Dialogue is a powerful concept. History is replete with examples of how dialogues have shaped thinking. The great dialogues written by the ancient philosophers in Greece — the birthplace of democracy — demonstrate the importance of discourse in democratic tradition. Dialogues expand the scope of discussion, usher in contrarian views, and add to the body of thought that various stakeholders — rulers, governments and policy-makers, and academicians — can draw upon. Over time, many such dialogues evolve into influential schools of thought that define the contours of public policy.
In contemporary economics, the ideas propagated by the John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman are testimony to how academic debates have developed into broad strands of thought that have guided governments and monetary authorities across the world. According to Keynes, governments can play a major role in reversing economic downturns by borrowing money from the private sector and then returning the money to the private sector through various spending programmes. Monetarism, propounded by Milton Friedman, on the other hand, advocates the regulation of money supply to stimulate growth. While Keynesian fiscal initiatives drive demand, monetary instruments address the supply side issues. The idea of monetarism is that if the money supply is regulated, then prices must fall and restricting the supply of money and credit could be used by the government to cut inflation and change employment levels.
The arguments between economists Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati need to be seen in the context of the positive influence it has had on India’s mainstream thinking. At the very least, the debate has catapulted poverty and growth into the centrestage of India’s current political discourse — a welcome, and progressive departure from the shrillness of the divisive caste-religion discussions usually heard in an election year in India. And it could not have come at a better time. We are in the process of legislating ourselves a free lunch at a time when fiscal and currency administrators are battling to reverse the slide of the economy that has crashed to a decade-low growth. Right to live is a right to live with human dignity. Access to food forms the core of this dignity. This is broadly Mr Sen’s argument. However, differences are bound to emerge over how much food should be guaranteed, to whom and who shall foot the bill. The State, if it has to pick the tab, needs to earn more. Quicker growth adds more funds to the State’s coffers. So, growth is a necessary condition. This forms the crux of Mr Bhagwati’s premise. It is critical to bring the wealth of such dialogues from the confines of university campuses to common citizens, from academic journals to mainstream journalism. Debates, such as the one between Mr Sen and Mr Bhagwati, help enrich the quality of public discussions and we should welcome more of these.