The visit to the U.S. of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will focus on important geo-political and economic issues. But this visit also should focus attention on the role India might play in an emerging global culture of freedom, helping both America and India. Friends of liberty should take note.
India seems an unlikely candidate to enhance the planet’s freedom. Its culture has been steeped in irrational religious beliefs, mostly unleavened by modern intellectual enlightenment. Religious violence between Hindus (80 percent of the population), Muslims (13 percent), and Sikhs (2 percent) goes back centuries. While tamped down, it still breaks out today. Particularly anathema to individualism is India’s caste system, which sets human worth based on accidents of birth rather than personal achievements. Couples are still murdered for marrying outside of their castes. Most marriages are still arranged.
In their century-and-a-half rule over India, the British contributed railroads and other infrastructure and they tried to ban some odious practices such as wife-burning. The Brits also offered educational opportunities for India’s small elite. Sadly, most of India’s post-independence leaders were not taught the free-market philosophy that made Britain the 19th century’s economic leader but, rather, the Fabian socialism that would contribute to Britain’s and India’s late-20th-century economic stagnation.
Central planning failed in India as it did in other socialist countries, and India was—and still is—burdened by ossified and corrupt government bureaucracies. Interestingly, India was so isolated from the global economy that it neither exported nor imported very much and thus, unlike Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, it did not rack up huge international debts in the 1980s. India had nowhere to go but up.
Starting in the 1990s India began to adopt free-market reforms. The Index of Economic Freedom ranks it 54.2 percent free, not a great score but considerably better than in the past. Economic liberalization brought dramatic economic growth averaging nearly 6 percent annually over the past two decades.
India ’s population of 1.16 billion is second only to China, with 1.3 billion. By contrast, there are 308 million Americans. America’s GDP of $14 trillion is still the world’s highest; China’s is $8 trillion, while India’s is just over $3 trillion.
Most American policymakers focus on China rather than India as the country’s most important relationship in Asia. China is seen as America’s major emerging economic rival as well as a potential economic partner. China is America’s largest creditor, holding over $650 billion of the country’s debt. China’s growing military poses security concerns. China’s global security interests are often at odds with those of the United States. And it’s difficult for the U.S. to pressure the country that holds so much of its debt to act against its economic self-interest by taking strong actions against regimes with which it trades but which also sponsor Islamist terrorists.
Further, China’s mix of capitalism and socialism with non-democratic communist rule and restrictions on freedom pose wider problems. The emerging global culture requires open trade and communications between individuals to support economic liberty. It requires respect for the freedom and dignity of individuals and an appreciation of the value of a rational, this-world approach to life.
Friends of freedom who want to live in free countries in a free world thus should consider the promise that India offers toward reaching this goal.
Seven promising points
First, in spite of the unfortunate socialist infection that India caught from Britain, the former British Raj gave India’s educated class familiarity and experience with the economic, legal, and political ways of the West.
Second, India is a democracy, an imperfect, sometimes repressive one to be sure—but politically better off than China. India is more likely to meet its challenges with debate and votes rather than guns and prisons.
Third, the British bequeathed to India’s educated class the English language. English is the international language for business, science, and virtually everything else. The Indian government tried for decades to push Hindi as the national language, even though it is only spoken by about one-third of the country’s population. But English has remained a language that allows Indians from different parts of that multi-lingual country to communicate with one another. It also lets them integrate more easily with the rest of the world and, most notably, the American economy.
Fourth, India has in fact become a location of choice of many American firms for service jobs in high-tech, publishing, and 1-800 help lines. These are not the low-skilled assembly-line jobs often associated with emerging economies. They are high-skilled jobs at enterprises set up by Indian entrepreneurs. Indians in these jobs frequently interact with American counterparts.
Some Americans complain about such outsourcing but, of course, both countries win in these relationships. And when individual Indians and Americans deal openly and directly with one another, it is a cultural as well as economic plus. Meanwhile the Chinese government works hard to censor and restrict communications with the rest of the world, leaving channels open just enough to allow economic transactions.
Fifth, the economic opportunities have produced an Indian middle class that, while certainly not as prosperous as America’s, enjoys the basic comforts and pleasures of life—and it numbers 250-300 million, as large as America’s entire population. Certainly this will be an important market for American goods as well as ideas in the future.
And we see in this middle class many of the values and aspirations of free people in any healthy culture. For example, the productions of India’s dynamic “Bollywood” movie industry often celebrate love and life; Bollywood-influenced Slumdog Millionaire garnered eight Oscars in 2008, including best picture.
Sixth, there is a growing interest in India about the ideas of freedom and reason. For example, Google Trends shows from where in the world the most inquires come for given terms. It shows that India ranks either first or second, depending on when one checks, for the terms “Ayn Rand,” “The Fountainhead,” “Atlas Shrugged,” and “Objectivism.” This interest reflects a thirst for a philosophy of life on this Earth.
Further, there are two excellent libertarian think tanks in India, the Liberty Institute and the Centre for Civil Society. They are run by Barun Mitra and Parth Shah respectively and both are strongly influenced by Ayn Rand.
Seventh , India is dealing with its domestic violence between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs better than most other countries in the region. For example, the 2006 train bombing and 2008 massacre by Islamists in Mumbai didn't result in the kinds of massive, hate-motivated demonstrations seen, for example, in London in reaction to the Danish cartoons of Mohammed. Muslims and Sikhs as well as Hindus hold top political and business positions in India and thus have an incentive to keep the country peaceful and stable.
Person to person
Part of the emerging synergy for freedom between the United States and India is seen in the growing number of immigrants to the U.S. from that country. They and their descendents are realizing the American dream. This is a highly affluent immigrant group. Many are medical professionals. There is a strong and successful community of Indian-American businessmen and entrepreneurs who tend to be free market-oriented.
It is interesting that in the mid-1980s, shortly before her murder, India’s then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited the U.S. and spoke to a group of émigrés with what she described as mixed feelings because so many of the best Indians had left their homeland.
Today, thanks to easy communication and travel, Indian-Americans are able to keep in closer touch with family, friends, and business associates back in India, facilitating more cross-cultural contact and serving as a potential bridge for the best pro-freedom ideas from America.
The greatest number of foreign students in American universities come from India. This is particularly important because these students will have a deep personal connection with the United States and appreciations for its freedoms and culture--unless they're corrupted by America's socialist professors! They will be the leaders of their country in the future.
Namaste to freedom
The values of individual liberty are universal, appropriate for all people regardless of country. Americans today should be thankful that our country’s Founders put these values into practice in the U.S. government. Today those values are under threat.
We can help preserve and protect them by fostering their flowering throughout the world, not so much through armies as ideas. Many Indians have come upon these ideas and said “Hello” to freedom on their own. Americans who still love freedom should see those individuals as potential partners in liberty, for the good of Indians and Americans like.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.