This country’s full name, the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, offers brief insight into the major political lens through which its economy is handled. From State-run hospitals to tuition-free universities to government-set and regulated price points for key supermarket purchases, the country’s socialism-though not entirely comprehensive-dominates its economic identity.
This socialism also permeates major debates in the country. The issue of SAITM (South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine)-which dominated newspaper headlines, triggered mass protests and demonstrations, and led to the abstention from classes by medical students-was at its core about whether or not certain private institutions, in this case educational, can exist in a place where government regulation and administration of certain services is the norm.
The result of the issue, which saw the government shut down and abolish SAITM’s medical faculty in October, suggests that the answer is no.
Yet there are a group of prominent Sri Lankans seeking to challenge this view. They believe there is a better way.
What is classical liberalism?
In late December of 2017, the first official meeting of a new classical liberal organization, the Night-Watchmen Society, took place. The organization derives its name from an idea adjacent to libertarian political philosophy, which stakes claim to the belief that the best type of State performs only the functions of a night-watchman-essentially protecting people and their property from harm and theft-and nothing more.
On a practical level, then, the only functions of a night-watchman State would be to provide citizens with a military, Police force, and Court system. The night-watchman State fits well under a more general political ideology called classical liberalism, which advocates civil liberties under the rule of law with an emphasis on economic freedom.
At this first meeting, held at the Royal College Skills Center, Professor Razeen Sally took up the task of defining and explaining classical liberalism to an eager and varyingly informed crowd, many of whom lamented that there lacks a proper forum in Sri Lanka to discuss deeper level economic ideas.
Sally, a self-proclaimed classical liberal, is an associate professor of public policy at the National University of Singapore and chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies in Colombo. He was on the faculty of the London School of Economics for eighteen years, and his research and teaching focus on global trade policy and Asia in the world economy. Sally is also a senior advisor to the Ministry of Finance and Mass Media.
Quoting David Hume, Sally said his affection toward classical liberalism stemmed from his belief that it is the system under which bad men who might gain power can do least harm. He proceeded to chart the history of the ideology, explaining that it came about in the 19th century during the Scottish Enlightenment with a focus on individual, positive freedoms or liberties.
“In the economic sphere, this individual freedom is the freedom to produce or consume under guaranteed property rights for the private individual, out of which results a sophisticated market economy and in it, the kind of division of labour that Adam Smith described,” Sally said.
He then revealed this type of market economy as laissez-faire, a French term for a system in which transactions between private parties are free from government intervention such as regulation, privileges, tariffs, and subsidies.
The umpire and the sports player
For a classical liberal, justice is not redistributive or social, but procedural. Sally likens this procedural justice to rules of the road which govern driving—justice which comes from fairness in processes to resolve disputes and allocate resources.
Concluding his speech, Sally provided an example of an umpire and sports player to explain how he believes classical liberalism should be applied to legislation.
“The basic [socialist] argument is that the State should be both umpire and player. The State should design and enforce the rules of the game, but at the same time, the State should be a player in the process or economy,” he said.
“The classical liberal argues that the State should be an umpire, but it shouldn’t be a player. The State should be in charge of enforcing the rules, but it should not be a player in the game. It should neither set prices nor control them, it should not play around with property rights, and it should not interfere with production and consumption.”
The conservative counter-view
Providing a response to Professor Sally was another Sri Lankan academic, Dr. Asanga Welikala, whose economic ideals—while not classically liberal—more closely align with Sally’s than with those of the current Sri Lankan government. He was tasked with answering a question posed by Sally: is conservatism compatible with classical liberalism?
Welikala, a lecturer in public law at the University of Edinburgh and a research fellow with the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in Sri Lanka, focuses on comparative constitutional law, applied constitutional theory, and Commonwealth constitutional history. He identifies as a staunch conservative.
“I am very much a Tory in the United Kingdom. But I’m a liberal in Sri Lanka,” he quipped. “Because if you’re not an ethnic nationalist here, you must be a liberal. This is the negative definition I give”.
He conceded that, in execution if not in pure ideology, his conservatism looks fairly similar to Sally’s classical liberalism. Both worldviews believe in little government, and that government has little to no place in the regulation of commerce so long as the rights of others are not infringed upon.
Then he shifted his focus over to the country and what he says are the two ideologies it has identified with since its inception: ethnic nationalism and socialism.
“There’s an expectation of miraculous things from the State. That is the reason we want the State to do everything for us. And when the State is not doing that, then it is seen as an uncaring State. That is not true,” he said.
“If we value our freedom and our autonomy to do things on our own, and believe in the State as the essential instrument only of law and order in social life, we would have different expectations.”
He explained that he finds it easier to defend the conservative position in the United Kingdom versus in Sri Lanka because there, is a reliable and respected tradition of the ideology.
Like Sally did with classical liberalism, Welikala also acknowledged that conservatism is an ideology borne of the western world, and as such would perhaps have to be adjusted and tweaked to make its mark as a successful governing lens here.
Applying these ideologies to the present
In a lively question and answer session after the two academics spoke, many questions were raised that sought to ground the two relevant ideologies—classical liberal and conservative—in the here and now by applying them to present-day issues.
One audience member asked how Sri Lanka could deal with its history of racial and ethnic tension in a classically-liberal manner, since, he said, “classical liberalism is silent on this matter.”
Sally responded that a classical liberal would be vehemently opposed to assigning Buddhism a foremost place in the constitution and would never allow for customary religious law such as Sri Lanka’s current Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, which among other things legalizes child marriage. Welikala, on the other hand, agreed with the audience member asking the question that classical liberalism does have this blind spot.
Another audience member asked about the classical liberal view of the provision of healthcare and education. Sally responded that he feels it’s a grey area. While a libertarian might say the government should have no say and both healthcare and education should be left up to the market, and a socialist might say the government should be the primary actor in these arenas, Sally suggested that classical liberalism might strike a balance somewhere in the middle.
“You cannot rely on the market to provide these goods. Because there are gaps in market provision, they may well be under-provided, particularly for the most vulnerable sections of society, so the State has a role beyond pure umpiring,” Sally said.
He offered a voucher system as a solution, wherein the government would help finance the provision of these goods but still abstains entirely from the direct provision and administration itself.
Then the question of Sri Lanka’s tentative gender quota for government arose. Welikala, to the surprise of audience members, stated that he’d gone against his conservative, government-regulation-free ideology in 2005, when he was part of a commission responsible for inputting a gender quota of 40 percent into Iraq’s constitution.
“I departed from my first principles there. Confronted with a violent and increasingly ‘Islamizing’ society, we began to realize that the hard-man dictator’s social liberalism was preferred by what replaced if afterward. So we had to think of constitutional devices to protect the role of women in public life in Iraq, to which women in Iraq had been long used,” Welikala said.
“So I would make a very practical accommodation with what is needed in a certain context. And I think that in a place like Sri Lanka, generally speaking, we must do all we can to encourage the participation of women in public life, because they will have a qualitatively-enhancing impact on the electoral process. We must do away with the kinds of things like violence and corruption that keep the full participation of half of our population from the political process.”
Sally disagreed, claiming that though he is no expert on gender quotas, he has reservations. He sees such quotas as open sesame for all kinds of group rights.
“If you allow that in the electoral system, what about companies? Shouldn’t boards have 40 or 50 percent female representation? Where does it stop?”
Welikala said this problem could be addressed by drawing a clear divide between quotas in the public and private sectors.
Most memorable from this session, though, was an impassioned outburst, in which one audience member questioned how western capitalist ideologies—specifically those borne in the United Kingdom—could be held up as exemplars.
“Is there any greater example of a rampant state than the English state in the world? When you’re talking laissez-faire, they were basically robbing the seas around the world, installing slavery.”
To this point, as was emphasized throughout the night, both Sally and Welikala concluded that the western histories of both their preferred ideologies were far from perfect. Still, they see them as preferable to the present politics of the country, and insisted that their respective ideologies could be amended if implemented here to best suit the specific needs of the country.