Ex-officio wisdom

Some people are born wise; some acquire wisdom; some have wisdom thrust upon them. The last species of wisdom is ‘ex-officio wisdom’. The adjectival prefix is a Latin term which means ‘by virtue of office’. It is conferred by the office one happens to hold. It is ‘deemed’ wisdom, not real wisdom — like some institutions, which are ‘deemed’ universities.

This type of wisdom is found in sorts of places, but mostly in public service, both the elective as well as appointive variety. In the appointive office it is in services – especially in the all-purpose, nomadic, job-hopping service – IAS.

For this service the government picks up bright young boys and girls from the universities, makes up their deficiency in education, rounds off their corners, and then lets them loose in the numerous districts of India. After they have seen the countryside, they embark on a rambling career in the capitals of different States — and even of the country. It entails movement from one job to another, provided they are entirely unrelated to each other. Each job requires some degree of knowledge of the subject. For example if one is appointed as Director of Agriculture, one has to know that tobacco is grown, not squeezed out of cigarettes; silk is not grown but vomited by worms; pig iron has nothing to do with animal of that name. In other words, reality is not what it looks like.

The rationale behind the constitution of this service is that a reasonably intelligent person can pick up enough knowledge in three months to question the wisdom of experts. And the Selection Board ensures that atleast half the members of the service are reasonably intelligent. Members of this service are charged with the responsibility of saving the people from the tyranny of the specialist for whom nothing exists except the field of his/her activity. Specialists have to be made to relate to each other because life is not lived in watertight compartments. Nor is a human being a mere collection of limbs. IAS people build bridges between narrow disciplines. They interpret the expertise of specialists – to those who know even less than them – the political masters. The latter category exists to tell the other two that man cannot be cut to fit the cloth. It should be the other way about.

The other theory on which this ‘generalist’ breed is predicated is that stagnation sets in if you remain in the same job for more than about three years. According to this formulation, one learns in the first year, practises in the second year, and starts getting stale in the third year. It is therefore in the public interest to move these officials from their posts frequently.

A specialist, incidentally, is a person who knows more and more about less and less until he ends up by knowing everything about nothing. The generalist, on the other hand, is one who knows less and less about more and more till he ends up by knowing nothing about everything. Put the two together and life is fulfilled.

The public at large believes in the acquisition of instant expertise of the given job. I recall my own experience on being appointed Director of Industries. While I was still learning the difference between Large Scale Industries and Small Scale Industries, and the regulatory and promotional aspects of the work of the Department, people started coming to me for advice regarding the type of industry they should set up. I would keep a straight face and roll the pencil in both hands in the manner of a person who knows all and, with a deliberate furrow on my forehead to indicate my genuine concern for the prospective investor, suggest a particular line. In order to reinforce my advice I would summon an expert lackey and hand over the unsuspecting victim to him. Since his job was dependent on me and not on the seeker of advice, he advanced my line. Meanwhile, I would laugh in my sleeve and wonder what would become of the person who had come to put so much faith in my ex-officio wisdom.

I must say however that I kept a track on the progress of those who had sought and accepted my advice. Their rate of success was no less than those who had taken up a line ignoring my advice. No matter what advice you take, the rate of success doesn’t exceed fifty percent. After all there are other public servants too who are paid to keep the success rate low.

Similar was the case in urban development, an area into which I moved later. The best education you get in that field is by studying the growth of unauthorized structures and of slums. Our theory of town planning ignores the basic requirements because they are not mentioned in books authored in developed economies. That is why we have such a high incidence of encroachments and violations of building by-laws. The trouble in poor countries is that there are not as many well-off persons as there should be.

The ignorance of the generalist however is not a handicap. Every step arising out of that is ‘fresh thinking’, ‘new approach’, and ‘dynamic orientation’. After all in public administration and social engineering, the last word has been said. It is a cyclical movement of theories – much like fashions. Old vogues keep on coming back – free enterprise to state control to liberalization. Of course the jargon changes. ‘Approach’ becomes ‘mind set’. And that is necessary to sound original –and progressive.

Ex-officio wisdom becomes more glaring and dangerous when it reaches the political level. After taking the oath of office and secrecy, a man entirely innocent of defense matters suddenly gets transformed into an authority on the subject. The Minister for Science and Technology gets to know in a flash all about nuclear fission. The most astounding portfolio is that of Finance. The Finance Minister has to appear to know a plethora of terms like fiscal deficit, GDP, GNP, recession, monetary policy, CRR, and the like. Of course on GDP (Gross Domestic Product) his wife can always be of help.

The Finance Minister is that dangerous person – a doctor with little learning. Sometimes I wonder how he even fields questions from those who know all about it – the non-playing captains of industry. And after the budget, it is, in Tennyson’s words, a time when

“Blind and naked ignorance
Delivers brawling judgements unabashed,
on all things, all day long”.

The poet was referring to reaction to the budget by the Opposition, which again are ex-officio. They are determined by their party affiliation. In this endeavour, clippings of the reactions of the previous years save a lot of labour.

Ex-officio wisdom is nothing but ignorance wrapped in authority. It is acquired on the job by making mistakes at other people’s cost. And what could be easier way of becoming wise?

Absolutely free, and without any risk!

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