Premature Imitation and India’s Flailing State

Walking around one of the tonier districts of Mumbai I came across a sign, “Avoid Using Plastic Carry Bags.” The sign would not have been out of place in Portland or Berkeley but less than a block away cows and people were sleeping on the street. The incongruity motivated my new paper, Premature Imitation and India’s Flailing State (with Shruti Rajagopolan). We argue that one reason that India passes laws which are incongruous with its state of development is that Indian elites often take their cues about what is normal, good and desirable from Western elites. There’s nothing wrong with imitation, of course. We hope that good policies will be imitated but imitation in India is often premature. Premature because India does not have the state capacity to enforce the edicts of a developed country.

India has essentially all the inspections, regulations, and laws a developed country such as the United States has, but at approximately $235 of federal spending per capita the Indian government simply cannot accomplish all the tasks it has assumed. Consider: U.S. federal government spending per capita was five times higher in 1902 than Indian federal government spending per capita in 2006 (Andrews, Pritchett, and Woolcock 2017, 58). Yet the Indian government circa 2006 was attempting to do much more than the U.S. government did in 1902.

Premature imitation doesn’t simply mean that proportionately less is done it results in tensions that lead to corruption and a flailing state, a state that cannot implement its own rules because it is undercut by the incentives of its own agents. Premature imitation amplifies a development trap.

What then is to be done? We argue that the ideal policy regime for a government with limited state capacity is presumptive laissez-faire.

The Indian state does not have enough capacity to implement all the rules and regulations that elites, trying to imitate the policies of developed economies, desire. The result is premature load bearing and a further breakdown in state capacity….At the broadest level, this suggests that states with limited capacity should rely more on markets even when markets are imperfect—presumptive laissez-faire. The market test isn’t perfect, but it is a test. Markets are the most salient alternative to state action, so when the cost of state action increases, markets should be used more often.Imagine, for example, that U.S. government spending had to be cut by a factor of ten.Would it make sense to cut all programs by 90 percent? Unlikely. Some programs and policies are of great value, but others should be undertaken only when state capacity and GDP per capita are higher. As Edward Glaeser quips,“A country that cannot provide clean water for its citizens should not be in the business of regulating film dialogue.” A U.S. government funded at one-tenth the current level would optimally do many fewer things. So why doesn’t the Indian government do many fewer things?

Presumptive laissez-faire is not an argument that laissez-faire is optimal but an argument that state capacity is a limited resource that must be allocated wisely. The idea runs against the “folk wisdom” of development economics. The folk wisdom says that developing countries today can leap over the laissez-faire period  that most developed countries went through and instead move directly to the middle way.

In the alternative view put forward here, relative laissez-faire is a step to development, perhaps even a necessary step, even if the ultimate desired end point of development is a regulated, mixed economy. Presumptive laissez-faire is the optimal form of government for states with limited capacity and also the optimal learning environment for states to grow capacity. Under laissez-faire, wealth, education, trade, and trust can grow, which in turn will allow for greater regulation.

Read the whole thing.

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