In this post, I want to mention one of the most fundamental social dilemmas that always bug me. It is such an impasse that even a large amount of thought has not given me much insight (or maybe, I am just a fool when it comes to sociology). So, I present it here, anticipating that someone will help me out. The central predicament is this: In large settings, especially when a large number of people with conflicting interests are involved, how exactly are resources allocated?
For the purposes of this post, let us assume that I have a split personality. Also let us assume that OP1 and OP2 are my two personalities who have graciously agreed to repeat in conversation form, a typical train of thoughts that rambles in my mind when I come to think of this dilemma.What I present forth is an argument between the two characters, each trying to outdo the other:
OP1: In a democracy, resources are allocated to bring about the welfare of the maximum. For example, the Maharashtra government, in 2005, on being faced with a paucity of electric power, came up with a “load shedding scheme”, which allotted more power to the urban areas, saying that these are the places that have most industries and have the most consumption. This evinces the basic function of a democratic government: to bring about the progress of the majority.
OP2: Is it right to allot more electricity to the urban areas just saying that they consume more? Does this mean that the students in villages don’t need electricity to study, or that the people in villages should have an uncomfortable life just because they live in villages? It is simply not fair in a democracy; we cannot take away the basic necessities of one group of people and give them to another group of people, just on the basis of their location. No-one should be divested of the bare essentials
OP1: But we simply cannot proceed like a “depth first search” wherein we completely satisfy the primary requirements of every needy individual in the country and only then turn towards industrial/urban development. We need to allocate resources to everyone. Once a certain amount of resources have been allocated, then it’s a question of which set of resources gets exhausted first. Resources are always less than the demand, and hence people are bound to stay hungry even after a large amount of resources have been allocated to them. Hence, a mix of both, rural and urban development is what is required.
OP2: Sure, I am not debating the need for the urban necessities like building roads in cities, but the fact that most urban resource allocations go into luxuries. When villages have more than 12 hour power cuts, is it right to have energy guzzling luxuries like shopping malls or parks? When about 20 million people in our country sleep hungry, is it right to spend billions on the Commonwealth games? With the resources being less than the demand, unfairness is bound to get in, but at least it should be equally unfair for all. People should be ready to give up luxuries for the “greater common good”. I personally would rather live life without a shopping mall and a playground if that money is used for feeding the hungry or generating electricity in the rural areas.
OP1: The use of luxuries is a delicate issue, and cannot easily be restrained by the government. Shopping malls might guzzle electricity, but urban dwellers are able to pay the engendered humungous electricity bills. People have the right to spend their money the way they want. It is very difficult to convince the urban population to give up on luxuries, to suffer for the “greater common good”. It would be akin to the overriding personal freedom of the people if the government stops supplying electricity to malls when the people desire and are able to pay for shopping malls. Additionally, most necessities, like electricity become such an important part of our lives that we are unable to live without them. Laptops are academic necessities for IITians, but they become luxuries when the same person uses the laptop for leisure. It is very easy for you to just say that you will "live life" without a playground or a shopping mall, but will you really be able to let cut down on your leisure time (like watching sitcoms and social networking) on your computer, if say the electricity saved, would be used in rural locations? Or for that matter, will you really be fine if the local McDonalds or Dominos closed down?
At this point, the train of thoughts just crashes into a boulder in a dark tunnel and I stop thinking about the topic. The debate will be unending. I keep arguing and counter-arguing in an endless circle.
The only light at the end of the tunnel I see is this: A frugal, austere Gandhian economy not splurging on luxuries will alleviate the problem. However, this idea will be too idealistic unless the urge to do good to society lies within our minds and is not externally imposed. Thus the social problem becomes a personal problem. It depends on how much one wants to give up for the benefit of others. The luxuries which can be given up should be given up. This will be possible if we have a sense of unity and consideration for the have-nots in our country. This sense could stop one from over overindulging when millions of one's brothers and sisters sleep hungry.
Nevertheless, I have still not got a satisfactory solution to the social problem of allocating resources fairly, one that could be implemented by the management/government. What I have suggested above is just what I feel a personal mindset should be for the greater good. Any possible rejoinders are welcome.
P.S. The “inception” of this debate in my mind can be traced back to my intern days, when some of my friends got into a spirited argument, almost to the point of it becoming an altercation, as to whether IIT should fund non-academic activities (like cultural and sports activities) when the funds could be used for research or for improving the living conditions in hostels etc. That debate also ended in a deadlock, just as this one, as the basic dilemma was the same. That was the discussion that really got me thinking on this entire topic.