Gandhi, the Liberal

A fresh look at Gandhian economics


Are Gandhian economic policies incompatible with free market economics? Gandhi advocated limited government intervention, unfettered individual liberty and freedom, higher education in private hands and sex education in schools.


In the wake of the global economic crisis, it is pertinent to examine Gandhi’s views on economics and ethics. Writing in Young India (1921), Gandhi argues:

I do not draw a sharp or any distinction between economics and ethics. Economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation are immoral and, therefore, sinful. Thus the economics that permit one country to prey upon another are immoral…The economics that disregard moral and sentimental considerations are like wax works that, being life-like, still lack the life of the living flesh. At every crucial moment thus new-fangled economic laws have broken down in practice. And nations or individuals who accept them as guiding maxims must perish.”

This is akin to what Adam Smith emphasised in his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he coined the phrase ‘invisible hand’. Gandhi, as a philosopher of human action, seems to be well aware of the consequences of the moral sentiments.

Advocating individual freedom and liberty, Gandhi wrote in the Harijan (1943 & 1942):

If individual liberty goes, then surely all is lost, for if the individual ceases to count, what is left of society? ….No society can possibly be built on a denial of individual freedom. It is contrary to the very nature of man”. Further he went on to argue that Every individual must have the fullest liberty to use his talents…Individual liberty and inter-dependence are both essential for life in society.


Indeed, there is some convergence between Gandhi and Ambedkar on their views on the individual and society. Ambedkar argued that:

“Unlike a drop of water which loses its identity when it joins the ocean, man does not lose his being in the society in which he lives. Man’s life is independent. He is born not for the development of the society alone, but for the development of his selfThe first is that the individual is an end in him self and that the aim and object of society is the growth of the individual and the development of his personality. Society is not above the individual and if the individual has to subordinate himself to society, it is because such subordination is for his betterment and only to the extent necessary. Man is an individual who holds himself in hand by his intelligence and his will; he exists not merely in a physical fashion.”


Both liberals and opponents of Gandhi have misinterpreted his argument on self-sufficiency. Gandhi wrote that:

“Only a Robinson Crusoe can afford to be all self-sufficient…A man cannot become self-sufficient even in respect of all the various operations from the growing of cotton to the spinning of the yarn. He has at some stage or other to take the aid of the members of his family. And if one may take help from one’s own family, why not from one’s neighbours? Or otherwise what is the significance of the great saying, ‘The world is my family’?”

This contradicts the image of absolute self-sufficiency that one finds in Gandhian literature.


On the question of State intervention in public affairs, Gandhi was very much concerned about the State’s role in protecting the individual freedom and its role in trying to be friendly with neighbours. He wrote (1948 & 1935):

“I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear, because although while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress.” He further argued that the “State represents violence in a concentrated and organised form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence…What I would personally prefer would be not a centralisation of power in the hands of the State, but an extension of the sense of trusteeship; as in my opinion the violence of private ownership is less injurious than the violence of the State. However, it is unavoidable, I would support a minimum of State-ownership”.


Today, the government rules out coercion completely in the efforts for population stabilisation. For years population was seen as a problem rather than a key resource. Interestingly, Gandhi was completely against population control strategy. He said (1925) that


“…it is contended that birth control is necessary for the nation because of over-population. I dispute the proposition. It has never been proved. In my opinion, by a proper land system, better agriculture and a supplementary industry, this country is capable of supporting twice as many people as there are in it today.”


Writing in the Harijan (1946) he noted that

“The bogey of increasing birth-rate is not a new thing. It has been often trotted out. Increase in population is not and ought not to be regarded as a calamity to be avoided. Its regulation or restriction by artificial methods is a calamity of the first grade, whether we know it or not.”


Earlier he had argued that “This little globe of ours is not a toy of yesterday. It has not suffered from the weight of over-population through its age of countless millions. How can it be that the truth has suddenly dawned upon some people that it is in danger of perishing of shortage of food unless the birth-rate is checked through the use of contraceptives?”


At a time when India is debating higher education policy, Gandhi’s views on the subject are particularly interesting (1937, 1938, 1947 & 1948):

“I would revolutionise college education and relate it to national necessities. There would be degrees for mechanical and other engineers. They would be attached to the different industries which should pay for the training of the graduates they need. Thus the Tatas would be expected to run a college for training engineers under the supervision of the State, the mill associations would run among them a college for training graduates whom they need. Similarly for the other industries that may be named. Commerce will have its college. There remain arts, medicine and agriculture. Several private arts colleges are today self-supporting. The State would, therefore, cease to run its own. Medical colleges would be attached to certified hospitals. As they are popular among moneyed men they may be expected by voluntary contributions to support medical colleges. And agricultural colleges to be worthy of the name must be self-supporting.


Higher education should be left to private enterprise and for meeting national requirements whether in the various industries, technical arts, belles-letters or fine arts. The State Universities should be purely examining bodies, self-supporting through the fees charged for examinations. Universities will look after the whole of the field of education and will prepare and approve courses of studies in the various departments of education…University charters should be given liberally to any body of persons of proved worth and integrity, it being always understood that the Universities will not cost the State anything except that it will bear the cost of running a Central Education Department.


I am opposed to all higher education being paid for from the general revenue…It is criminal to pay for a training which benefits neither the nation nor the individual. In my opinion there is no such thing as individual benefit which cannot be proved to be also national benefit…Universities must be made self-supporting. The State should simply educate those whose services it would need. For all other branches of learning it should encourage private effort..In my opinion it is not for a democratic State to find money for founding universities. If the people want them they will supply the funds. Universities so founded will adorn the country which they represent.”


Finally, Gandhi argued for liberal sex education in schools. He said

We cannot properly control or conquer the sexual passion by turning a blind eye to it. I am, therefore, strongly in favour of teaching young boys and young girls the significance and right use of their generative organs. But the sex education that I stand for must have for its object the conquest and sublimation of the sex passion. Today, our entire environment—our reading, our thinking, and our social behaviour—is generally calculated to subserve and cater for the sex urge. To break through its coils is no easy task. But it is a task worthy of our highest endeavour”. 


It is unusual for a discourse over Gandhi to illuminate his liberal arguments. Though Gandhi and Ambedkar differed on many substantive issues, there are instances of convergence between their arguments and ideas. We would do well to light our path in the twenty-first century through a better understanding of the fathers of our nation.

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