Zubin Tucker, a British student reflects on his experiences in India. He does not undrstand why things which should be easy are so restrictive (like drinking age) and things which should have some regulation are so easy (like following traffic rules).
As a UK national largely unfamiliar with India, prior to my arrival in the country four weeks ago I had no idea of the extent to which the government encroached into the lives of ordinary citizens. I was shocked to learn that one must be 25 to buy alcohol in Delhi and that the city’s taxes are as high as they are in a country as poor as India. I was begrudgingly informed by my colleagues at the Centre for Civil Society that India was ranked a mere 128th in the index of economic freedom, a score that can hardly come as a surprise.
However on arriving in India, one of the first things that you first encounter are not its prohibitive laws or taxes, but instead the style of driving adopted by Indian motorists. Walking out of the Indira Gandhi International Airport and heading out onto the roads of South Delhi, your eyes are opened to an extent of freedom that would never be possible in the UK! Motorists in Delhi seem to drive with almost no regard for traffic rules at all. Weaving across lanes and increasing speed where and when they like in order to give them the optimum position on the road being common wherever you look. Such behaviour would result in fines and possibly bans from driving in the ‘freer’ countries of the West, yet here the police seem to have no interest in preventing anyone from driving in such a manner, instead they themselves actively engage in it! Yet it’s not as if Indian roads are the exception to the country’s love affair with rules. The Nelson Mandela Marg in South Delhi is a three lane, smooth road, yet traffic is legally restricted to a wildly unrealistic 50kph speed limit. As a result it is broken by most that travel on it.
This seems to be a bizarre contradiction. In a country which by all official parameters is so opposed to freedom, how can people be able to drive in such a manner that suggests that there are actually none at all?
I would argue it is because the rules are so unreasonably restrictive that they are simply ignored. Though legally one has to be 25 to buy alcohol in Delhi (there is nowhere with more significant restrictions on the sale of alcohol save those countries that ban it completely), this is a rule that is frequently ignored. So long as you look of adult age you will be unlucky not to be served.
Yet there is no doubt that a society with law that is followed is a safer and ultimately a more functional one. Writing in ‘Ethics and Law’ Henry Hazlitt raises the following point:
‘Traffic rules, like legal and moral rules in general, are not adopted for their own sakes. They are not adopted primarily to restrain but to liberate. They are adopted to minimize frustration and suppression in the long run, and to maximise the satisfactions of all and therefore of each.’
We can apply this hypothesis to the roads of India. The unwritten rule is that there are no rules. This has the immediate effect of increasing each driver’s freedom to move his vehicle wherever he pleases. However when a few drivers decide to go through a red light this has the adverse effect of other drivers who are permitted to use the junction, being stranded in the middle of it unable to complete their turn. This will only delay others and quite probably cause a traffic jam, denying everyone who finds themselves in it the freedom to arrive at their destination in good time. A freer road is therefore one with restrictions that are followed and where each can go about their business with minimal disruption to others.
However if the government expects these restrictions to be respected, it is surely necessary that they first to respect the people. Unreasonable rules and regulations create an environment where disrespect is the norm; both freedom and order suffer as a result.
Still searching for freedom..