Hypocrisy one-upmanship in Sri Lanka

Sept 20, 2013 (LBO) – One of the worst things this administration has done is double the size of the government work force. One of the best things the short-lived Ranil Wickremesinghe administration did in 2002-04 was to freeze government appointments in the face of an economic crisis that saw the economy contracting for the first time since independence.

So, I was surprised when, a few years after they lost power, a respected UNP MP challenged the government’s dilatoriness in hiring more graduates as promised in its election manifesto.

I knew that he knew that hiring more graduates without there being any real work for them was bad; that it was bad for fiscal probity; that it was bad for efficient delivery of government services; that it was bad also for the young people being hired to stand around doing nothing.

But his argument was that the administration had gained power by making promises. His job in Opposition was to hold them to their promises and embarrass them politically; not to speak for the right policy. Hypocrites, he called them. Hypocrisy one-upmanship, I call the phenomenon.

Casino debate

Hypocrisy one-upmanship is on the verge of taking over the present debate on casinos. Historically, it’s the SLFP that has ridden the puritanical high horse. MrsBandaranaike banned horse racing and drove the bookie business underground. The UNP was a lot more realistic in its approach to the “vice” of gambling.

It brought the bookie business above ground by enacting a law that made it possible even for “illegal” betting businesses to pay taxes. The government gained tax revenues; the people who had continued to place bets on unpronounceable horses running in unknown courses in distant England could now do so openly and without fear of prosecution.

The first “foreigners only” casinos came up during UNP rule. Everybody knew that the signs were partly to attract status-seeking locals, but as long as they paid the over- and under-the-table taxes, they could operate.

I, for one, think the UNP was right and the SLFP wrong in the approach to gambling.

Banning things humans have consistently done across cultures and over time is futile.

It breeds criminality and deprives the government of tax revenue. It places legal businesses at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the illegal. It makes it difficult to alleviate associated problems such as addiction.

But, today it is the UNP that is opposing casinos. It is seeking to take on the mantle of the moral police. When challenged, they point out the hypocrisy of permitting/promoting casinos while preaching enforced morality in other areas.

But where will this hypocrisy one-upmanship take us? One party talks the Taliban talk of forcing the moral codes of the majority, that even they do not follow, down the throats of all.

Once in power, it becomes more pragmatic, doing what is needed to harness primal human urges to grow tourism revenues and jobs. In reaction, the other party, traditionally pragmatic and a better custodian of the economy, now mounts the morality band wagon.

What began as a neededpolicy debate on the justification for tax breaks for casinos on India’s doorstep is in danger of being subsumed by hypocrisy one-upmanship. If the opposition gains traction and prevents the casino resorts being built, it will be another defeat for rational economic policy.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the ‘Choices’ category.