Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi was not an economist and got most of his economics badly wrong. Yes his insistence on the non-violence principle  prevented him from falling into the trap of socialism or fascism in which most Indians of his era fell into.

Mahatma Gandhi knew that government excesses are the worst form of tyranny. We are seeing this during the covid pandemic. He said:
(1) Government that is ideal governs the least.
(2) Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err.

As Sanjeev Sabhlok has noted in his book, Breaking Free of Nehru, “Gandhi was without doubt the most influential proponent of individual liberty (and thus, indirectly, of classical liberalism) in India in the first half of the twentieth century.

An extract from Sanjeev Sabhlok’s book

Gandhi and Nehru – Key Differences

Gandhi’s philosophy was the most compatible with the ideas of freedom among Indian thinkers of his period. He placed great importance on individual freedom and independent action. In his mind, the individual remained the maker of his own destiny, with the state having only a very limited role in an individual’s affairs. His views were based on a combination of his interpretation of Hindu ideas mixed largely with the ideas of the liberal American philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817–62). Thoreau had said, ‘That government is best which governs least’. Gandhi repeated that like a mantra on many occasions. In fact, Gandhi merged the concepts of accountability from classical liberalism with those of the karma theory of Hinduism. His can be said to have been an eclectic synthesis of Hinduism and liberalism. Despite its indifferent contribution to liberty in the past, once an effort is made, it appears that just as Christianity can get along with liberalism, Hinduism can also get along with liberalism quite well, arguably even more so. I have little doubt that Islam can also be interpreted likewise given a broader understanding of its message. Turkey shows us that it is possible to do so.

Gandhi opposed the collectivist and centralized approaches of communism not on intellectual grounds but because of his ‘intuitive’ grasp over the concepts of accountability and justice. Quotations from Gandhi in the table below tell us about his liberal credentials. The page numbers at the end of these quotations are from Fisher.[i] My comments on Gandhi’s views are in the second column.

‘Government that is ideal governs the least. It is no self-government that leaves nothing for the people to do’ (p.196).The government has a minimal role in a free society – a key message of classical liberalism.
‘I look upon an increase of the power of the State with the greatest fear because, although while apparently doing good by minimising exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality which lies at the root of all progress’ (p.304).Here Gandhi is reiterating the most fundamental principles of a free society. The individual is the hub of the society; the individual must be allowed to develop self-knowledge, self-respect and become responsible and accountable.
 ‘Submission […] to a state wholly or largely unjust is an immoral barter for liberty […] Civil resistance is a most powerful expression of a soul’s anguish and an eloquent protest against the continuance of an evil state’ (p.165).Liberalism resists tyranny, and nothing is generally more tyrannical than a state that barters liberty for immorality, as socialist governments have, in India. Gandhi’s chosen method of protest was supremely ethical and persuasive. There was no secrecy involved, no deception. Attacking people, as terrorists do, never changes the beliefs that people hold.
‘[The] means to me are just as important as the goal, and in a sense more important in that we have some control over them, whereas we have none over the goal if we lose control over the means’ (p.305).Liberalism focuses almost entirely on the process, or the means. The ends are seen as a natural consequence of the means. There is no coercion, only persuasion.
‘I hope to demonstrate that real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when abused. In other words, Swaraj is to be attained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority’ (p.202).Liberalism requires the active participation of each citizen in the regulation and control of their government. In a free society the best of its citizens come forward as representatives. There is no better way to prevent the abuse of authority than for freedom loving people to form the government.

Let me add that Gandhi was not a ‘full-fledged’ liberal given his lack of intellectual rigour about why he advocated what he did. He had strong liberal inclinations and intuition but no vision for human freedom as a whole (at least not one in which the proper mechanisms of freedom were fully defined). He was clearly not a Hayek and did not even understand the great moral character of capitalism.

[i] Fisher, Louis, op. cit.