T K Arun
Joe Biden will host a summit for democracy on December 9-10. Prime Minister Narendra Modi would attend; China and Russia have not been invited. But Pakistan is an invitee. The summit provides an occasion to look at some fundamentals of democracy beyond the conduct of elections to decide who would control the levers of state power.
In America and Europe, a large number of people have refused to get vaccinated against Covid, or wear a mask in public, or observe lockdown norms. They look upon these decisions as exercises in personal autonomy. For the government to tell them whether they should get a shot against Covid or wear a mask violates their essential freedoms, they feel.
Individuality Turns Viral
A judge of the US Supreme Court, hearing a challenge to laws that restrict abortions, suggested that vaccines are on par with abortions, in terms of bodily autonomy, meaning that forcible vaccination would violate bodily autonomy, as would being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.
But is vaccination purely a matter of bodily autonomy, such as whether to part your hair in the middle or on the side, or whether to grow a beard or shave?
Consider the question of wearing helmets while riding a motorcycle. Should bikers be compelled to wear helmets or should they be left free to take the risk of terminal harm, in case of a biking mishap?
Suppose the state had to take care of a biker who takes a fall and incurs heavy hospital expenditure or has to pay him disability pension for the rest of his life because he loses control of some limb or the other, due to cerebral damage. Clearly, the rest of society is dragged into the equation.
Supposing the state does not have to bear any of such expenditure, he has to stew in the fate he has wrought for himself. Is the rest of society unaffected, in that case? It is not. The state has spent money on that incapacitated individual’s schooling, the social and physical infrastructure in which he grew up.
Society had the expectation that the individual would lead a productive life, pay his taxes and contribute to collective life. By not wearing a helmet, he has let society down.
My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins – that has long served as a classic example of the limits of personal liberty, anywhere outside Robinson Crusoe’s island.
Human beings live as communities, not as isolated individuals who do not interact with others. That necessary interaction puts limits on individual liberty. Your car, your petrol, your life. Can you speed as much as your machine can take you? No, because you endanger other lives in the process. Exactly the same principles apply in the case of vaccines. When Tom refuses to get vaccinated, he endangers Dick and Harry, not to speak of Jerry.
This connection has been obscured in western liberal democracies by rhetoric that valorizes the individual above everything else. There is no such thing as society, there are just individuals and the market through which they interact with one another – that might be a caricature of the world view dominant in the West since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but it gets the hang of their belief system.
Democracy cannot flourish on the basis of untrammeled individual rights. Individual rights have to meld into an overarching framework that allows individuals to live together without harming others and actually helping others.
No Man is an Island
When a worker on the car assembly line plugs away at his task, he is not thinking of those who would drive the vehicle he is helping put together, nor of those who would travel in it. But without that labor, the vehicle would not be available for the driver or travelers. Nor do the driver and travelers think of the worker who has toiled to produce their vehicle.
The worker did what he did to earn his wage. The vehicle was purchased from its manufacturer, there ended the buyer’s relationship with the production process and the producers—at the conscious level of those involved. But, in reality, behind those monetary transactions, everyone is part of an elaborate division of labor that increasingly spans the globe.
The coal could come from Indonesia, the turbines from China, the design for the turbines from the US; so, by having used power, in whose generation miners and transporters in Indonesia, engineers and workers in China, and engineers and corporate whizzes in the US have all played a role, the buyer of a Maruti-Suzuki car in India has established a relationship with those diverse sets of people, along with those in Japan.
The more we are aware of our interdependence, the more we would look upon humanity as an interconnected whole. Such realization is the substratum of effective democracy.
When such interconnectedness and interdependence are obscured, it is easier to see people in their specific, separate identities, shorn of their essential humanity, and paint some as friends and others as foes.
America, with its history of slavery and genocide of Native Americans, and India, with its oppressive caste system and violent legacy of the Partition, are tough places where to build genuine democracy. The oldest democracy and the largest democracy are nice terms, but building real democracy is an ongoing project, a long slog, in either place.
First published at The Economic Times titled Protests against Covid vaccines and restrictions are signs of democratic failure on 7 December 2021
Read another piece climate change by T K Arun titled COP26: India polishes its climate reputation at Glasgow in IMPRI insights
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About the Author
T K Arun, Consulting Editor, The Economic Times, New Delhi