the local vernacular Kannada language, they decide to play footloose with the job market and throw away one of the major factors behind the fast increasing offshoring market. By all means, do teach the local language to protect it, but also teach the international language. Compare that with another state in India, which decided to push its students harder by mandating the textbooks of one grade to the grade below. The idea behind it being that given higher competition across the globe, if the students can leap the knowledge frontier by one year, the student benefits and the entire state benefits.
The final strange decision is from Iran which has decided to ask all the internet service providers to reduce the online speeds to a maximum of 128 kbps. The Guardian reported that the Iranian Ministry of Telecommunications has decided on this step so that the Iranian youth are not exposed to western music, television, films etc. Apparently, this will help protect the Iranian culture, make it difficult by opposition groups to upload information to the net, As the Guardian reports, Iran is second (after China) on the number of websites which are censored or banned by the authorities. Say what? Why don't they go back to Hammurabi's time and only allow stone and clay tablets to be used for communications? In a way, it makes sense, after all, open communication is very dangerous, it can blow away some of the cobwebs. Speaking to an Iranian friend, this was picked up as a major reason why she is finding an ever increasing number of Iranian students emigrating to other countries. While rest of the world is moving at break-neck speed to embrace the Internet, we have some who want to move back to the stone ages.
The last three examples are examples of bad decisions taken, which might not hit people that badly, after all, poverty only sickens. As we have seen from the first example of the police officer, this kind of political behaviour can be seriously injurious to one's health and security. The balance between short-term gain and long term gain, individual rights versus group rights, protection of a language versus economic security are all tough decisions. If we get these decisions wrong, they will not affect us overtly, but will contribute to the general diminution of what a state is all about. One hopes that some of these decisions would be reconsidered once sufficient water has passed under the Thames, Seine and Kaveri.
All this to be taken with a grain of salt!
PS: I understand that the Karnataka Government went around that decision. See here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6046350.stm
With a Grain of Salt: The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions
- » Published on November 15, 2006
- » Type: Opinion
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- » This is part of a regular feature, With a Grain of Salt.