Editorial/Flatfoot cosmos
Illiberal smokescreen
Letters to the Editor

In a famous poem, Robert Frost wondered if the world would end in fire or in ice, and stated a preference for the former. The late New Hampshire poet would have been mildly disappointed following the recent revelations of two separate airborne telescopes, Boomerang and Maxima, on the nature and character of the universe. Following from Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, there have been three contending theories on the geometry of the universe that developed from its explosive creation, the big bang. The first was that it was closed, its shape somewhat curved and its expansion limited. The second was that the universe would be open, that it would expand forever and until it became a cold, energyless void. Finally, and somewhat boringly, was the flat universe hypothesis which predicted a relatively featureless cosmos whose geometry was not unlike a gingham tablecloth. Going by the pictures the satellites took, flatworlders have won the day. And the universe will die coldly.

The universe created some 300,000 years after the big bang is a huge shell of hot detritus. This generates radiation, so called cosmic microwave background, which gives a pretty good idea of the physical character of the big balloon at that time. Both Boomerang and Maxima returned pictures of a smooth, almost featureless universe. Not completely featureless, obviously, otherwise there would be no stars and planets. The telescope showed the fabric of the universe was then criss crossed with thin lines of varying thicknesses. It was from these ripples that the observable universe which mankind is familiar with emerged. Stars, planets and galaxies all coalesced from these ripples because of gravity, speckling the universe’s otherwise remarkable uniformity.

The telescope pictures also pick a winner among several theories on the nature of the big bang. They more or less confirm the so called 1979 “inflation” theory of Mr Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Mr Guth had posited that the big bang had roughly two stages. In the first, the universe underwent a rapid, split second, growth just after its explosive birth, expanding to about the size of a grapefruit. After that, it grew at a more sedate pace until it became the sphere billions of light years across that it is today. Among other things, Mr Guth had predicted that the first stage of inflation would leave behind these cosmic ripples, wrinkles on the face of existence.

The telescopes also shed some light on so called dark matter. It has long been recognized that most of the universe is made up of a mysterious material called dark matter. Boomerang and Miranda have indicated that dark matter comprises some 94 per cent of the matter in the universe. More importantly, the evidence points to dark matter being a completely different form of matter, not merely a variation of the electron, proton and neutron stuff human beings are familiar with.

The juvenile universe was quite bland. Somewhat like a large pool of clear, dark beer with the odd strand of bubbles floating inside. From the strands, however, arouse the flaming stars and rotating planets and quarrelsome humans that make up the observable universe. But these colourful bits are the exception rather than the rule. The telescopes confirm that normal matter is actually quite rare, a thin froth in a dark matter cosmos. Astronomers are starting to believe the chances of other lifeforms in these tiny crumbs of existence are less likely than expected. The presence of huge black holes in the middle of most galaxies has led some to argue large swathes of these galaxies are too hostile to life, that there is a habitable zone in most galaxies that reduces the number of potential life bearing stars and planets considerably. In a flat universe, mankind may yet be the life of the cosmic party.    

Democracy empowers citizens by providing them the opportunity to exercise freedom of choice in the political arena. Despite many flaws, few believe there is a better political system. However, paralleling democracy’s spread are continuous attempts to restrict people’s choice in the name of preserving public morality, health, economic equity and now the environment.

Ruling establishments are reluctant to accept that if people can lawfully choose their representatives, they have greater right to decide personal preferences. Particularly if in the exercise of those preferences no one else is hurt, and the person bears the cost of making the choice.

Time and again, the cost to society of the elite meddling is borne by the poor. Yet attempts to endanger political and economic freedoms are perpetual. These self-proclaimed benefactors pose the greatest threat to individual freedom and wellbeing in the 21st century. A manifestation of the attack on individual choice is the continuing campaign against tobacco, ostensibly on grounds of public health.

The history of such controls is one of failure. The United States experiment with prohibition in the Twenties left only a legacy of organized crime. New Delhi has been equally unsuccessful. The gold control law of the Sixties. This led to a huge explosion in international smuggling, creating channels through which RDX explosives are slipped into the country.

The US’s “war on drugs” has been costly: billions of dollars have been spent and the prison system is overflowing with offenders. The promised victory is nowhere in sight. Some Latin American governments are being increasingly marginalized, caught between the drug mafias and the US government.

Good intentions are never a sufficient condition for bringing about social change. The do gooders claim to make life safe and free of risk. Only a life in a cage provides such safety

Life is about taking risks. And benefiting yourself, and your fellow risk takers, if you are successful. And accepting the consequence if it is not. A useful example of such risk taking is private entrepreneurship. Enterprise in others is an anathema to all control freaks, many of whom appear to be entrepreneurial only when it comes to controlling the lives of others.

Drugs and alcohol have been a part of Indian culture from time immemorial. There is no evidence this led to any collective decay or degeneration. Today India is a democracy. The underlying principle being that every voter, irrespective of background, has the wisdom to meaningfully participate in the decisionmaking process. Do gooders think these same people are too incompetent to decide on issues that directly affect their lives — drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or even lottery tickets.

There will always be some people who will make a choice harmful to themselves. But society as a whole comes out stronger for the lessons they learn. That is why control was not necessary in past.

International bodies like World Health Organisation have been trying to rally support for a crusade against tobacco. WHO’s prime focus should be curing malaria and other avoidable diseases. But focussing on real diseases would mean targeting governments. WHO is made up of such governments. How much more convenient to attack the salesman of certain products or hold the common man responsible for his alleged follies.

WHO and the like are motivated by money, particularly the costs to the state health service. But the inefficiencies of the health service should be dealt with by denationalization, private participation and introducing competition.

There are no activists on the streets protesting against attempts to control people’s preference for tobacco. The reason: most of these self-proclaimed representatives of the people are control freaks themselves. WHO and they carry the same anti-choice candle. WHO’s attempt to control health care, and restrain individual freedom, legitimizes their own agenda of controlling a whole range of economic and political issues.

This desire for control poses the greatest threat to individual freedom, dignity and choice in the new century. Grassroots voices against this insidious subversion are growing. The Nobel economist Milton Friedman has called for an end to the US’s war on drugs. It will be a pity if under the aegis of WHO, a new “war on tobacco” is launched even as the old war on drugs is being abandoned. Reports of cigarette smuggling between Canada and the US, and Britain and Spain, are no surprise.

Of course, cigarettes are not even the main issue in India. Bidis and chewing tobacco constitute one of the few simple pleasures accessible to millions of poor in India and other developing countries.

These people carry the cross of failed government economic policies, unresponsive and indifferent administrations. No Indian political leader will tell these people that if elected he will send police to sniff out tobacco in their homes. Agencies like WHO provide a cover to push for types of control that will otherwise never receive popular mandate.

No one denies tobacco carries a degree of risk. Life is full of risks and uncertainties. Indeed, it is the attempt to lower risks and overcome uncertainties that contribute to improving the quality of life.

The question is who should bear the cost of taking the risk? For example, should smokers force others to share his risk through passive smoking?

It is assumed those external to the trade in tobacco — passive smokers — must be protected by the government. It is often forgotten people have been devising strategies to deal with such situations for a long time. Even without going into the science of whether or not passive smoking is harmful, there are many instances of people devising voluntary responses to similar situations.

For instance, Indian restaurants routinely publicize their “pure vegetarian” or “non-vegetarian” status, depending on the clientele they seek. Many ban alcohol or cigarettes. Privately operated chartered bus services in Delhi charge extra for smoke free rides or smoking privileges. Demand has induced some airlines to offer special smokers only flights. The power of private negotiation best comes through reported instances where passengers sitting at the border zone of smoking and non-smoking seats in airlines have made deals to induce a neighbouring smoker not to light up during the flight.

These illustrations of amicable private settlements over so-called public domain contrasts sharply with the performance of public regulations. For instance, in Delhi a law was passed giving powers to government officials to arrest smokers in an attempt to restrict smoking in many designated public and private places. Two years since its passage, no one has ever been prosecuted. The law has not achieved its objective. It is just being grossly violated, to the point it is impossible for the authorities to seriously try to prosecute.

Tobacco regulations attempt to drag to the public domain what is essentially a private issue. Socialism failed because it is impossible to efficiently allocate resources by publicly controlling private property. A much more efficient way is to bring much of what is thought to be in the public domain under private control — privatize public goods.

An advantage of this approach is that one can bypass the evaluation of scientific evidence for and against tobacco. Science doesn’t get politicized under the pressures of public policymaking. Public policy doesn’t get embroiled in scientific debates. Instead it focuses on ensuring maximum space to the public so that everyone negotiates their respective preferences. That is what an open market provides. The competitive environment of an open market induces suppliers to make available scientific information to consumers about product safety. There is no doubt consumers should be aware that certain practices or preferences might be harmful.

The refusal of public agencies and activists to explore nonregulatory approaches to the tobacco debate exposes their real agenda. They create an environment of crisis in order to justify regulatory controls. Public health is a façade to camouflage restrictions on freedom of choice.

In a competitive economy, companies and even industries come and go. There is no reason to shed a tear for the tobacco industry if it fails because of changing consumer preference. But the orchestrated assault on tobacco by various groups is not just an attack on an industry. It is an attack on individual freedom and liberty.

The author is founder member, Liberty Institute, New Delhi    


End of an affair

Sir — It was good while it lasted. Why do Elizabeth Hurley and Hugh Grant have to bend over backwards apologizing for going their separate ways after 13 years of “togetherness”. The two were actually hardly together during this time and had their own little peccadillos that made predictable headlines (“Hurley and Hugh split wide open”, May 25). And what is this suspension of a relationship which, if Hurley is to be believed, gave rise to arguments as those between “sisters”? Do they somehow feel beholden and accountable to the media for creating their affair? After all, the tabloids will probably be the only losers from this split.

Yours faithfully,
Leena Sen, Calcutta

Queer anxieties

Sir — One must appreciate Rupali Ghosh’s concern for the sensitive matter of disclosing one’s sexuality to one’s parents and their response in turn (“Of sickly boys and healthy men”, May 23). Ghosh rightly observes that it is the parents’ ignorance about homosexuality that makes them react the way they do. This is significant since parents are also part of the larger society.

The usual pattern of parental reaction is like this. Initially parents don’t accept their child’s homosexuality and become very defensive. Eventually, with the acceptance of the truth, they try to go out of their way to “help their child change his sexuality” and become a “normal human being”, that is, become heterosexual. Parents start developing a sense of guilt within themselves as they wrongly perceive the Freudian conception of “faulty child-rearing practices or parental images”. Most parents feel it is their duty to get their children married. When this is resisted, they develop a sense of incompletion of their “duty”. This strong sense of guilt, coupled with shame develop into a deep sense of non-achievement.

Even though the initial reaction of some parents is negative, in course of time they accept the sexual orientation of their children. In my research experience, I have not seen families rejecting their children on account of their homosexual orientation. It is very important to understand that parents are in dire need of peer support. An innovative attempt was tried out in Mumbai recently for parents of gay men. It is time to have self-help groups helping the integration of the families of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual persons.

Yours faithfully,
Sherry Joseph, Santiniketan

Sir — The promotional, “How to tackle homosexuality in the family”, does a great disservice to Rupali Ghosh’s article. While Ghosh tries to dispel the deplorable notion that “homosexuality is a dangerous disease”, the promotional merely reinforces it. The suggestion that homosexuality needs to be “tackled” is a depressing indicator of the homophobia rampant in India.

Yours faithfully,
Abhijit Gupta, Calcutta

Double fault

Sir — When the media was agog with Hansie Cronje, The Telegraph was having its own ball. On April 9, the South African high commissioner was named Maite Nkoane-Ramashaba. In the next episode, she became Mashabane. Also, the general post office stamp fraud was reported in the “Metro” on March 30, “Stamp racket by GPO staff busted”, and again on April 13, “Police crack fake stamp racket, 2 held”. Wasn’t there enough news?

Yours faithfully,
Denzil Wong-Sooting, via e-mail

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The Telegraph
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Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]    

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