Talking about liberalism in India, one falls for the insipid and inane debate between some mythologized Western rugged individualism and ostensible Eastern harmonious social co-operation. But we are talking about the autonomy of individuals and groups as opposed to the ever-increasing authority of the state and its functionaries – bureaucrats and politicians. For example, one can be for generous voluntary charity and various socio-cultural associations while still being against the idea of these aims being enforced by the government – especially beyond a certain necessary minimum and in a one-size-fits-all centralized manner. One can peacefully protest or better still economically boycott artists and writers producing work that one finds offensive – that happens to be a voluntary, social-based activism route – while still defending those very artists from being arrested by the government, or their works being censored. After all, such authoritarian steps by the state reduce the autonomy of those individuals who may not find the paintings, say, to be offensive. Indeed, even if everybody found that painting to be offensive, but so long as it was just a painting, banning it still takes away the autonomy of the artist.
Therefore, when one talks about individual freedom, one does not call for a lonely atomism – whereby any collectivism is looked down upon. Getting together for a cause – or for good old fun – is second nature to man. What is morally worrying to many is a coerced collectivism that is either not prevented by the state, or is worse encourage by it – whether such collectivisms are along social divisions like caste or religious purposes, or along the more Marxist thought of class lines. As the American polemicist Thomas Paine wrote in his revolutionary pamphlet, Common Sense, the biggest mistake that many people make (and quite clearly, continue to make) is to confuse the nation’s state with the nation’s society. Whether something should be done is one normative question, who it should be done by is another normative question (and how it should be done is yet another – although that is less of a normative and more of a positivist question). Indeed, such ideas based on voluntarism and trusteeship formed the underpinnings of Mohandas Gandhi – who was strongly against a centralized, powerful state, and who has been grossly misinterpreted by Indian politicians as we will read about later. Another point to note here about this rather silly accusation of individual freedom resulting in a lonely and listless society is that it is actually coercive collectivism – especially in the form of socialism – that leads to people living lonely and relatively more “atomized” lives with no more need for family and community as a safeguard for individual welfare.