Tolerance, respect are a must for economic progress: Raghuram Rajan

In this edited excerpt from <i>I Do What I do</i> by Raghuram Rajan, the former RBI chief, contends that the right to question and challenge is essential for growth


Raghuram Rajan

Thank you very much for inviting me back to the Institute to deliver the convocation address. I graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering thirty years ago. I was overly anxious then about what the future held for me, because I did not realize that the Institute had prepared me so well for what lay ahead... Equally important, our Electrical Engineering class – in those days, Computer Science was part of Electrical Engineering in IIT Delhi – had some of the smartest people it has been my privilege to know. After working with them as colleagues, and competing with them for grades, I learned what it took to succeed in the fiercest environments; very hard work, friendship, and boatloads of luck. Those lessons have stayed with me since...

In speaking here today, I am aware that most convocation addresses are soon forgotten. That creates a form of moral hazard for the speaker. If you are not going to remember what I say, I don’t have the incentive to work hard at crafting my words. The net effect is what economists refer to as a bad equilibrium; my speech is forgettable, and you therefore forget it soon. If so, we are probably better off with me skipping the rest of the speech, and all of us going on to other pressing duties.

Nevertheless, I am going to look beyond my personal incentives and fulfil my dharma as chief guest. I will speak on why India’s tradition of debate and an open spirit of enquiry is critical for its economic progress. Let me explain...

Robert Solow won the Nobel Prize in Economics for work that showed that the bulk of economic growth did not come from putting more factors of production such as labour and capital to work. Instead, it came from putting those factors of production together more cleverly, that is, from what he called total factor productivity growth. Put differently, new ideas, new methods of production, better logistics – these are what lead to sustained economic growth...

So what does an educational institution or a nation need to do to keep the idea factory open? The first essential is to foster competition in the marketplace for ideas. This means encouraging challenge to all authority and tradition, even while acknowledging that the only way of dismissing any view is through empirical tests. What this rules out is anyone imposing a particular view or ideology because of their power. Instead, all ideas should be scrutinized critically, no matter whether they originate domestically or abroad, whether they have matured over thousands of years or a few minutes, whether they come from an untutored student or a world-famous professor…

I am sure many of you have come across Richard Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, a must-read when we were at IIT... In his autobiography, though, he writes how he found the atmosphere at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton stultifying. Now, as you know, the Institute of Advanced Studies brings together some of the finest scholars in the world to ponder problems in a multi-disciplinary environment. But he found the atmosphere sterile because there were no students to ask him questions, questions that would force him to rethink his beliefs and perhaps discover new theories. Ideas start with questioning and alternative viewpoints, sometimes seemingly silly ones...

This then leads to a second essential: protection, not of specific ideas and traditions, but the right to question and challenge, the right to behave differently so long as it does not hurt others seriously... In this protection lies societal self-interest, for it is by encouraging the challenge of innovative rebels that society develops, that it gets the ideas that propel Solow’s total factor productivity growth. Fortunately, India has always protected debate and the right to have different views. Some have even embedded these views in permanent structures. Raja Raja Chola, in building the magnificent Brihadeeswara Shaivite temple at Thanjavur, also incorporated sculptures of Vishnu as well as the meditating Buddha, thus admitting to alternative viewpoints. When Shahenshah Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar invited scholars of all manner of persuasion to debate the eternal verities at his court, he was only following older traditions of our Hindu and Buddhist kings, who encouraged and protected the spirit of enquiry.

What then of group sentiment? Should ideas or behaviour that hurt a particular intellectual position or group not be banned? Possibly, but a quick resort to bans will chill all debate as everyone will be anguished by ideas they dislike. It is far better to improve the environment for ideas through tolerance and mutual respect.

Let me explain. Actions that physically harm anyone, or show verbal contempt for a particular group so that they damage the group’s participation in the marketplace for ideas, should certainly not be allowed. For example, sexual harassment, whether physical or verbal, has no place in society. At the same time, groups should not be looking for slights any and everywhere, so that too much is seen as offensive; the theory of confirmation bias in psychology suggests that once one starts looking for insults, one can find them everywhere, even in the most innocuous statements. Indeed, if what you do offends me but does not harm me otherwise, there should be a very high bar for prohibiting your act. After all, any ban, and certainly any vigilante acts to enforce it, may offend you as much, or more, than the offence to me. Excessive political correctness stifles progress as much as excessive licence and disrespect.

Put differently, while you should avoid pressing the buttons that upset me to the extent possible, when you do push them you should explain carefully why that is necessary so as to move the debate forward, and how it should not be interpreted as a personal attack on me. You have to tread respectfully, assuring me that a challenge to the ideas I hold is necessary for progress. At the same time, I should endeavour to hold few ideas so closely intertwined with my personality that any attack on them is deemed an intolerable personal affront. Tolerance means not being so insecure about one’s ideas that one cannot subject them to challenge – it implies a degree of detachment that is absolutely necessary for mature debate. Finally, respect requires that in the rare case when an idea is tightly associated with a group’s core personality, we are extra careful about challenging it...

Let me conclude. IITans like you will lead India’s race for ideas. The India that you will graduate into is much more capable of using your technological prowess than the India we graduated into. I wish you unlimited ambition, and forecast great success for those of you who continue thinking and challenging. But as you go out in the world, remember our tradition of debate in an environment of respect and tolerance. By upholding it, by fighting for it, you will be repaying your teachers in this great institution, and your parents who worked so hard to send you here. And you will be doing our country a great patriotic service. Thank you and good luck.

Extract taken with permission from Harper Collins India.

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