Monday, March 08, 2010

Women's Reservation Bill & Socio-Political Policy

A bill proposing 33% reservation for women in India's national parliament and state legislatures was tabled by the ruling Congress Party in the Rajya Sabha (upper house) today. Currently, it is in the process of being stalled in decidedly uncivil ways by those opposed to the bill, some elected representatives of dubious history. For today, I am cheering on the goons. Let me explain why.

My political philosophy is utilitarian. With the assumption of the zeroth law of all modern political philosophy - that political rights to all the governed will be equal - a version of preference utilitarianism comes closest to describing an ideal social objective. Give the people what they want, but don't privilege anyone's wants over anybody else's.

To a first approximation, people want to be rich and productive, to own territory, to be free and yet safe (from the territorial ambitions of others) and to not be very disadvantaged compared to others. 'Sovereignty' best describes the combination of liberty, safety and territory. 'Dignity' best describes the combination of relative and absolute aspects of the egalitarian ideal (nobody should die of starvation, nobody should be *very poor* compared to others). Prosperity, sovereignty, dignity - these are the sometimes conflicting objectives of an ideal social utility or welfare function.

An existing social order or legal status quo may be discriminatory. Women may be discouraged from ever thinking about a business or public career - some of them may be much better at the job than the present incumbents. Talented children of a disadvantaged background may never speak English as well as many urban nincompoops, curtailing their career options as well as national productivity. A legitimate farmer may have been dispossessed of his land to benefit an incapable land-owner two centuries ago by a foreign sovereign that is no longer recognized in the country. These are all impediments not just to the dignity of the people concerned (share of the pie), but also the prosperity of the entire society (size of the pie). Correction of a discriminatory social order can thus be a justified goal of policy for the purpose of both prosperity and dignity. The question is - what needs to be corrected and how best to do it?

Most discriminatory social orders manifest themselves as endowment failures. A policy that attempts to correct such an order while maximizing the combination of prosperity and dignity must aim at removing the relevant endowment failure, setting the equilibrium of the outcomes to be determined freely. Top-down reservations, of the kind embodied in the women's reservation bill, attempt to directly force outcomes - assuming that the endowment failures will then auto-correct. They end up maximizing neither prosperity nor dignity.

The most pervasive endowment failure is being born in poverty. Correcting for that - in the form of transfers and subsidies or economic status based reservations and affirmative action - is the highest RoI policy that one can have. This is a good case to support economic status based policy as opposed to caste based or gender based reservations, but it is not complete. Discriminatory social orders can often lead to significant endowment failures beyond poverty. A poor 'forward caste' student is much more likely to have indirect endowments - wealthy, well-educated, networked relatives or friends - than a poor 'backward caste' student. A poor boy will probably get to study in that good college away from home, a poor girl will be asked to drop out of school.

A case can thus still be made for reservations on the basis of gender or caste. Especially, if the reservation is in the law-making body of a representative democracy, where one can argue that the aim itself is 'representation' and not just efficient law-making. It's not a clinching argument, but it is one worth considering. And one must remember that the correct axis of representation is political aspiration, not any other part of your identity.

This argument thus does not really work for gender. Whatever is your preferred level of governance - the nation, the state, the local administration - geographical proximity is the best proxy we have for maximum shared political interests. Caste is rather strongly correlated with geography in India, but gender is obviously not. The constituencies that are reserved for SC/ST candidates are constituencies that have a significant majority of SC/ST population. That is clearly not the case with men and women. It has been proposed to select the reserved constituencies on a rotational basis, but that simply reduces the incentive to get re-elected (and hence to work in the constituency at all).

The fundamental problem with the endowment and representative aspects of the bill then is two-fold - gender is a good proxy neither for poverty nor for shared political aspirations. Moreover, the extremely top-down nature of the proposed reservations means that the new equilibrium will be a classic case of the somewhat disadvantaged crowding out the very disadvantaged. Most of the women who will get to compete on the reserved tickets will be those that are already politically well-off. Men and women will become more equal, but currently powerful women and currently powerless women will become even more inequal. A similar thing happened with caste based reservations. Top down forcing of outcomes does not level the playing field - it actually degrades the most disadvantaged even further.

And until now, we haven't even considered the fact that just as many women who are not given a shot at a career must be abler than many men who are, many men may be better representatives of the political aspirations (of both men and women) of a reserved constituency than all the women candidates. There is a loss to the dignity of these men, and there is a loss of national prosperity. What is more, just like with caste based reservations, the issue will later become part of the entrenched politically correct 'non-partisan' consensus in the country with no hope of being eased out.

The long term solution to the endowment failure of Indian women is surely a general fall in poverty and a more equal social outlook. That is however a long term outlook. Even in the short term, however, there are many better ways - even within the flawed ambit of quantity reservations - to implement a more equal polity and social order. One of the best ones is to reserve not constituencies but electoral tickets : empower women through a chance at political success, don't assure them of the result.

Reservation of seats in the national and state legislatures is a step that improves dignity of some people (currently powerful women) at the expense of many others (currently powerful men, currently powerless women). The effects on national prosperity are equally questionable. The bill must not pass and some uncivil representatives, abhorrent as they may be, are currently our best hope.

p.s: What confuses me, though, is what is the political benefit that Sonia Gandhi sees from such a move. Even if women were to prefer women over men as their representatives, why will women in a reserved constituency vote for a Congress woman over women from the competing parties? Does Sonia Gandhi really believe that such a policy has net positive social gains and is acting upon that? Is she obsessed with the legacy of her dead husband, who first introduced such a proposal in the parliament? Will Congress gain a significant number of votes by being remembered as the party that empowered women? I highly doubt that.

p.p.s: As I finish writing this, it seems that the goons have succeeded, at least for now. Bravo!