The cost of stifling voices

Prashant Bhushan  

Ethical explorations often begin with emotional injury. Something simply feels wrong, and you ask yourself whether you are missing an important bit of information or the right perspective. This happened when I read the Supreme Court judgment pronouncing senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan guilty of criminal contempt for his two “scurrilous” tweets. I have known the Bhushan family for over three decades, a family of lawyers defined by their commitment to preserving and strengthening the judicial system and using it in the public interest. How could Mr. Bhushan be accused of malice against the system? How did we get here? I searched for the tweets, and the discussion around them. The court took a position on an important ethical question: Do we strengthen or weaken institutions by criticising some of the actions of those holding public office? The judgment sets a worrying precedent and affects all of us who raise our voices within public institutions and hope to improve them.


Exit and Voice

Students who are interested in economics often ask me what they should read. The little book on the top of my list is always Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Each time I look through it, I come away with something new. I opened it again now, searching for a peg for my thoughts. Hirschman contrasts Exit and Voice as two alternative mechanisms for the repair of societal institutions. When consumers switch from one firm to another, an employee moves to a job with better working conditions or a family moves across neighbourhoods, they are all exercising exit. When a partner in a marriage complains of abuse, or workers protest against management action, it is voice. Exit and voice work together. Without any possibility of exit, voices would remain unheard, and if exit were too easy, very few would invest in voice. Public health and education work best in countries where they are inclusive. When the wealthy and most educated exit to private providers, public systems are often starved of resources and ideas. In politics, exit is used at the time of elections, while voice makes incumbents accountable. The relative importance of the exit and voice mechanisms varies across organisation types, but, as Hirschman points out, “In a whole gamut of human institutions, from the state to the family, voice, however ‘cumbrous’, is all their members normally have to work with.”

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Judicial initiative, often in response to public interest litigation, has led to many progressive decisions over the last two decades. These include the Supreme Court’s order that free meals should be provided for all schoolchildren in public primary schools. Scrutinising the behaviour of the legislative and executive arms of government did not lower the dignity associated with those offices or undermine democracy. On the contrary, it improved their functioning. Moreover, such scrutiny relied on critical voices from the field. Social activists pointed to growing grain stocks with the Food Corporation of India which could be used to eliminate child hunger.

Strengthening institutions

Courts exist to promote justice by adjudicating on disagreements. The judiciary relies on listening to testimonies and deciphering them to extract evidence. The many voices they hear are rarely non-partisan. They are muffled, broken, acrimonious, vengeful, disingenuous, arrogant, self-righteous and many other things. Yet judges know, better than anyone else, that good jurisprudence relies on listening to all of these and separating the wheat from the chaff. If they were to restrict themselves to the cool and candid, the result would often be silence. Most of us do not speak when we are calm, we enjoy the feeling while it lasts.

Voice has the potential to strengthen institutions and help them adapt to a changing environment. Deliberation and debate are needed if we are to pool information, negotiate our differences, and make better collective decisions. In stifling voice, we risk the disengagement of those who are most invested in preserving our democratic institutions.

Rohini Somanathan is Professor, Delhi School of Economics

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 5:16:24 AM |

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