Last month I wrote about voting with our money, and how the work we do acts as an endorsement. My grandfather, Ramanand Kalbag, follows me on Facebook. He read my thoughts, and wrote an essay in response. At 87 years old, a retired neurosurgeon, and with a lifetime of writing and speaking on a variety of topics, my grandpa thinks in a more reasoned way than I do, and writes much better too. Of course, there’s grey areas to any topic, but my grandpa takes the time to point them out, with references. With his permission, I’ve published his response below. I’ve added links to Wikipedia entries where relevant.Voting with ones moneyLaura’s quandaryAfter listening to an interview conducted by Jeffrey Zeldman with Jason Fried on The Big Web Show podcast, Laura felt somewhat guilty that she had bought particularly cheap consumer goods whose production may have involved sacrifices made by others, in an article she wrote on 11th January on http://the-pastry-box-project.net.Her concerns were heightened by a discussion she had with Andy Clarke on the Unfinished Business podcast, after which she was left wondering “where the line was between working on something that would be harmful to others and something that would indirectly contribute to the harm of others”. She wants to test herself but, understandably, would not be happy with either. Her concerns are commendable, but, a Manichaean attitude, where actions are viewed as either white or black is unrealistic. In practice distinctions are never that clear; there are always shades of grey in between. The only way one can approach such a topic is pragmatic. Shankara, a medieval Hindu philosopher, defined true knowledge as the ability to grasp both sides of an argument. And unless you know all that is to know, can you make a fair judgement? But one cannot know everything and we can only make decisions in the light of facts available at the time.One should balance the effect of buying a product and the consequences to the worker if you turn away from the deal. Will the exploited worker and/or his family starve because of your isolated act of protest? Have you the time, the energy and the resources to organise a better alternative? Is there an alternative made under fairer conditions? Her analogy about cogs in a wheel without which the wheel wouldn’t turn is appropriate. But what if you are the only cog, would it have any impact?Imagine the plight of a mother whose child is near death’s door: would she worry about what conditions the drug that is most likely to save that child’s life is manufactured? What would her decision be and could you blame her for making her child’s needs, the only criterion, ignoring all other?Many people live such stressful lives that they cannot afford the luxury of spending time weighing up the pros and cons of every purchase made or every action they take. Others in a consumerist society will not bother to weigh up the rights and wrongs of any object before buying it, the sole aim being to possess or consume the desired object.Unfortunately consumerism seems to have gripped society in every part of the world. Gandhi once said, “There is enough in the world for every man’s need but not for every man’s greed.” But while admiring him in public, Gandhi’s teachings and personal example have gone by the board, and there is probably no country in which more spiritualism is preached and less practised than India. I have thought for a long time that if you are not an idealist when you are young, you haven’t got a heart, but if your idealism isn’t tempered by reality, you haven’t got a head.The film “12 Years A Slave” has revived interest in the horrors and brutality of slavery, but if one looks around many of our valued institutions were built on the profits the donors made from their properties in British Imperial territories abroad. Just think what happened to British industry. Workers were being exploited by the factory owners, and miners by the colliery proprietors. It took generations for trade unions to gain recognition, and fight for fair wages. But some union leaders started misusing their powers and led strikes for better wages, but had enough hold over their union members to get out of their members’ subscriptions large salaries which gave them the same material privileges as those who owned the industries. All these factors combined to make the products of those industries so expensive as to put them out of the reach of the ordinary public. So retailers turned to foreign manufacturers, whose workers were paid subsistence wages, to satisfy public demands for cheap affordable goods in the West.Can we break this cycle? The solution, I think, is in the enlightenment philosophies of 18th century thinkers – Adam Smith and John Locke. It draws from the original concept of the liberal state: it has three pillars: The ability to take quick and collective action.Its actions are bound by the rule of law.It is accountable to the people, not just to affluent or influential classes.Adam Smith in his “Wealth of Nations” argued for the importance of profit, and is considered the patron saint of capitalism by anti-capitalists. What these critics forget is that unless one can make a profit from ones activities, we do not have the wherewithal to extend the range of our work even if it is for charity. Adam Smith also stressed the importance of fair wages for workers to keep them motivated. You can’t produce goods of a quality to attract buyers, if your workers are paid a pittance. It isn’t profit which is to be deplored but excessive and undeserved gains. Politicians have short term aims and their policies are dedicated to winning the next general election, which usually means “bribing” the voters. We [in the UK] are seeing this already in the three major parties, well over a year before the next general election in 2015 is due.The next question is: how do we, the general public, decide whom to vote for? James Stimson, the American political scientist divided voters into three types: “The Passionate” who care a great deal about public affairs, have strong views, and form strong commitments to one side or the other. These groups don’t influence results of elections. They don’t move their vote and “tend to interpret political events in a way conditioned by their existing views.”“The Uninvolved” think that “politics isn’t important in their lives (and they are probably right), don’t pay attention and don’t want to be bothered”. They often don’t vote and, when they do, what moves them politically hither and thither has a random effect and cancels one another out.“The Scorekeepers” are non-ideological pragmatists who trust and distrust each side equally. They see politics not as a contest of political views, but merely as alternate teams of possible managers of government each contending they can do a better job. “The scorekeepers are not choosing directions in their votes but they are hiring managers”.What we have seen in the past thirty years is a shift away from the passionate group swelling the ranks of scorekeepers.The second change is that politics has become more pragmatic, less partisan and more inclined to, a sort of whom can we trust contest. Therefore if we want justice and ethical action in the public domain, the whole community has to become score keepers who will vote for the candidate who seems the most likely to favour such a policy.But human nature being what it is, we cannot expect too much change, as history shows. But it is still important that conscience dictates our actions as individuals without losing our sense of proportion. Alan Ryan whose “History of Politics” covers comprehensively political behaviour and thought since Thucydides and Herodotus sums up politics as being fragile.
11 Feb 2014