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June 2, 2012

Last night we showed the movie *Gandhi* to our kids. I probably have seen it 3 or 4 times already (It’s 3 hours long but it doesn’t feel like it). The difference this time was that I was wearing the econ-inspired goggles that I’ve been acquiring in the last ten years or so. Here are some random thoughts.

1. The movie starts in South Africa. Gandhi feels the brunt of discrimination as an Indian immigrant, and decides to fight it (non-violently). Initially it backfires and there’s a crack-down, but then the new law runs into trouble and is likely to be repealed, so Gandhi goes free, and he supposedly “won”. However, the movie is good about this point, when General Smuts pulls him out of prison to tell him that the legislation will be repealed, he also says that, as a result, immigration from India will have to stop. Gandhi looks shocked. Thinks for a moment, and says, we were not fighting to keep the immigration flows going, we were fighting for something else (the principle of equality etc…). This, at least to me, beautifully describes how difficult it is to “speak for the people”, to achieve meaningful societal change. Gandhi cannot possibly know all the individual choices that Indian immigrants or would-be Indian immigrants would have made. Some would probably have preferred the right to move to South Africa to earn a living even though they would then be treated as second-class citizens.

One could argue that symbolism is important, but at least in this case, it’s only symbolic to us now. South African society did not change for another hundred years. Gandhi’s victory was certainly important to build Gandhi’s fame, but the cost was borne by some very poor Indians.

2. Back in India, Gandhi continues his symbolic campaigns. He travels the country, learns to spin his own clothes, etc…This kind of “nationalism” (“love of country”) is understandable in the face of British oppression, but in hindsight can also be distasteful. Take for instance one of his campaigns whereby he incites the crowd to make a bonfire of all their pieces of garments produced in England. Again, the movie doesn’t shun the problem. Gandhi ponders about the workers in Manchester, but his British friend assures him that “they understand it’s for a good cause”. Blah. Pushing a return to home-production and traditional methods is a sure-fire way to impoverish Indian society even further. The energies that Indians save because they don’t have to spin their own clothes can be used in other more productive endeaviors. The workers in Manchester are actually not the point. The point are the workers in India. Again, the move is a symbolic one, for political purposes, but the costs fall on poor Indian people.

3. At times one feels Gandhi is pushing the limits of free-speech. At what point do his non-violent provocations become incitement to violence? Can he really claim that he didn’t know, or that he warned people to stay united across religions etc…or is he partially responsible for casualties resulting from the riots?

4. One symbolic campaign that warmed my heart, and likely blinded me to possible unintended consequnces, was the march to the ocean. Gandhi walks a few hundred miles to the shore and then “makes salt”. He does this to protest the British monopoly on salt production. This type of civil-disobedience is great and where, I think, Gandhi is at his best.

Throughout his life Gandhi faces legislation he does not agree with. Instead of direct political involvement he tries to learn “what people actually do”. He then tries to point to other laws, other principles that are already in place, and that are in direct contradiction with the ones he doesn’t like. With discrimination in South Africa he also appeals to Christianity, but ultimately confides in “British law” as being on his side.

In the end, by the taking the bottom-up approach he learns that there’s a difference between law and legislation (a Hayekian theme). By learning about how people actually live, he becomes ever more aware of how much manufactured legislation can be at odds with the actual “laws” of the land, the mores, the customs, the unspoken understandings, etc…As a result he is afraid of what “success” can bring (maybe a lesson that he learned earlier in South Africa?). He worries about what kind of politicians will take over after the Brits leave. He understand the problems that can arise from centralised legislation. More than anything he tries to preach pan-religious unity because he realizes these differences can easily be manipulated.

It’s a wonderful movie. Show it to your kids.

  1. Gandhi also slept naked with little girls and boys. He claimed, to test his temptation. When his wife was dying, he said they should refuse to turn to “western medicine” and rely on traditional cures. She died. When he became ill, he turned to western medicine.

  2. Adam permalink

    regarding point #2, does it make a difference that British rule in India followed the mercantilist model, rather than the capitalist method?

  3. Yes of course, he’s not facing a nice situation, but home-spinning your own clothes might still be a fantastic loss of time, energy, and productivity.

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