Is it really true that political self-interest is nobler somehow than economic self-interest? asked Milton Friedman, in a so-to-speak, rhetorical manner. As obvious as his views on the subject of the role of the state in the everyday affairs of the people are, they appear all the more relevant today in our context.
This, of course, refers to a recent news item that appeared a fortnight ago in this daily in which we had Prime Minister Dr Baburam Bhattarai and his Cabinet pushing the “New Nepal Building Fund”. The said Cabinet decision provisions the deduction of a day’s salary from government, private and non-government organization staffers to be used for the uplift of women, dalits, minorities and other backward groups. In addition, it was also stated that another purpose of the fund would be to implement sanitation and other development works.
The PM preached that everyone had to do his/her bit for the society without specifying whether the government would be working out new programmes or the collected fund would go to plans that are already being implemented.
Whatever the case, it is quite clear that Dr Bhattarai envisioned the role of the facilitator for the government in the noble cause of uplifting the condition of the marginalized lot.
One must say he did score political points here for who would speak out against helping those sections of society, who have had very little role to play due to prevailing social and economic inequalities?
The moot point, however, is that the enabling provisions are not yet in place because we are still quite far from having a new constitution. Even though the leaders of major political parties claim they are pretty close to it, the fact remains that they are still not quite there yet.
Then, regarding the second part of the Cabinet decision about using that fund for sanitation and other development works, should the public buy it? Aren’t the taxes we pay meant to address this issue, without further making a dent in the pay packets?
Does building a New Nepal require ‘urgent fund’ or political will? No matter how pious Dr Bhattarai’s intention is, one can’t but be skeptical, given the inability of the government to deliver even the basic goods and services to the public.
Is this yet another gimmick like the newspaper photos of the PM and other leaders sweeping the premises of Singha Durbar or are the state coffers so depleted that salaries have to be deducted for that?
The PM’s strategy for increasing the fund in the nation’s treasury makes one question the type of democratic system we are trying to institutionalize.
Has the state ever recognized the need to make service delivery more effective? Has the government
ever acted in the best interest of one-fourth of the
population living under the poverty line?
At a purely personal level, and I would say many of you will agree, I would refuse to hand over my hard-earned money, forget about one day’s salary, not even a paisa because I don’t agree that apart from taxes, the government has no right to take anything from me unless I give it of my own free will. I would indeed be more than willing to contribute in times of natural calamities like flood, earthquake or any other disaster, but to the Fund. “NO.” I don’t see it as an emergency requiring immediate contribution. Rather, it is a matter of effecting policy changes and implementing them well
When Finance Minister Barshaman Pun took charge, he rightly said economic development will be a far cry unless the country sees lasting peace and conclusion of the statue-drafting process.
He had then sought to attract private and foreign investment and had promised security to entrepreneurs and their businesses. It does appear that the peace process is near completion, and this has given rise to optimism that the deadline for drafting the constitution will also be met. However, this does not mean the government should have the right to deduct salaries of its employees or those working with the private sector.
In the book “Why Nations Fail?”, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson write: “Law and force cannot change a man’s heart”. True, problems arise when the state uses too much of its authority.
Making it mandatory for government and all other employees to send a day’s salary to the fund is akin to taking the public for granted. Not only will it breed resentment against the government, it will also encourage the government to resort to such undesired actions in the future also. In other words, it will grow like a bad habit.
If the main concern is to collect funds, there are taxes and other sources. Here again, the taxpayer must be satisfied that the money he pays is not going down the drain. We need better governance and that can come only with a government that can deliver.
Once again, we are back with the guru of the Laissez Faire brand of economic thought.
The less government we have in our lives, the better off we will be. With the announcement of the Fund, I see a grim warning writ large on the wall. Nepal’s ultimate problem might actually be how to protect the Nepali people from the Nepal government.
Singh is a researcher for Centre for Research Excellence.