Bending the rules

As we tend to claim our rights, most of us hardly ever bother about our duties. Businessmen

talk of privatisation and economic liberalisation, singing their virtues, and they go out of their way to take the most out of these ways of economic management, but, often, at least in Nepal, they have paid the least attention to their part of the bargain that a market economy implies. This can be seen everywhere — in the present political stalemate, in the charges of medical services, in the employees’ demands, in the employers’ attitude, in the transport entrepreneurs’ behaviour, in the private school owners’ concept of private investment in education, in the manipulation of the stock market operations, in the operation of syndicates in various lines of business or profession trying to maximise profit at the consumers’ cost, and so on. Even in widely scattered operations in which smaller sellers are so numerous that an ordinary man may hasten to think that their pricing decisions are the pure result of the free play of supply and demand.

To this distortion of market operations, government has also contributed a lot - by not making

the adequate laws and rules necessary to allow the forces of supply and demand to interact freely, to check and punish restrictive or other unscrupulous business practices, to crack down on people who misuse their special positions in business or elsewhere to gain undue advantage at the cost of competitors and consumers, and even when the laws are in place, by failing to enforce them effectively. All this, and past governments’ sell-off of a number of public enterprises at widely considered throwaway prices, have attached a taint to privatisation in Nepal. The overwhelming majority of the people have not been able to benefit much from a liberal economic policy, whereas some investors or sly operators have made fortunes out of this situation. But, experience says, checks are put in place in Nepal often very late, when heavy damage has already been done.

Free enterprise is the best way of economic management in the world. But when the rules of the game are violated, it will fail to produce maximum benefit for society as a whole. Producers or service providers have tended to form syndicates to derive monopoly benefits from business, though, on the face of it, many competitors may be in the fray. The general price of goods and services could well go down if only the laws of capitalism were fairly and strictly applied. Where, by nature of business or other factors, many firms are not in competition or open competition is restricted — for instance, when particular transport routes are open only to certain operators — the government has to take special measures to

ensure that justice is done to all stakeholders. On certain long and short routes, transporters have also formed powerful syndicates to regulate production, restrict the consumers’ right of choice, charge exorbitant rates, and get away with providing poor services. Across the economic spectrum, often, some kind of cartel exists, in loose or strong forms, and this has deprived the ultimate consumer of the full benefits of the market economy.