It's time to address societal overreach, not just judicial overreach

We often talk of judicial overreach but not societal overreach. Judicial overreach is where judiciary goes beyond its mandate and encroaches the space of legislature - mandating national anthem etc. Similarly, societal overreach is when a section of society curtails the liberties of others by imposing their beliefs (horizontal overreach), or makes demands on the state, going beyond the mandate of what a citizen should and can expect the state to do (vertical overreach). 

Societal overreach usually takes three forms.

One, imposing one's beliefs on others in the social sphere. In an ideal world, people should be minding their own business. But, when a section society overreaches, it imposes their belief systems on others. Classic examples are not renting houses to non-vegetarians in a residential complex, not allowing girls into boys' flats etc. This is the horizontal overreach, where a section of society imposes their beliefs on fellow citizens.

Two, inviting government's interference in acts of personal failure, or acts that one thinks are not good. The recent event of a parent demanding the government to ban PUBG because their kid is wasting time is a good example. Here, the government is invited to interfere to address the personal failure of a parent. Other examples include demands on the state to ban books, movies and art that offends a particular section of society.

Three, demanding the government's subsidy for things that one think as expensive. Journalists' demand to exempt them from toll tax is an example of this kind.

The first form of societal overreach, horizontal overreach, where society acts on fellow citizens is well known and acknowledged. But the second and third form of overreach, the vertical overreach, where a section makes demands on the state beyond what a citizen can expect the state to do, is under-recognized.

It is interesting to compare the judicial overreach and societal overreach.

The root of judicial overreach is activist judges who seek to impose their personal beliefs on others through their judgments. Similarly, societal overreach is due to the expectation of a part of society to impose their norms and value judgments on others. The difference is that while judiciary uses its powers to impose its own beliefs on others, society expects the state to do the job for them. Usually, this takes the form of demands that seek the banning of books, movies etc. that one does not like.

The judicial overreach is justified citing the legislature underreach, in cases where the legislature failed to perform its duties. The societal overreach is justified citing the societal or personal underreach, where society or individuals fail to control themselves. The case of PUBG is an example of demanding the state to intervene for the personal failure of the parents.

Just like judicial overreach where there are some genuine cases that justify judicial intervention, there are cases that justify the state's intervention when individuals or society fails. But, just like the case where judicial overreach becomes problematic after a point, societal overreach becomes problematic too.

Several problems with societal overreach are as follows:

One, societal overreach encroach the liberties of the minority. Given the political compulsions that make it risky to anger the crowds, governments end up yielding to such demands from society. Such actions encroach upon the rights of the minorities.

Two, societal overreach creates a society that doesn't know how to take responsibility for one's own actions. It infantilizes the citizens. The practice of getting offended by everything and demanding the state to take action is an example of a societal overreach infantilizing citizens. In a mature democracy, citizens should be mature enough to tolerate counter opinion. Needless to mention, the usual disclaimers to free speech apply.

Three, societal overreach makes the state weaker by burdening it. States have limited capacity. By placing additional unwarranted demands on the stage, it reduces the capacity and bandwidth of the state that it can allocate to important issues.

In the case of demands involving subsidies, demands for subsidies on not-so-important aspects like toll tax reduces the state's spending capacity on other crucial aspects like education and health care.

Four, societal overreach drives the practice of social movements towards extinction. If the state is seen as the medium for change, there is no incentive for anyone to pursue social reform. Also, the state-centred solutions are top-down that can create unanticipated consequences. Of course, there is a legitimate need for state intervention when an individual's fundamental rights are at risk due to societal failure, as the case of social discrimination, there's a limit to such state intervention. The state cannot be invoked for every single personal and societal failure. The state cannot be the solution for everything.

Fifth, the worst combination is when societal overreach meets judicial overreach and both come down upon citizens with vengeance. It's when we kiss goodbye to the constitutional republic.

Addressing societal overreach requires a judiciary that upholds fundamental rights eliminating the constraints imposed by the society on the individuals, strong law and order to protect individual liberties. Apart from that, a societal reformation that teaches people to mind their own business and to make people realize that others are under no obligation to not do things that offend others. Unfortunately, we lack all the three, with occasional glimmers of hope from the judiciary.

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