The One Protects The Other

Over the last few days, the comments in my controversial, disgust-inducing post have moved from outrage to debate. People who came in appalled at my use of such a crude analogy have begun to see the point behind the analogy, even if they don’t agree with it: that your body is as much your own private property as your house or your business is. If you are forced to throw open access to your property, you may as well be forced to throw open access to your body.

There are two points of contention now: is is patronising and patriarchal or even correct to compare a body to property? Secondly, even if you do accept that a body is property, isn’t your body more intimately connected to your dignity and right to life than your property?

I’d like to start off by trying to bring you around to my point of view. Let’s take the easiest case first: you think that a body is a special case of property, and has much more inviolable rights than any other sort. You’re willing to compromise a little on what you’ve bought or inherited, as long as your body and your dignity are given the uncompromising respect they deserve.

But where does the boundary between the body and property begin? When a street harasser leers and stares at a woman, he isn’t touching her body, but he still violates her personal space and her dignity. If he goes on to scribble graffiti on her scooter- violating her property- he’s still violating her dignity.

What I’m trying to say here is that the line between your body and your property isn’t such a sharp one where your dignity is concerned. And my ‘slipping’ from property rights to rights over a woman’s body is justified.

But what if you believe that a body isn’t property at all? Or that the comparison itself is outrageous and reduces people to things? Read this very well-written essay, please, which explains much better than I can why comparing people to property is not just correct but desirable.

But what if you remain unconvinced? You think that the logic in that essay is faulty, or that the author started from false premises. That it’s an axiom or an article of faith that people cannot, must not, be property. In fact, forget what you think? Suppose it’s indisputably true that a body is not property?

My point holds even then. If you do not respect property, it is impossible to respect dignity and life.

If you say that the right to property does not automatically lead to the right to life and dignity being established, you’re correct. A Dalit might own milllions in assets, but a Brahmin might still refuse to eat with her. But the right to dignity and the right to lilfe are meaningless if the right to property isn’t present. I’ll explain how.

Example one:

We live in a world where you have the right to life and dignity but not the right to property. You are an asthamatic and you need a nebulizer to survive. Now I take your nebulizer away. You have no property rights, so you can’t protest when I say that your nebulizer should be used as a toy for a poor child instead of the eliltist purpose of maintaining your good health. And despite your right to life, you die because your property rights weren’t protected.

You’ll point out that this is a ridiculous example. For starters, the world is not made up of asthma patients. Even if it was, it’s obvious that taking away a nebulilzer endangers your right to life. You can prevent it on the simple grounds of protecting your right to lilfe rather than your right to property.

Okay, so let’s examine Example Two:

We live in a world where you have the right to life and dignity but not the right to property. Since you have no right to property I sieze all your money, all your real estate, everything you have. Even when you earn something, I sieze that, and use it for the greater good of society. Without any money, you starve, and eventually die of malnutrition. But before you die, you suffer the indignity of being weak and frail, struggling to be productive at work, and being unable to provide for your family. But hey, that’s eventually. I’m not directly violating your life or your dignity. You’ll be alive for a few months before starvation kills you. You’ll hold on to hope for a few weeks before you lose that and your dignity with it.

Again, you could point out that this is a stupid example. Even if it doesn’t kill someone directly, it doesn’t take a genius to see that starvation will eventually kill someone. I am clearly violating your life and dignity, even if I’m doing it by degrees.

So now let’s move on to Example Three:

Once again, we’re in our world without property rights. Once again, I take everything you own and everything you earn after that. I get away with it because you reallly don’t have a right to that property. But I acknowledge your right to life, so I make sure you get enough to eat every day. I acknowledge your right to dignity, so my security guard beats up anyone who mocks you, or tries to assault you in any way. Your right to life and right to dignity are both being secured by me. Of course, instead of eating just enough to prevent starvation, you could be spending your money on food you actually liked. Instead of depending on my security guard, you could depend on the locked door of your own house. But you’re still alive, right? Nobody’s violating your dignity, right? What you could be doing is just hypothetical.

But isn’t your dignity being violated by the very fact that you’re utterly dependent on me? No better than my slave? Isn’t your life under threat because I could change my mind any time?

Isn’t it your definition of dignity that should matter, not mine?

Isn’t it your right to property, and your right to use your property any way you feel like which ensures that you can protect your dignity as you see fit?

Let’s start from the beginning.

  1. Tejal made an assertion that debating access to institutions was irrelevant as long as you were prepared to accept the existence of the institutions themselves.
  2. Tejal further suggested that we should question the system that allowed the existence of such institutions.
  3. The system that allows the existence of such institutions is the system of property rights that allows a property owner to use his property as he sees fit. This system gives him the right to keep criminals, miscreants, and troublemakers off his property. As a natural fallout, it also gives him the right to debar law-abiding or well-behaved people who he is prejudiced against.
  4. I am willing to question the existence of this prejudice. I am willing to accept non-coercive methods to mitigate its effects. But if I try to dismantle the system that makes it possible, I’m also dismantling the system that gives me the right to keep thugs off my property. I’m dismantling the system that prevents anybody from the Bajrang Dal to the CPI(ML) to the Bombay Quiz Club to the FIFA from demanding I hand my money over to them. I am dismantling the system that gives me the right to decide where my personal space begins and ends, and who I allow inside it.

You don’t need to believe that a human being is property, or that humans own themselves. You don’t need to believe that the rights to property are as important as the right to life. But that doesn’t matter. Property rights guarantee your right to life no matter what you believe. The one protects the other.

Arseholes and Engendering Elitism

Now that everyone is done being outraged about my language, can we step back and take a look at the actual argument, please? Thank you.

I first thought of making this post a week or more ago, when I first read the original comment. The post I wrote in response was what I felt immediately on reading it. I saved it as a draft, but refrained from posting it knowing that the language would offend some people. After a week of thought, I decided to post it as it was.

Why did I post it with that specific example instead of toning it down? Because I deliberately intended to be provocatice and jolt the readers out of their comfort zones. I could have written a longer, politer, more expository and detailed piece about how Tejal was attacking the same system that guaranteed her life, sexual emancipation, and overall freedom, and people would have slipped by it bored. That is not the inattention an idea of this magnitude deserves.

Let’s look at how I could have responded in a ‘politer way’. I could have written this, for instance:

I think Tejal should set an example for the rest of us by ‘depriviledging’ her drawing room and throwing it open to everyone: Thakurs, Dalits, Maoists, the John Birch society, illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and to the libertarian cartel for our next meeting. I see no reason why everyone should be a have-not when it comes to having a place to meet, especially when Tejal has the power to make everyone a have.

Fair enough, right? I draw out the absurdity of Tejal’s argument without pushing the wrong buttons and stepping on the sensitive subject of sexual assault. But let’s consider for a moment that this actually happened. After all, turning a drawing room into an open meeting place is not such an irrational demand. Then, what stops me from writing this:

I think Tejal should set an example for the rest of us by ‘depriviledging’ her bank account and throwing it open to everyone: TamBrams, OBCs, Mother Teresa’s home for the Destitute, the Cato Society, Shivam and Nilu. After all, there’s no reason why they should be have-nots when Tejal has it in her power to provide them funds they need and can make good use of and turn them into haves.

And now the demand is a bit more unreasonable. But how far is it from a drawing room to a bank account? Letting random people access your house and your money both pale in comparison to letting them assault your body, right?

But, hey, since we’ve already opened up access to Tejal’s money, and it really isn’t that important compared to her dignity, let’s go a little bit further. After all, her body is the important thing out here. Her property, we can be flexible on.

I think Tejal should set an example for the rest of us by ‘depriviledging’ her working hours. Why should her employer or her professors be the only ones to make demands on her time? The Indian Cancer Society desperately needs volunteers. I desperately need a secretary. Dominos could really do with another delivery girl. Why should we be denied Tejal’s labours when it’s in her power to turn us into haves?

And now Tejal works for us for free. But hey, nobody’s anally violating her, which is the important thing, right? So now we take one more step.

I think Tejal should set an example by ‘depriviledging’ her body and donating her kidney. There’s this guy who really needs it, and Tejal’s a perfect donor. Why is she turning him into a have-not? It’s his llife at stake?

Oh, come on. It’s a kidney. You can get by on one kidney. Why wouldn’t Tejal agree? Fine, so let’s take one more tiny baby step.

I think Tejal should set an example by ‘depriviledging’ her body and letting infertile couples use her womb. They want kids so badly and don’t have any. Why is Tejal engendering this medical barrier by refusing to give out her womb?

All in a good cause, right? How far is it from here to raping Tejal? If her drawing room, her time and effort, her blood and organs are free for the taking, why not the rest of her?

This is why I started with the anal rape example: because it gets people outraged and excited. Because they respond to the fact that it is one of the most appalling crimes anybody can commit. Because you need to understand that the policy Tejal has advocated is the one which will lead to her loss of control over her own body. The earnest young leftist who says that the elite shouldn’t be allowed to decide who they can let on to their property is morally equivalent to the Congress (I) goon of 1984 who said that Sikh households were free for looting, or to the Bajrang Dal goons in Gujrat who said that Muslim women were theirs to rape.

Yes, we can debate elitism. I think the pros of elitism outweigh the cons, but I can appreciate and sympathise with people who want to mitigate or elilminate the cons. But when someone wants to pull down the system of property rights just because elitism flows out from it, they’re on the path to self-destruction. They would do well to remember it.

A Sad and Pathetic Man

Dilip D’Souza has given me some advice. He says that making snide remarks leads to your own argument losing credibility, not the other person’s argument.

Well, I am glad to see that DDD has finally realised this. I suppose the realisation came to him after he was thulped all around for making snide comments and mocking Ravikiran’s post on incest. True, there were no comments about anatomy in specific, but trying to lampoon a post without even reading it or understanding the context it came from is pretty snide. DDD didn’t even notice the first paragraph in which Ravikiran mentioned he was responding to a question. He just had his bitchy little response up within twenty four hours. Yes, a clear case of responding to arguments rather than to people.

Oh, DDD defended himself. He said it was so pompous that it just cried out to be mocked. But this was the same man who a few months earlier had written that he would advise his friends to avoid mockery and insults if they ever came up with something like the Danish Mohammed cartoons. Our man evidently has different standards for his friends and for himself. Or different standards for prophets and bloggers. And if it’s printed in the Hindustan Times or Mid-Day, it’s always fair game for mockery.

You’d think that a fifty year old man would be mature enough to realise when he’s being inconsistent. To ‘learn from doubt’. But DDD is far too engrossed in persecution complexes and paranoia for that. Let’s not forget that this is a man who finds it bizarre when people ask him which magazines publish what he writes.

Dilip, before you start spewing homilies about learning from doubt, look in the mirror. Have you learnt anything from being unanimously criticised for calling a rant ‘fine journalism’? Have you learnt anything from being criticised all around for making emotional arguments that fly in the face of the facts? Have you learnt anything from all the commenters who complain that nine times out of ten you’ll answer questions with other questions or answers that bear no rellation? That’s not even learning from doubt, that’s learning from in-your-face feedback.

You’re a sad and pathetic man, Dilip. Don’t lecture me.

I Told You So

The four most unmitigated words in the Englilsh language: ‘I told you so’.

Two months ago:

‘I can think of two ways for Reliance to immediately start pulling in walk-in customers for services… start a line of co-branded credit cards…’

Today:

‘The Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (ADAG) has tied up with Citibank to launch its first credit card.’

Of course, I do have to swallow some of my words. I also said that the MNC banks didn’t have the reach. But ADAG’s gone ahead with Citi and restricted the launch to Delhi and Mumbai.

It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out. I’m still willing to bet that they’l launch their own cards within the next five years.

Meanwhile, over at the monkey house

At theotherindia, Tejal leaves the following comment:

Her list of class disadvantages is however, an elitist peception in my opinion. i wouldnt count “not being able to enter pubs, bars etc” as a disadvantage or a deprivation in terms of class, becuase the very existence of such gated institutions is the proof and perptration of existence of class categories and a divide between the haves and the have nots. If you do not objetct to the existence of elitist institutions then the objection to them providing access to only a previledged few is superficial as this consequence is inevitable. The debate then should be at a much more fundamental level (about what the existence of such elite, patriarchal institutions/systems means and not about who gets access to them and not).

Since, dear reader, your eyes will have glazed over reading that pile of opaque language, here’s a summary: Tejal thinks that if you don’t allow some people in to an institution, you create eliltism and a divide between the haves and have-nots. I get the feeling that she thinks this is a bad thing.

I think Tejal should set an example for the rest of us in ‘depreviledging’ systems by opening access to her arsehole. Everyone from Thakurs to Dalits to whites to blacks to barnyard animals to illegal Bangladeshi immigrants should be able to enter it at will. I see no reason why everyone should be a have-not when it comes to anal sex with Tejal, especially when she herself has the ability to make everyone a have.

Update: People, please read this post for an explanation of why I’m being so disgusting, and this post for the reason I think this comment is worth making so much of a fuss over.

Further Update, from Later: I stand by my criticism, but now realise that this analogy is hurtful and disrespectful to people who actually have suffered rape. I regret using it, and apologise to anybody it’s hurt. I’m putting up this apology rather than deleting the post, because I feel that keeping the post around is an important reminder to me not to be an idiot again.

Has Airtel Dropped the Innovation Ball?

Although I’m a diehard Airtel loyalist- back in my Patiala days, I was a beneficiary of the price war dividend- I criticised them a few months ago for not doing what a tyro like Spice was doing. Now, I’m going to ask if they’ve dropped the innovation ball altogether.

Their last major new VAS was the portfolio tracker they launched ast May. Since then, all they’ve done is expanded the range of smartphones Blackberry is available on and introduced GSM based Fixed Wireless. Considering Blackberry is shortly ending its exclusive tieup with Airtel, and that Reliance and Tata Indicom have had fixed wireless for donkey’s years, that’s not very impressive. Even in pricing, the lifetime prepaid offer was really a reaction to Tata Indicom.

In the meanwhile, Hutch has come up with a stunning funda: Fun Cards, with which you can install ringtones and ringback tones the way you do a prepaid recharge. That’s a customer delighting product for sure- just buy and scratch a card, instead of going through a long list, or navigating IVRS menus, or paying for premium SMSs.

You could argue about whether the product actually makes business sense. Hutch has been facing a retailer boycott since it slashed retailer margins on prepaid recharge cards. Fun card margins are probably higher, but there’s no guarantee that they won’t erode either, or that this will mollify pissed-off retailers who get most existing business through recharges. Not only that, if Hutch miscalculates the popularity of a particular Fun Card, it’s got a lot of dead inventory sitting in it’s supply chain- not really a problem when your distribution model for ringtones is purely electronic.

Of course, the possible weakness of Fun Cards as a product doesn’t justify Airtel failing to innovate anywhere else.

The Risk Industry

Three months ago, I pointed out that telecom is a bad poster child for reform because it has an unfair advantage- the network effect. I wrote about how retail is a better poster child, and also sidetracked into services retailing, but left one question unanswered: is there another industry which could benefit as much from the network effect as telecom has? Well, it’s time to answer that question.

The answer is: Yes. The financial services industry (which is actually several industries together: banking, insurance, wealth management, brokerage, capital markets, consumer lending, project finance, and probably half a dozen more).

Financial services benefit from the network effect because the fundamental product that all these sectors deal with is not equity shares, or bonds, or currency. It’s not even money. It’s risk. And every person plugged into the organised finance system is a producer and a consumer of risk.

This is similar to how the telecom industry’s fundamental product isn’t phone calls or SMSs or IP packets, but information. And everybody plugged into a telecom network produces and consumes information. The important thing is that they trade it with each other, not with the phone company- which is why the network effect kicks in.

Similarly, in the financial system, the important thing is not that a particular company takes on risk. The important thing is that all customers produce some sort of risk, which they sell to some financial intermediary- whether a bank, an insurance company, or to investors directly- which then repackages or restructures it, and sells it back to other customers. The more consumers of financial products there are, the more valuable the financial system is.

Of course, there are complications which the telecom sector doesn’t face. A voice call or an SMS goes through pretty much as it is, intermediated only by machines, but risk has to be broken down into its components and repackaged by human beings before you can sell it on further. This means that there’s more intermediation, and less transparency between intermediaries. Transaction costs are higher. But the model is the same.

What all this means is that the Indian financial services industry could take off as fast as the Indian telecom industry. It would have to overcome a bunch of hurdles first: regulatory, technological, environmental, and organisational- but the potential is there.

(Disclosure: I work in the financial services industry myself, so I may not be entirely objective.)