Pratap Bhanu Mehta on The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Shruti Rajagopalan and Pratap Bhanu Mehta discuss the ideas of Adam Smith and how they apply to India

In this episode, Shruti speaks with Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta about Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” spectatorship and imagination, self-interest, federalism, the Scottish Enlightenment as applied to Indian politics and much more. Mehta is the Laurence Rockefeller Professor for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton University. He is also a contributing editor and columnist at the Indian Express and former president and chief executive of the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi. He has written extensively on intellectual history, constitutional law and theory, political theory, India’s social transformation and world affairs. He is the recipient of the Infosys Prize, the Adiseshiah Prize and the Amartya Sen Prize.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and today my guest is Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who is the Laurence Rockefeller Professor for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton and former president and chief executive of the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi. He is the author of various books and edited volumes, has served on various government committees, and is a columnist for the Indian Express.

We talked about the relevance of Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” to modern-day India, the role of the impartial spectator, of rules of justice, an idea of virtue that is both linked to and separate from religion, Smith’s analytical egalitarianism, decentralized competition, Pratap’s intellectual journey and much more.

For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit

Hi, Pratap. It’s such a pleasure to have you on the show. I feel like I have waited a very long time to have this conversation with you.

PRATAP BHANU MEHTA: No, it’s a great privilege being on the show, and I’m sure there’s a lot to learn from you as well, so really excited.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. I want to talk to you about something that you are not associated with very often because we mostly know you from, of course, your Indian Express popular columns and the books you’ve written on Indian democracy and Indian political theory, and even the edited volumes on constitutional law and so on. But I wanted to take you back to some of your earlier scholarship.

This is in particular on Adam Smith, and the reason I wanted to learn from you was, there are two parts of Adam Smith I’ve been thinking about recently. One is, as an economist, what I see around me is the very reductive version of Adam Smith, the entire focus on self-interested behavior, which has now been converted into all these axioms. And homo economicus is the centerpiece around which everything else is built in economics. And of course, as you have written, Adam Smith is so much more than just the idea of self-interest, and also the idea of self-interest as virtue. There are many, many more virtues that he talks about. That is one part.

Spectatorship and Imagination

RAJAGOPALAN: And the other is, I have been reading “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” a little bit more carefully recently and thinking about the impartial spectator, this metaphorical device that Adam Smith uses like a conscience keeper, to tell an individual whether their conduct in society is according to the rules of justice and propriety and prudence, and so on. I’ve been trying to think of these two ideas mainly with respect to what we see in Indian society today.

How does one think about the impartial spectator in a society like India, which is so fractionalized, and therefore the rules and social norms within each group differ to such an extent that what is propriety, according to the impartial spectator, as constructed within the group, might be quite different than another? How can Adam Smith’s impartial spectator and those ideas guide how we think of living in a very fractionalized society in India?

MEHTA: Thanks, Shruti. Those are two really big questions, and you’ve taken me back years. You’re very generous to call what I did 30 years ago scholarship. It was just a kind of feeble attempt to learn about Smith, but Smith is a truly fascinating figure. Let me begin with your second question about the impartial spectator first. I don’t think there’s anything particularly challenging about India in relation to thinking about the impartial spectator. I don’t think there’s a conceptual problem that’s any different than what would arise anywhere else, right?

The big-picture move you have to first make is to actually locate the impartial spectator in a wide spectrum of moral possibilities. One of the fascinating things about Smith and Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment—I mean, broadly, there was this story that, look, if you can get the priests and the warriors, the ambitious warriors, out of the picture of morality, mostly human nature will turn out fine. We are variegated in our passions, our imaginations, our interests. And really, the confidence that in some senses, if you could rescue them from the kinds of institutions, all the kinds of human exercises of imagination that inflame our passions in the wrong directions, mostly we’ll be fine.

I think mostly what they had in mind were priests and warriors, frankly. And the question was, if you take out the priests and the warriors, either take out command or you take out some religious conception of morality or something equivalent to it—where does morality come from—the basic idea that you could actually rely on some conception of spectatorship.

One of the nice things about “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” and I think that whole kind of Scottish move is, it doesn’t begin by asking what are universal values. It begins by asking actually, what is a human trait you can recognize that everybody has? The first thing you recognize is actually spectatorship. We like looking at things. We are curious about other people. It’s something as elemental as that. The thought is that in some senses, can you actually build something out of a theory of spectatorship? There’s spectatorship. There’s the faculty of the imagination, which is absolutely central to everything Adam Smith does.

In fact, people often call the Enlightenment the age of reason. It’s actually not the age of reason; it’s the age of imagination. Even his wonderful essay on the “History of Astronomy” actually begins by saying, The foundation of science is imagination. It’s actually not reason. Reason has a kind of coercive aspect to it. You have spectatorship, you have imagination—which, again, Smith thinks pretty much every culture, every human being exhibits in one form or another. Even the most quotidian of religious ritual depends on an act of imagination. Why do you care for your ancestors? What is it that produces that feeling? It’s, in a sense, the imagination that allows you to bridge that gap.

One of the fascinating things about Smith was that he actually begins with spectatorship and imagination and then says that we also have this pretty elemental experience. I’m not being technical here. I’m just looking at the kind of intuition. This pretty elemental experience of being able to imagine other people watching us. That’s partly what living in society is. Most of what we do is often governed by how we think others view us, our seeking of esteem. Again, esteem is something everybody seeks in different forms. The only interesting question is, what are the forms of behavior to which society accords esteem?

Now, Rousseau thought, for example, that the seeking of esteem was a form of moral corruption because it meant that you were living your lives vicariously. You’re living it through imagining how others view it and then presenting yourself as if you were worthy of their esteem. Smith says, “Look, actually, you can do a lot of things with esteem,” because one of the things it does, it allows us to bifurcate ourselves. I’m not just an actor. I can imagine how other people might be viewing me. I can, therefore, also imagine what it is like to think of being in a situation that somebody else is. I think the interesting move that Smith makes is that the act of imagination is not a selfish act. What would I do if I were in your place?

It’s, given what I know about you in that situation, what would it be like for me to be you? It’s almost empathy more than sympathy, in some ways. I think the fascinating part is that it begins with these pretty elemental experiences, which are actually the foundations of some bizarre things, as I said, in Smith—and says, We can construct some conception of morality out of it.

Now, what are the limitations to this? That may come more directly to your question of the Indian context, if you want to take it that way. To my mind, I think the most important one is actually not in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” It is there, but I think it’s more pronounced in “The Wealth of Nations,” which is Smith’s discussion of poverty.

What is the most appalling thing about poverty? It is that it puts you completely out of the circle of sympathy. In fact, he says one of the most onerous things about poverty is the invisibility. There’s a vicious circle. Because poverty makes you invisible, the poor will also tend to huddle together in groups. In some senses, it’s a self-protection device. You don’t want to put yourself in that situation.

There’s one very clear limitation that in a society which is wrecked by extraordinary inequality, where the challenge is that there’ll be groups of people who are completely outside of the pale of your sympathy. They don’t even count, as it were, let alone count as spectators. You’re actually not going to get this working in some ways.

The second limitation is, I do think proximity does play a little bit of a role in this. I think Amartya Sen is right that Smith’s theory is universal in the sense that you could imagine anybody watching you, in principle, any intelligent agent. In China or, you know—how would I look like to the Chinese? In that sense, it’s a universal theory, but there clearly is a sense in which a certain kind of proximity is what produces an affective identification. Yes, I can imagine what it is like for an Australian or a Chinese to be observing me and vice versa. Does it disturb my sleep as much as thinking about what my neighbor might be thinking of me? In that sense, equality and proximity at least help in the socialization of that impartial spectator.

It’s a real impediment trying to actually imagine what would it be like to be an agent of that sort. The challenge with the poor is that we don’t even put them in the space of reasons. And so, in that sense, I think the egalitarian Smith ought to be the more important part of Indian discussions than simply the system of natural liberty.

Analytical Egalitarianism

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to pick up on that egalitarian aspect of Smith that you mentioned. To me, also, I think the most fascinating thing that comes from Smith is that the wealth of nations is not contingent upon rich people or special people or especially abled or talented people. It comes from regular folks. All his examples are the butcher, the brewer, the baker. The wealth of nations really comes from ordinary people engaging in division of labor and specialization, which amounts to something extraordinary, and that, I think, is probably the most interesting thing overall about “The Wealth of Nations” and how I view it as its greatest applicability to India.

Of course, there are basic principles of increasing the size of the market, all the usual economist stuff. But I think this analytical egalitarianism, as David Levy and so on describe it, I think that might be a very useful device for India, especially because we have a version of dividing labor by caste, and some individuals are considered superior to others within that division. I think this Smith move of, “It is not the aristocrats who are making England rich. It is the butcher, the baker, the brewer and the people working in the pin factory.” I think that to me is something we could do by appropriating into the Indian context quite easily.

MEHTA: It’s actually a much deeper revolution. I think what Smith is doing is actually far more revolutionary. One is, of course, defining what the wealth of nations is, and the wealth of nations is ultimately the living standards of people. That’s his critique of mercantilism. It’s not how much gold, silver, trinkets you carry, how many fancy apartments you have. It’s literally that. Second, of course, identifying the source, which, as you rightly said, is the productivity of ordinary people. The third thing which is really interesting about “The Wealth of Nations,” that it’s the productivity of ordinary people and the complete idiocy and folly of the rich.


MEHTA: The idiocy and folly comes in two aspects. One, Smith almost never has anything good to say about holders of power. He’s deeply skeptical of them qua individuals and, in a sense, the stations in which they are located. Capital is always conspiring to make the economy less efficient. But the two things about the folly of the rich, one which is very deep and powerful—and frankly, it’s hard to get one’s head around—which is that the desire for wealth and society’s thinking, or individuals’ thinking that wealth is important, is ultimately a product of deception and a monumental deception.

Smith is very clear. Wealth is not necessary for happiness, beyond a point. In fact, quite the opposite. In some of those passages, you can actually sound like a standard moralist critique of materialism in some ways. Wealth has no intrinsic connection to happiness, and it has no intrinsic connection to virtue.

He severs those two connections and then says, “Okay, why do people pursue this stuff?” Partly because, again, it’s the role of the imagination. They imagine themselves the object of esteem. Often, it’s an illusionary esteem because at the end of it, there’s no authentic happiness. Partly, I think, it’s important on aesthetic considerations: that, in fact, one of the reasons we often pursue wealth, beautiful things, great houses, nice furniture, is actually precisely because they are useless.

It’s the order that lies behind them. Again, that order is connected to our sensibility as inventive, aesthetic species, in some senses. Yes, the moralists are completely right, at one level. Wealth has no connection to virtue or happiness, but it is this deception that, in some senses, arouses our industry. That’s Smith’s answer to this conundrum of why we work and why we labor. In part, we labor once we are out of the realm of necessity, simply because we are inventive and aesthetic beings. That’s one kind of healthy deception. The other kind of healthy deception is, of course, the folly of the rich as a source of social change.

One of the things about “The Wealth of Nations,” the narrative arc, is that the system of natural liberty does not establish itself. The aristocrats are not going to—nobody’s going to give up power voluntarily, as it were. It’s precisely because the aristocrats like this aesthetic luxury—they like the trinkets and the baubles and their diamond buckles and the bells—that, at some point, they will be displaced by people who are more productive than them. In that sense, it’s actually a much more fascinating account of how social change actually happens and also poses, as I said, this deep existential dilemma: that if wealth has no intrinsic connection with happiness or virtue, then what social role does it perform?

Aligning Self-Interest With Social Interest

RAJAGOPALAN: On this, I would also extend and say I agree with you, that for Smith, wealth and virtue are not connected, but on the other hand, nor is the pursuit of wealth a vice. In the sense that he’s very clear that it is the pursuit of—it could be trinkets, it could be industry, it could be imagination—but the pursuit of self-interest, given the right institutions, can align with social interest. To me, that is in a sense, the biggest takeaway from Smith. Until that point, a lot of the moral imagination is this vulgar pursuit of interest or wealth must be necessarily bad in a—if I had to use a modern terminology—it must be a zero-sum game.

If I’m making or taking more for myself, someone must be left behind or left without. I think that is another extraordinary analytical vision that self-interest and social interest, given the right conditions, can align. Now, we need to think about all those instances where you don’t have all the right institutional conditions, and self-interest doesn’t quite lead to social interest. Then you need to think about other things, like sympathy and sentiments and the impartial spectator and so on for other forms of social cooperation, which cannot be disciplined by the market.

MEHTA: I broadly agree with you, but I actually think one has to be a little careful about how we use the term self-interest here. To me, one of the fascinating things about Smith is that he’s a wonderful phenomenologist of morality. And I think one of the interesting things about “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”—and going back to the discussion of impartial spectators—is that, at one level, in Smith’s theory, there isn’t a single passion except maybe pure, unalloyed benevolence, which rarely occurs, but there isn’t a single passion or sentiment that is an unalloyed virtue or vice. The question you have to ask is, is that sentiment or is that sensibility appropriate to the particular thing you are doing?

Even anger is good. Without anger, there’d be no impulse to justice. The question is, it has to be anger in the right proportion and with the right object. Resentment, he says, is actually the base of justice. In that context, you’re right that wealth turns out to be one of those things that is, in some sense, not connected to virtue. But an impartial spectator would not judge it to be—not only not judge it to be a vice, but actually, given the kind of imaginative beings that we are, there is actually a kind of inventive fascination.

I think one of the things, the ideological moves he makes, which is actually interesting, is to actually put wealth in this realm of aestheticism and inventiveness. In a sense, not just in the realm of luxury, which was again, Rousseau’s indictment, that this is really about luxury, wealth, interest, people wanting comfort. He says even a lot of people who pursue wealth, they actually don’t do it for the comforts. In fact, they kill themselves doing it, pursuing these beautiful objects or whatever. It’s that very subtle move from saying, look, this is actually fundamentally not just even about luxury.

Luxury will be corrupted, at one level. You’ll become lazy. You will become indolent. It’s about a certain kind of inventiveness of imagination. In that sense, I think it’s a much richer conception of self-interest. The other thing, I think, with the self-interest thing is that there are lots of things we typically think of as self-interest that Smith thought was the contrary of self-interest. Think of, for example, pride. The slave owner will not abolish slavery because there’s a kind of pride, amongst other things, a certain kind of pride in being a slave owner.

Now, we would actually reduce it to self-interest: This is the slave owner’s self-interest. Actually, in the Smithian sense, it’s not necessarily the self-interest. You could actually make the case that they might be more productive differently. You could actually make the case that they might be better off differently. In fact, the particular moral investment in slavery actually comes from passions that we think of as self-interest, but Smith thinks are actually the antithesis of self-interest: pride, jealousy.

One of Smith’s contemporaries, Joseph Butler—or predecessors in this tradition—he had this nice line about passions and sentiments: “Each thing is what it is, and nothing else.” I think the worst thing we have done to our moral vocabulary is to try to say, “It’s self-interest or benevolence.” There’s at least 50 other things you can think about—pride, jealousy, resentment—that are as much part of the drivers of this as anything else.

RAJAGOPALAN: I completely agree with you. I almost call this the Ayn Rand reading of Smith, this idealized self-interest as greed and very reductive, only about some kind of accounting of more money or more wealth as self-interest. You have a wonderful paper in one of the Cambridge volumes on Smith and the reductive idea of self-interest, and how individuals act in the marketplace versus actually the broader conception, which you talk about, which includes all these other things. It may also include aspects of beneficence, and once you really account for prudence within society, then each individual self-interest just looks a little bit more complex and a little bit more interesting.

Smith on Virtue

RAJAGOPALAN: The second part that you talked about, about how none of his ideas are necessarily—India need not be a special case for many of Smith’s ideas, including the impartial spectator. I want to push back a little on that, in that Smith makes a very clean break from the older religious ideas of morality and what is ethical behavior to what is considered appropriate, ethical, moral behavior in society. I think that’s one of the lasting contributions, especially overall, even of the Enlightenment.

In India, the way we think about what is virtuous behavior or what is appropriate behavior, to a very large extent, comes from a group identity, which is relying on a religious norm or practice. I know these are not fixed in a book. They’re a little loosey-goosey, but the idea of virtue and morality in India is very much linked to religion. Even now, for a lot of different kinds of behavior, you will routinely see people pointing to an older religious text immediately as the source of why this is appropriate.

To that extent, I’m always concerned about—is this kind of imagination that Smith led us to, possible in Indian society, which relies so heavily on what my neighbor thinks is right, depends so much on what my neighbor thinks is good because of the religious surround sound around it?

MEHTA: Let me push back a little bit [chuckles]. I don’t want to minimize the fact that there are deep differences between societies. Smith actually catalogs a lot of them. Look, how can somebody as smart as Plato get reconciled to infanticide? [chuckles] It’s just to take one kind of—again, Smith says there’s an imaginative consent. In that sense, I think Smith both understands that there’s variety and there’s also historical development. What is appropriate for what he might call an age of shepherds, a nomadic society, would not be appropriate for an advanced commercial society.

There is both temporal and spatial variety that accounts for it. The challenge, as I see it—and this would be the parallel—is I’m always a little bit skeptical when people say in India, morality is governed by religious texts and stuff. I actually don’t see any evidence of it. There’s a lot of window dressing; there’s a lot of glossing over. I think one of the complexities of India is that there isn’t a single authoritative text in any case. There are certain enduring ideals that people refer to. For example, you could actually argue that ideals of renunciation are very powerful in this tradition. In some senses, a certain conception of a desireless existence is a very powerful cultural ideal.

It’s also a culture that recognizes that that’s a cultural ideal that only a very few will not only aspire to, but is actually appropriate only to a very few. Everybody goes around quoting nishkama karma. It’s an achievement of a virtuoso; it’s not ordinary. At the social level, of course, it’s also society that actually does recognize the varieties of morals and mores that are appropriate to different groups. The obstacle I think we have is not that it’s sanctioned to religious texts, that we are any more in the thralls of tradition than the West is. You could still argue that the West was never Western and still isn’t. The West can be as communally bloodthirsty, when it comes, as any other society. The age of individualism also invented the age of nationalism.

I think the core issue is actually the one you identified, which is there is, in any society, a historically given structure of power. In India, it happens to be caste, in some ways, and modified appropriately by economic circumstances and combination of caste and class. And anybody who’s encrusted in that order finds it difficult to enlarge those circles of sympathy to give that basic egalitarian gesture of reciprocity.

To me, the basic term in Smith is actually reciprocity. That’s the best expression of equality. Reciprocity is different from self-interest. Self-interest is one where I want to exploit you. Again, this is something I think economists miss out. Reciprocity is, “I want equal standing as you.”

Now, the move to creating societies where that reciprocity between individuals is possible, that’s harder in India because of the particular history of inegalitarianism we have. I actually don’t think that what drives it now is actually some kind of fidelity to religious traditions. It’s what Smith would say, it’s the same old attachment to a certain unenlightened conception of what your power is. It’s true wherever there are descriptive identities, where there’s race, for example, in the United States, or gender.

I think this is something Smith arguably underestimated, that one of the passions we are capable of is this vicarious communal passion in the form of nationalism, forms of collective narcissism, that certainly give the 21st century little confidence that if you just let people’s passions free, they’ll all turn out to be nice Smithian, inventive individuals or Humeian socialites playing backgammon. Actually, what can be unleashed sometimes is something really quite extraordinary in the way of communal identification. I think in the West, it’s been displaced at a collective level often through race, through empire, but I think the structural challenges are actually pretty similar.

Individual Versus Group

RAJAGOPALAN: Might it also be that the way Indian society has been constructed historically is that the identity is very group-based and -driven, and the idea of an individual pursuing her liberty and her imagination has never quite been at the forefront of the movement in Indian society? It is always within a particular group identity?

MEHTA: Again, I think—

RAJAGOPALAN: I know I’m being reductive. I know when I say Indian society, I’m generalizing.

MEHTA: No, no, no. That’s the nice thing about these provocations. I take this conversation to be a series of provocations. It’s not like I’m going to be particularly subtle either. Here’s a couple of distinctions that I would like to make. At one level, if you look at the ontology of existence, actually, Indian society is far more radically individualistic, in two ways. For example, if you take the doctrine of karma, whatever one might think of it theologically, metaphysically, it’s actually the most radically individualist ontology map invented.

Literally every single thing you do leaves a trace on who you are, and nobody else can substitute or compensate or do practically anything for it. There’s a certain kind of loneliness, I think, in that concept. There’s the concept of the renouncer. Dumont famously called it the first articulation of the individual which is actually a truly radical gesture of the individual: an individual who becomes an individual by being outside both the web of desires and outside the web of social relations.

They’re the heterodox movements. Think of Kabir, think of Nanak. At one level they’re actually—again, to use the reductive term—but at one level they are radical individualists. There’s a certain complete ease of existence not beholden to pretty much anything. It’s not that the conception of individual is not actually culturally available. In fact, I think it’s actually quite powerful.

Nirad Chaudari always used to make this point, that if you actually look at a lot of ordinary Hindu ritual, it’s actually self-interested in the most individualistic way, in the sense of, “God give me wealth, goddess give me this, goddess give me that.” Even the caste system, at the base of it, is a certain impulse to hold onto your individual state. I think the question in societies is not whether they’re individualistic or collective, it’s how and where does the individualism manifest itself, and where does the collectivism manifest itself.

The challenge for Indian society is that, for a variety of reasons, partly due to social structure, partly due to religious text, as you pointed out, you could be an individual so long as you’re actually not threatening any of the existing social orders. In fact, the way we dealt with individuals, we gave them a social order of their own. You want to be Kabirpanthis, go do your thing someplace else, in some ways.

Because of the nature of the social restrictions where—I don’t think they’re good arguments for theological intolerance in India. I don’t think they’re good arguments for intellectual intolerance, but there were always not just strong arguments, but social practices that emphasized a certain kind of social importance.

Max Weber makes this interesting point about Indian intellectual traditions. He poses this puzzle: Why is it that these sets of traditions that are most radical intellectually—they have thought of every thought, from materialist to radical individualist to giving up the world—in actual practice, reconcile with the orthodoxy of social institutions?

I think it’s the smashing of the orthodoxy of the social institutions, you’re right. That’s actually a difficult challenge. That’s where Smith can help because, in part, those social institutions get challenged, not just by a frontal assault, ideologically, which is sometimes important normatively, but by lots of exogenous indirect changes.

A society with no mobility is much more likely to be socially orthodox, a society which does not have a complex economy and a complex division of labor. Again, the complex economy does not guarantee individual freedom, but it’s certainly one of the enabling conditions. I think that was part of Smith’s point, that a lot of the things that are necessary for emancipating the individuals actually come from unintended consequences of lots of different kinds of exogenous changes that we want.

RAJAGOPALAN: Well, you’ve articulated this far better than I had even hoped for. I think you’ve persuaded me that this is not about a strict religious textual reading. We have Adi Shankara right at the beginning. You read Adi Shankara, it sounds like nothing related to what is there in Hinduism today in terms of practice or any kind of social orthodoxy. Everything is up for challenge, in a sense. Every social construct is up for challenge. Every natural phenomenon is up for challenge.

Past a point, it is not even a conversation with God. It is a conversation with oneself on how one mediates whatever is the conception of God or not, in some instances. But I don’t see many modern interpretations of Adi Shankara which are being touted to me as the religious text. What is really being thrown at us on a daily basis is something more like specific passages of the “Ramayana” or the “Manusmriti,” which is not even a religious text; it’s a social constraining order.

What you are calling social orthodoxy is exactly what I was getting at. That I find a very complex space in India to navigate an individual imagination without checking out completely and being a fakir. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa is okay. Once you check out at that level, that’s fine. [chuckles] Anything in the middle where you still wish to operate within society without being a social or an intellectual recluse and not participating in the social order or the economic order becomes quite difficult, I feel. Not that one can’t find examples for it.

MEHTA: You’re right. It’s difficult. It’s a long and slow process of social journeying. If you look at contemporary India, I think both thoughts are true. Sometimes you have to marvel how remarkable actually it is. At one level, particularly when you think of ideas of, let’s say, gender, sexuality, those terms, they have changed actually far more dramatically than we are realizing.

And that, in fact, a lot of the conflict we actually see is in part because they are actually being challenged in some ways, that you often see more intolerance visibly manifest precisely at the moments where social control is actually beginning to break down quite substantially. That a lot of the intolerance is a kind of coercive attempt to now use state power, or some other kind of power, to reassert social control where you know that the normal mechanisms of social control have been broken down.

I think there’s a lot more journeying in that. I think the places where it has progressed much less and, from a moral point of view, much more worrying, because at one level, people’s discoveries of their identities and freedom—I think Yann Martel actually in “Life of Pi” makes this wonderful point that we also like living in zoos as human beings. It is amazing, when you liberate individuals, how predictable their paths are. This is the Starbucks, I’ll find you at 9:00 a.m. If you put us all in a cage, we won’t know what to do. The only question is some cages might be better than other cages.

I think acting out as an individual itself is a complex subject. I think one of the things about the liberal tradition from Smith to Mill is that, to be very honest, they did expect pretty much everybody to be doing it. I think what they want is that everybody has the right to do it. The unconscionably slow change is in the construction of that social hierarchy, where it simply is very difficult. There’s a certain normative change, you might say. At least normatively, nobody will defend untouchability, even if it’s practiced actually much more prevalently than we recognize.

It is the classic case of, if you have a society where hitherto subordinated groups are rising, there’s almost no instance in the world where incumbent beneficiaries are actually going to give that game up easily. In that sense, I don’t think India’s an outlier. The scale of it, the complexity of it, is very different. That remains a problem, and that’s a problem Smith would have recognized.

The Idea of Justice and the Administrative State

RAJAGOPALAN: I would agree with that. Another aspect of “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” is a lot of rules of propriety and virtue and things like that he’s talking about. He himself calls it vague, loose and indeterminate. These are very difficult things to pin down. The one thing where he does pin down in a little bit more clarity is the idea of justice, and very much about the violations of person, property and contract. He’s quite clear on that

So much of Smith’s idea of justice is about the process by which we navigate any kind of infraction, I would say, or any kind of infringement, as opposed to the outcome. Now, what I find in modern-day Indian jurisprudence—which at some point we borrowed from this British liberal idea, but it’s changed quite a bit in 70 years of the republic—our idea of justice today, at least the way it’s governed or meted out by the Supreme Court, is very outcome-specific. It’s very entitlement-specific. The idea of justice as a set of rules or processes, I think we have moved very, very, very far from that. Now, how do we think about this in the context of modern Indian law and jurisprudence?

MEHTA: You’re being very generous to the Indian Supreme Court. At least there would be a logic if it were outcome-oriented. At least you could understand an internal logic to it. I’m afraid it’s a little bit more capricious than that. I think there’s three different things we need to differentiate. Going back to Smith, particularly “Lectures in Jurisprudence,” which is his unfinished book on politics and law, and really quite a remarkable text actually in its own right. When we say justice and position of justice, one is Smith is part of this liberal tradition that says we will probably disagree over a lot of things and the nature of an imagination functions differently, over a lot of things.

But you could probably get convergence on some core values. Neither of us wants to kill each other. We don’t, at least, want to die violent deaths. One of the things about what justice refers to is things that you might say is the impartial spectator. All of our impartial spectators could much more easily come to a consensus, and therefore they can be the subject of common rules much more easily.

There is a sensibility of let’s ask the question, what are the harms we want to avoid, rather than what are the goods we want to bring about, both because the harms are much more determinate, at least Smith thinks, at least a little bit more determinate than the goods might be.

Also, because the causal story about how you avoid these harms is actually easier. How do you avoid violence? We avoid it by not killing each other. How do we produce 10% growth? We can start scratching our heads a little bit. In those two respects, there’s a narrow and clearer domain of justice. I think on property and contract, one has to be a little bit careful with Smith because modern-day libertarians, and again, particularly the economistic version of it, is actually very anti-Smithian in its sensibilities because Smith is not a natural rights theorist.

Smith is not an axiomatic believer in property rights or contracts. In fact, the whole point of those 600 pages of lectures on jurisprudence is these are historically evolved forms. There is nothing suggesting in Smith that these could not yet again evolve. Property is a complex thing, particularly in the context of modern commercial society that Smith is thinking of. Think of his discussion of joint-stock companies.

How do you think of property, let’s say, in the context of minority shareholders versus majority shareholders? How do you think of it in the context of financial capitalism? This very simple mantra that we get is, “It’s property rights, or else.” That completely begs the question, what kind of property rights? What are the optimal forms of property rights? Smith is always very clear that those will have to be specific to particular historical institutional circumstances. In that sense, I actually don’t think he believes there’s a right to property. Let’s be very clear. I don’t think—

RAJAGOPALAN: I think it’s rules of property.

MEHTA: The rules will change through circumstance. I think that’s one thing in a lot of readers on Smith. I know your own position is more subtle than that and more complicated. The second thing about Smith is when he thinks of institutions of justice, and he takes an interesting institutionalist turn. You remember this wonderful discussion he has of the contrast between Roman and Greek justice. Both are smart, enlightened civilizations at one level. They’re overly sophisticated, they’re great philosophers.

But he actually says the Roman justice ends up being a little bit more just and rules-based and impartial in its own limited way. The Greek justice is more like mob justice because actually, nobody’s responsible and nobody’s accountable. One of the interesting questions there, he asks, is that the administration of a rules-based system of justice actually depends, in part, on a prior design of institutions.

And you get a proper administration of justice, in part, by actually thinking about institutions and at least a little bit of the alignment of incentives of different actors in this era. And one of the things to think about in the context of our Supreme Court is why is everything misaligned, everything from the power of the chief justice to the selection of judges? I would say that, even before we get to the rules-based thing, the institutional imagination of Smith is important.

The third thing about the rules-based thing which is important—and again, it’s interesting, when Smith travels to America, how he gets transformed. The English tradition, Scottish tradition, is a common law tradition. Remember, one of the virtues of the common law tradition was supposed to be that rules are arrived at inductively through reflection on experience and on the particulars. There isn’t a rule that is given independently of experience and historical evolution, and that’s why you need judgment. But somehow, when the rules-based stuff moves to America, it becomes a set of deductive axioms. Because situations are complex, societies are changing.

What you need is not a rigid application of rules because that itself can be arbitrary in some ways. What you need is practices of judging that can take into account the kind of all-things-considered judgments that impartial spectators are supposed to make. Often the court’s failure is just a failure of imagination. There’s just no conception of what it is like to be an agent of this kind or act in this way.

The final thing I’ll say about the rules thing, which I think is important—and it’s something I don’t think we’ve analytically got our heads around—it is that there is a complexity to the modern administrative state that cannot be captured in simple-to-administer rules. The very complexity of that administrative state will, in its interstices, create lots of discretionary power. Every rule also comes with a rule about you might say—if it is to be a rule—under what circumstances should it apply? The real question with the rule is not what the rule is. The real question is, under what circumstances, what is the ceteris paribus of this rule?

Now, the more complex administrative state you have where you are optimizing on 50 things together, in the judge’s mind, you can actually create a meta-rule that says, I’m actually optimizing on that, not on this. And these are rules; no judge is going to say they are not applying a rule.

It’s just that the repertoire of rules that you can draw from the modern administrative state, which rule is more relevant here, is actually so complex that even a normal exercise of a rule will often seem like a kind of capricious judgment. I don’t think there’s an easy way of getting around it, to be very honest. I actually don’t think liberal theory has fully come to terms with the administrative complexity of the modern state.

RAJAGOPALAN: I very much agree with you. I want to pick up on two points here. I think what you say about the Scottish idea of evolution of common law rules, which have now become kind of almost diktats in other circumstances. The core to Smith and his reliance on rules is also the process by which the rules emerge. In Smith’s world, you have competing courts, where judges actually are competing with each other for court fees, and there is a system of court recorders who start telling you what different courts are doing and how they are actually reasoning these specific cases, and a more general rule starts to emerge from that process.

It’s very much an emergent process, and what we’ve done with emergent processes now is some of those rules are easier to codify, which is fine. A lot of your basic criminal law is easy to codify, basic rules of contract, but we’ve also appropriated the benefits of that system and now we use it for a very monolithic, state-driven system where it’s a top-down effort. Now that the higher courts are going to set the precedent and the lower courts are now bound by the rules of stare decisis to follow what the higher court says, and they can’t overrule it.

Now, instead of that bottom-up bubbling process that Smith relied on for these rules, we’ve just completely flipped it. This is not just an Indian thing, it’s everywhere. Everywhere in the world in modern-day jurisprudence, there is some version of this taking place?

MEHTA: This is something you’ve actually touched upon in some of your other work. One of the questions we need to ask is whether the courts are the right place to have this conversation at all, frankly. I don’t think the methods they deploy, I think the training that they have, or even the normative legitimacy they have actually makes them the right institution.

I think these are things that have to be negotiated. And, in part, they will have to be negotiated simply because for a proper understanding of rules, you have to have a social consensus on what are the objectives in which these rules are embedded, and is there a consensus on those objectives? If you enact rules and people don’t either understand what the objective is or there’s a deep disagreement about what that objective is, then a means becomes an end. I think a lot of law has to come out of that political conversation.

I think this idea that we could somehow de-politicize law if we gave it to judges, it’s both a conceptual mistake and I think a deep political mistake as well. I think in the long run, it actually ends up destroying both the judiciary and political society in some ways. One of the things I think we’d have to think about is how much of this confusion that we are seeing is actually a confusion at the level of application in a particular institution and what its institutional design is, and how much of it is a reflection of the fact that we are just trying to optimize on too many contradictory social goals, in ways in which you’re trying to build a horse and you will end up with a camel or something.

Separation of Powers

RAJAGOPALAN: Here, I think this is where your last point about the complexity of the state comes in, and this is also where Smith is quite useful. I think this is in book five of “The Wealth of Nations.” He gives us a very interesting view on separation of powers. One is a functional view, which is we need division of labor and specialization, not just in commercial aspects of society, but also in political aspects of society.

You have a division of labor between the judiciary, the legislature and the executive. The legislature is good at aggregating preferences of people, or at least it’s supposed to be good at that. The executive is good at a lot of detail and minutiae and administrative tasks. And the judiciary is good at, or at least supposed to be good at, reviewing masses of contradictory information and evidence with an impartial view, and trying to sift out a general idea from these specific circumstances. So you need these three things. These are highly specialized tasks. You need people who are specialized to do these tasks and so on.

Then the other side of the separation of powers he talks about is checks and balances, which is something we’re quite familiar with in modern political theory and constitutional law. Smith actually refers to both of these in his discussion. This is a thing I want to bring back from your earlier conversation about institutional design. I think this is where we’ve somewhere gone horribly wrong. No one quite wants to do what they are supposed to be doing, and everyone wants to do something else.

We have things like the anti-defection, the 52nd Amendment, where now we no longer want the legislature to really aggregate preferences. We’re going to go out of our way to clamp down on it. Now the executive is in charge because they have encroached upon that aspect of the legislature. The judiciary also wants to do what the executive wants to do. They also want to be in charge of who gets what, how we think about welfare entitlements and so on and so forth. They’re frankly not competent at writing law or adjudicating these kinds of administrative tasks. There’s that problem with the judiciary.

The other problem of institutional design, which you pointed out, also is how are we choosing these people? If we have a very opaque, self-appointing judiciary, we don’t know exactly who was considered, we don’t know what the process of appointment is, we don’t know why X was chosen over Y. Now, these are the people who come up to the bench. Can we really expect them, in all good faith, to take on the challenge of looking at some opaque system like electoral bonds? Are they really going to see the problem with it given that they are also product of a very, very opaque and nepotistic system? Of course, they’re going to delay it.

MEHTA: Shruti, at one level, I want to agree with you. And look, when you contributed to the constitutionalism volume, a lot of that work with Devesh on public institutions, I used to think in this way a lot. I think there’s value too. I think a lot of that is right, but I think at this historical juncture, and particularly the experience of last 7 to 10 years globally, I think we have to ask deeper questions. One of the things we do have to admit is that we are prisoners of a certain kind of formulaic 18th-century paradigm.

The 18th century talked about checks and balances; it talked about separation of powers. It talked about them when there was no mass democracy; it talked about them when there were no political parties in the modern sense of the term. In fact, for example, what political parties has done to modern democracy is it’s completely complicated every story about checks and balances and separation of powers. In that sense, we are very un-Smithian. We are actually much more religious about those concepts, including sovereignty.

Then the realities of all our democracies—what does the separation of powers mean in the context of partisan party government in the United States? What does transparent senate selection mean, again, when the basic motor force driving politics is actually party competition and party government?

That’s one thing, which is I do think the question of institutional design in politics—one, I think there are limits to how much institutional design can achieve. Under conditions of some basic background consensus, they can do a lot. But in the context of, let’s say, radical polarization, in the context of the kind of hyper-partisan government, it’s very hard to imagine. Even the Dworkinites have gone from, “The U.S. Supreme Court is the savior of liberalism” to—and nothing’s changed in the structure. It’s the same institution.

RAJAGOPALAN: The people have changed.

MEHTA: Yes, the people have changed, but that’s exactly the point. One, I think that limits how far the 18th-century institutional framework will actually get you, even on executive powers. What did the 18th century think executive power could do? The king’s prerogative, put a few people in jail, declare war. What prerogative and executive power means in the context of a modern surveillance society with war powers, it’s a completely different order of checks and balances. It’s even hard to imagine a judge being able to do that, or even a legislature being able to do that. The asymmetry of information between what the CIA can present to the Congress, frankly it’s very difficult to imagine. That’s one thing.

The second thing which you kind of touched upon, the selection thing. Yes, absolutely. The Indian system of selecting judges is broken. It’s arbitrary. It’s not even producing good outcomes, which was the interim justification we gave after the Emergency that at least it will be better than letting the executive choose judges, right?

I have to say, I think something more controversial is that the biggest disappointments in our judiciary have not been the people who you think are the political appointees or you think are the incompetent or the less capable. It’s actually the people who have every institutional protection in the world. What could you do to a Supreme Court judge?

RAJAGOPALAN: Not give them a job after.

MEHTA: They’ll earn more if you don’t give them a job. In arbitration, if what you were after was a comfortable life, you probably don’t want a government commission. Their intellectual track record certainly equips them to do the judicious rule-making that you are talking about. One of the interesting things about Smith is that he talks of virtues in the plural. It’s not the Greek conception of the unity of virtue; it’s a modern conception. You certainly don’t expect people who have some virtues to have all of them.

But I still think there is enough of the idea of character in Smith, as you know from the work on public institutions, that actually often it is the institutions that have the most formally guaranteed independence, with people who have the most significant stature in society, that have actually let us down most while pretty odd—even right now, the Supreme Court is a disaster. It has the most protections. The interesting stuff is still happening at high courts and lower courts, even on things like habeas corpus and stuff. I think Smith would say that you still have to think of—he used the gendered language, “The man within your breast,” that conscience a little bit more.

RAJAGOPALAN: I wrote a column a few years ago about how I think Supreme Court judges should give fewer lectures and write better judgments, because the same people in court who have every protection and every—could potentially get away with a lot, say all the right things after they retire or outside of the Court. But when it comes to doing the heavy lifting of what needs to be done in judgments, I’m always left a little bit disappointed, maybe a lot disappointed, with them.

Federalism and Decentralization

RAJAGOPALAN: Now, we think of specific institutions, and I know we’re trained to think in this very centripetal way. We think of the Supreme Court; we think of the union executive. Every conversation begins and ends with the prime minister. Have we paid enough attention to decentralized institution building in India? This is another very Smithian idea. India is too complex and absolutely ungovernable from the top, no matter who is at the top.

We keep talking about the prime minister doing X, Y and Z. I don’t think it can be done. It’s not a question of this prime minister or a different one. I think to me, the decentralized governance system, whether it is the market, whether it is federalism, whether it is through fiscal federalism, very tight competition not just in the marketplace, but between very local governments—those are very meta-Smithian ideas. How do we think about that in the context of the Indian polity?

MEHTA: I agree with you. I think one of the casualties of the last seven or eight years is that we had at least started a conversation on the 73rd and 74th Amendment empowering urban local bodies and local Panchayati Raj. That conversation has more or less stopped. I think even that little progress actually has been stalled. We also know from empirical work, Devesh’s empirical work, how local government is simply disempowered in terms of capacity.

There’s this wonderful chart I think Devesh and Arvind [Subramanian] created. If you ask where are government employees employed—state government, federal government, local government, central government—the U.S.-China curve is actually more local government. The India curve is actually a complete outlier. In some ways, in a sense, capacity issues.

I think we have to ask slightly more difficult questions of why this is the case. As you know, I think one of the reasons for this was this fear that Ambedkar had articulated that localism would be a license to local tyranny. That one of the projects of the modern Indian state was to disembed individuals from local hierarchies. You could not disembed them from local hierarchies if you actually gave local governments power.

By the way, again, India is not different in this, at least on this dimension. Ultimately, if you think of the discussion of slavery and race in the United States, it’s the one discussion that has always come down to federal power or a civil war of some kind. I do think now, and probably this was true 30, 40 years ago, that much more is to be gained by decentralizing. Yes, there are these risks because not only will you not be worse off, you’ll actually be better off because there’ll be avenues for participation and so forth. That’s one source.

The second interesting source is, the biggest obstacle to decentralization at local government has actually not been the central government. It’s been state governments, except states like Kerala, which have a long tradition of much more decentralization that incentivize civil society participation in governance. No state chief minister wants to relinquish power. They particularly don’t want to relinquish power over cities, which are your cash cows. Who wants to give up control of Hyderabad or Mumbai?

You don’t want the mayor of Mumbai to be a political rival to the chief minister of Maharashtra. As much as we’d like to blame the center in this—because there’s nothing preventing any political party at the state level from doing this. You have so much federalism, you have so many different parties, with the odd exception of Kerala—Bengal had a peculiar Panchayati Raj system, but it was stymied under the party system. It’s decentralized, but so long as you are completely aligned to the party. [crosstalk] You have to think of that relationship a bit more.

The third thing you have to think about a lot more, and this is a difficult question, is would this work the same way in Bihar or Tamil Nadu, at the moment? I can imagine local government in Tamil Nadu now being in a position to at least generate some local resources. We could argue that decentralization often has to be claimed; nobody’s going to give it to you.

The center often complaints that the states and local governments don’t even use the taxation powers they have. Forget giving them new ones. There will be large parts of the country, I can think of Panchayats in Bihar or other places, where you actually cannot imagine that local tax base being able to actually sustain enough of that development activity. You’ll need some grant formula or something. The minute you do that, the minute the center comes rushing in.

I think on the core of it, that participation itself has good educative effects in citizens, some connection between local taxes and local service delivery. The other mistake I think we made in decentralization—reservations in locally elected bodies can have beneficial effects, but rotation stymies that effect because at one level it takes away the incentive for returning to par in accountability. I think we have to think of those kinds of design issues in ways that Smith probably would have thought of if he were thinking of this problem.

RAJAGOPALAN: Again, a lot of the things we learn from Smith, when it comes to the role of state and the nightwatchman state and things like that, when we’re thinking about basic things—is the garbage picked up?—all this is very highly local-level public service delivery questions that Smith points to. In the role of the state there’s, of course, the meta-question and philosophical question of the role of state. But the everyday, the quotidian aspect of the role of state, I don’t think it can be solved in any way other than by local government. I think anything else is an impossibility. Yes, it’s a question of capacity building.

Protectionism and Nationalism

RAJAGOPALAN: Smith was a little radical for his time about his criticism of mercantilism, nationalism, colonialism, all the charters that were given. And the imperial powers were, through these charters, colonizing vast parts of the world. He had a lot to say about that; he was very critical of it. In one sense, all of this is coming back in a big way in India.

Of course, we are turning our back to whatever gains were made on free trade, post the liberalization moment, and now we are going back to higher and higher tariffs. That’s one kind of problem. We’re going back towards this protectionism. This second is, yes, it’s not imperialism in the sense of handing out monopoly charters and sending them to other countries to conquer, but we’re very much handing out monopoly charters to very large Indian companies. You can imagine which ones. Now they are in a completely different position vis-à-vis all other Indian entrepreneurs; they have this huge advantage. Now, in the modern world of network goods, they get these enormous platforms. That is another thing that’s come back.

Of course, nationalism has come back in a big way. This is not just in India. This is across the world. You are seeing these movements bubble up. They take a very local flavor, but everywhere in the world, you’re seeing this big rise in nationalism. Is Smith relevant to these conversations of all these different things going on in India, or is this a case of one of those 18th-century texts and this is all just a new version of this? The mercantilism and imperialism and colonialism Smith was talking about is almost benign. It’s almost too easy to criticize.

MEHTA: Yes. Too easy to criticize. Not sure if it was benign. A couple of things. Obviously, the historical context is different. Again, like a good Smithian, you have to exercise judgment rather than mechanically apply a rule. Actually, the three things you’re describing are not just true of India, I think they are true globally. What are the three or four sensibilities you can pick up? One, you as an economist might be in a better position to think about it, but just putting it out as a proposition.

One of the empirical arguments that Smith makes is the consumption of the rich that can actually fuel prosperity, even though it’s not morally salutary. I think the big debate right now—again, under what conditions—which is, are there forms of inequality where it simply is not the case that the consumption of the rich can drive the economy? That’s the current debate in a sense about inequality in the U.S.; has it grown so pervasive that actually the very Smithian mechanism is backfiring? How much can the consumption of the top drive if there isn’t demand at the bottom? It’s a very Smithian question about what is the exact mechanism through which consumption can actually translate into beneficial effects for all?

The second sensibility is the balance of power between labor and capital. This is something people don’t associate with Smith, but remember Smith says we always object to labor organizing; we never object to capital organizing through lobbying, through cartels, through all those kinds of things.

If you’re a good liberal, your thought has to be a balance of power. That’s the big check and balance; it’s not just executive, judiciary, legislature. Now, it is a difficult question, what form that takes in the 21st century, particularly in economies that are not conventional manufacturing economies, particularly given what we have learned of internal organizing incentives that you don’t want oligarchies entrenching either in capital or in labor. Entrenched labor oligarchies protect their interests rather than the interests of labor as a whole. Even with the caveat of those questions, it’s a very Smithian question that if you have power concentrating at the one end, you actually have to think about power at the other.

I think the third thing, which is something we don’t notice because Smith is too familiar to us, but one of the things he’s trying to come to terms with is that the 18th century is inventing new organizational forms, even in the control of capital.

For example, there’s a lot of discussion of, let’s say, joint-stock companies versus other kinds of shareholding arrangements. Now, one of the difficulties of our ideological debates—when you think simplistically in terms of capitalism versus labor, free markets versus state control—is actually the real action in Smith was what are the varieties of organizational forms in which capital can be organized, some of which are better than others?

That’s a debate that has to be thought through on first principles and given, I think, a historical context. There’s a deep disjuncture, which is that the actual operation of capital is so much more complex. Financialization, I sometimes wonder what Smith would have thought of. Remember, he does worry about speculators, whether there are built-in incentives—so easy flow of credit is a good thing; it can make economies more inclusive. But are there forms of speculation, which we might encourage for political economy reasons, but are actually pretty harmful to the structures of the economy? I think you have to ask them in a Smithian spirit, without expecting that Smith’s answer will be the right one.


MEHTA: I think the sensibility and the spirit is in the right place.

RAJAGOPALAN: More generally, the meta-Smith idea of thinking about access, barriers to entry, decentralized competition, what comes off of competition as opposed to this consolidation of power—whether it is through a charter that the crown gives and so on and so forth—I think those are maybe not exactly identifiable one-on-one with what’s happening. But I think, overall, they are quite identifiable. Today, the barrier to entry may not be a charter. It may be the very, very onerous tax system requirements. That may be the barrier to entry for a small-scale investment firm in modern Indian economy.

MEHTA: Or the asymmetric one.

RAJAGOPALAN: Or the asymmetric.

MEHTA: Usually, it’s actually not even the rates of taxation, it’s the fact that the bigger you get, the less your tax seems to—I think the core of Smith is right, and that’s what makes him, to me, a really interesting liberal. Liberals have to be suspicious of concentrations of power. If you do not have a liberal critique of oligarchy at the top, you cannot keep away populism.

If you are writing off thousands of crores for oligarchies at the top, with what conscience and a straight face can you say to farmers, “Sorry, we’re not going to write off your loans”? In that sense, that capitalism, commercial society, liberalism, that complex requires rescuing from oligarchies. “The Wealth of Nations” is not written as just a defense of freer markets; it’s written as a critique of oligarchies.

RAJAGOPALAN: Political, social and economic.

MEHTA: Yes, all kinds. Exactly.


MEHTA: I think it’s an interesting intellectual history to do. Where did that liberal critique of oligarchy drop out in the last 20, 30 years, where pretty much anything went by the name of capitalism?

Interest in Smith

RAJAGOPALAN: One big question I have is about your own sort of intellectual development. How did you get interested in Adam Smith?

MEHTA: I’ll give you the most boring answer, which is the beauty of libraries. I had not read “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” as an undergraduate. And I think it was my first year as a graduate student, just randomly walking here—there are the collected works of Adam Smith, actually just picking up “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” and saying, “Oh wow, this looks much more interesting than I’d imagined it to be.”

As you know, I’m sure everybody has these stories about you go through 25 versions of what your dissertation topic is going to be. But in the ’80s, just at that time I finished, I think there was the beginning of flowering of a new generation of scholarship. But actually, in the ’80s, there was very little work on “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Even the work on “The Wealth of Nations” was in a reductive way. Now, there’s truly marvelous Smith scholarship. It also seemed to fit the bill of an intellectual history where you actually think more work needs to be done.

Of course, after I finished this, I began to change my mind about the argument a bit. Despite having a book contract, never put it out in the form it was actually intended to. But yes, the causal story is one of serendipity in some ways.

RAJAGOPALAN: In a sense, now that I have read your Ph.D. dissertation, everything you’ve written since, to me, makes a lot more sense. Not that it was unclear when I read it the first time, but now I see a lot of your work as an extension of the Scottish Enlightenment project. Is that a fair way of thinking about what you’re trying to do, or is that—I’m making very clean, straight lines that don’t quite belong?

MEHTA: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it is an approach to social explanation and understanding the social world that I deeply admire and probably parts of it become second nature. And actually, especially also the ironical elements of it. I think one of the nice things about the Scottish Enlightenment—there used to be this phrase called skeptical Whiggism: Progress happens in the most unexpected places, good people do bad things, bad people do good things.

There is a kind of almost equanimous distance you have in Smith. You have a lot of their social world, which actually allows them to see both sides. You can say America is a republican government, but you can also say that precisely because it’s a republican government, it’s going to be the last to abolish slavery. It’s quite a remarkable sensibility in the social world, which has disappeared.

To that extent, I sympathize with it. The part where it’s a no, I guess, is the experience of the late 19th and the 20th century. As I said, underlying the Scottish Enlightenment was this view that if you just liberated ordinary human nature, everything would be fine. If you’re talking just within the Western tradition—we can talk of the Indian tradition as well, leaders of the Mahabharata—but even if were talking Nietzsche, Freud, I think the idea that the passions that come out of us are mostly benign if they weren’t distorted by just religion or politics . . .

I think that assumption is not an easy one to make, that the passions, the things that go into making our judgments, impartial spectator—even the impartial spectator that Smith is talking about. There are so many historical layers and sediments to it, often that are unacknowledged, that we find it difficult to acknowledge, but that are still subconsciously working out through us in all kinds of violence that we do see and unsee.

That’s something, after the experience of the 19th, 20th century, one has to be a little bit cautious about saying, “Just lift this lid and you’ll just get nice backgammon, please.” I think that’s one sense. I think the second sense is the forms of self-knowledge that are available to human beings. Yes, Smith and Hume want to emancipate social life from a certain form of organized religion. That project is entirely correct in some ways.

The forms of self-knowledge, what in new age parlance you might call forms of spiritual life, that are actually available—those are actually richer, far more complex, than the Scottish Enlightenment. That’s not a territory they want to venture down for correct reasons or questions of meaning, questions of the deep nature of the self. In all of those ways, I think you do have to move beyond and think differently than Scottish Enlightenment.

RAJAGOPALAN: The nice thing about the Enlightenment project is you can take it in different directions. And wherever it leads you, it’s still a continuation of the Enlightenment project in one sense or another. It doesn’t preclude one from asking questions of inner meaning and spirituality and the sense of self and so on.

MEHTA: No, it doesn’t preclude that. No, I agree. In fact, you would say that actually, if you had a social world inhabited by that, it would actually allow people to do that more authentically. But the underlying message is that the most serious thought you can have is, don’t take yourself too seriously. There is something humbling about Smith, and even Hume, who’s not in fashion these days, that still remains quite attractive.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I agree with you. I think another perhaps conversation on Hume is long due. For young people today who are trying to understand a broader liberal tradition outside of India, but still trying to think about it in the context of India, what should they be reading?

My sense of that liberal tradition was very much to read Enlightenment text, read the Austrian tradition, some of the documents of the American founding. Those were the very classical liberal influences I had, but they had no relevance to what was happening in India, nor were there very easy connections that one could make. Those who are in college who are thinking of being part of expanding what is a homegrown liberal tradition?

MEHTA: That’s an interesting question. I think two things about that. One, I actually think—and I’m saying this as somebody who’s been teaching students, particularly teaching over the last two years brought that back home—the more important thing is not what texts you read. It’s actually how you read them and a certain approach to reading them.

If you’re reading text to think with, you’re in a much better position than if you’re reading texts looking for answers. That itself is the first—you almost have to bring that sensibility. Does Mill apply? I’m not even sure Mill applied to 19th-century England actually. I can construct a version of that question where he doesn’t apply there either. [chuckles] People think he’s some outlier. I think most of it is really about, are there good texts to think with?

The second thing, particularly in terms of the liberal tradition—most of us read everything from the Austrians, from Popper and that liberalism to Scottish Enlightenment and Smith. The most interesting liberals are ones that have also a deep sense of history because what made, to me, 18th- and 19th-century liberalism interesting was—I mean, they were implicated in colonial projects; we can talk about that and what impels them to do that—is I think both an acute sense of history and also, at the end of the day, a sense of moderation in character. That if you are going to be a genuine liberal, you will have to keep both thoughts in mind, that there are particular values you are deeply committed to, particularly the dignity and freedom of individuals.

One of the consequences of that is that you will also then have to cultivate the sensibility, that if you’re leaving people free, they will also find their equilibrium in their own ways. I think a lot of 19th-century liberalism is wrestling with that dilemma of, liberalism as a progressive-fighting creed and liberalism in the sense as a conversation with pluralism and diversity.

I think the tension is what makes you a liberal, [chuckles] actually; it’s not choosing the sides. That’s not going to be an easy dilemma to resolve. If you’re looking at 19th-century liberalism, George Eliot is an absolute must for the operations of—again, talking in a Western context. At some point, we should have a conversation about Indian texts and arguments.

How can somebody like John Stuart Mill write the essay on Coleridge that he does? Most modern liberals won’t even begin to understand what he’s on about there. I think it’s one of his most interesting essays. Reading Bentham and Coleridge as a pair. It’s that capacious imagination, again, to go back to Smith’s favorite sensibility. That liberalism relies on imagination a lot more than it relies on actually the doctrines of reason.

Writing Process

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to dig in a little bit into your writing process. You write academic and scholarly works, you’ve books and book chapters, papers, and you are a wonderful essayist. I really enjoy reading your longer essays and, of course, your very popular column that you write for the Indian Express. What is your writing process like?

MEHTA: You’re being very generous. My scholarly output is, to be honest, really modest actually, [chuckles] partly—no excuse, but running institutions, being engaged in, so I think you are actually being very generous. I think there are two things. I will confess, I think writing is very difficult. It’s difficult for two very different kinds of reasons. One, is actually just the craft of writing. Some people are just very good at it; it comes laboriously to some others.

I think in my case actually the most fun moment is when you’re three-quarters through the process of discovery—“Okay, I think I’ve figured it out”—and then at that point I say, “Why do I want to write this?” I also think writing is an act of presumption. At the end of the day, seriously, in a planet of whatever, 7 billion people, it was a great joy to learn this and figure this out, but does this need to be really expressed? To be honest, that’s the moment at which the motivation actually flags a lot more.

There’s too many kinds of unfinished projects where I won’t give up what I learned from that process, and actually even the argument. That’s the difficult part, actually, in the writing process, where you’re over the joy of discovery, and it’s really now finessing it for an audience, finessing it to put it out there. Then at that point, you both have self-doubt, and you actually—the process also becomes more tedious. Shorter essays and columns, frankly, mostly they write themselves.

I think it’s a bit conceited thing you are actually thinking the thought of and the thought thinks. I think what does help is actually conversations. I think some of the most interesting both ideas and, actually, the motivation actually come from dialogue. And the good thing about the essay form is you don’t have to dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s. It’s really a contribution, hopefully, to a collective rumination, right?


MEHTA: Which makes it easier than, let’s say, papers.

RAJAGOPALAN: Do you write every day? Do you sit in the same spot? Do you have a word count? Do you listen to music?

MEHTA: No, so music used to be very important. Listening is very important, but I think one of the strange things that happens as one grows is when I was younger, playing music in the background was not just fine, but absolutely essential to the process of both reading and writing. Somehow, either you could process both at length. Now, actually, I find with music, if it is on, it just completely engrosses me; it’s just hard for me to think of anything else if music is on. Maybe in that sense, it’s the logic of music taking over. So now while reading and writing, I have to play it less.

When I was an undergraduate, it was like 24/7 music. Grad school, all through that. Now, honestly, if there’s some background music playing in your thing, it will just take away all the concentration. Maybe one is becoming deeper about music. I think that’s gone. I think the only thing I’d say, mornings are much more important to me than evenings in that process. Place is becoming less important, particularly with the advent of the laptop. I think that’s the one thing that has—place has become less important.

RAJAGOPALAN: Now, I think what I find is the most important question: What have you been binge-watching?

MEHTA: Oh, God. I think the binge-watching was in phases. Actually, most of it was when we ourselves had COVID, fortunately a mild case. I must confess, I’ve been in a binge-watching phase, where you—but yes, I think the time and stuff. I think two things One is a lot more Indian regional stuff than we used to, partly because it’s just more accessible. I’ve probably watched more Malayalam movies in the last two years than I had in my entire life.


MEHTA: I think also much more international. Who would have thought five years ago that you’d be watching Icelandic, Danish or whatever. I’m a junkie for political dramas, [chuckles] good or bad, so long as it has politics in it. That seems to be the flavor of this season. Every country has its “House of Cards” or something, some version of that.

RAJAGOPALAN: Do you have specific recommendations?

MEHTA: One thing which actually we just watched right now, which was surprisingly good, is actually an Indian serial called the “Kota Factory.” I don’t know if you’ve seen this?

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. I really enjoyed—I’ve watched the first five episodes. It’s wonderful.

MEHTA: The second season is coming out next week or something, or maybe this week. It’s just brilliantly done.


MEHTA: The use of black and white, I think, was a masterstroke. Let’s leave it at the “Kota Factory.” I think for an education point, that might be a good one to go with.

RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you so much for taking time to do this, Pratap. I’m going to hold you to your promise of coming back very soon hopefully, to discuss your other essay, “The Burden of Democracy,” that I was really hoping to dig into, but soon.

MEHTA: Thanks, Shruti, and thank you so much for your patience and your wonderful questions.

RAJAGOPALAN: Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with me on Twitter @srajagopalan. In the coming weeks, we will feature weekly short episodes with young scholars entering the academic job market discussing their latest research.

Also check out our new initiative commemorating 30 years of India’s market reforms at The 1991 Project is an effort to revive the discourse on growth-centered economic reforms in India by focusing on the economic ideas that drove them. In the coming months, we will publish essays, data visualizations, oral histories, podcasts and policy papers demystifying the Indian economy and the 1991 reforms. You can see all the content and subscribe to our newsletter for updates at

About Ideas of India

Host Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app