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The old, failed and corrupt political economy of poverty alleviation fights attempts at reform

Jean Dreze, member of the influential, unaccountable and extra-constitutional National Advisory Council, has launched a pre-emptive attack against conditional cash transfers in the pages of today’s Indian Express. It provides an excellent example of how rank paternalism and contempt for the poor Indian’s right to live a free life guides the UPA government’s mindset. This mindset, of course, is covered in the language of “development economics”. In reality it is bad economics and bad for development in addition to being morally repugnant.

Before we look at Mr Dreze’s arguments, let’s look at this conclusion:

The most common argument for cash transfers is that cash makes it possible to satisfy a variety of needs (not just food), and that people are best judges of their own priorities. Fair enough. But if people are best judges of their own interest, why not ask them whether they prefer food or cash? In my limited experience, poor people tend to prefer food, with a gradual shift from food-preference to cash-preference among better-off households…I am more inclined to listen to them than to the learned champions of cash transfers. [IE]

The arrogance in the last sentence must come from sitting close to the Congress party president (another NAC member recently wanted to impose how many dishes could be served at wedding dinners). Mr Dreze, unsurprisingly, does not believe the people are the best judges of their own interests, for he uses the conditional “if”.

Even so, doesn’t he have a point when he says “why not ask them whether they prefer food or cash?” Not quite, because the question is a bit of sophistry. Basic economics will tell you that because cash is most fungible, if you give them cash, the question itself is redundant. If they prefer food they’ll buy food. If they prefer arrack they’ll buy arrack. Neither Jean Dreze nor the National Advisory Council, nor indeed the Government of India has any business dictating what an Indian ought to do with his or her income. Only ‘development economists’ of the dubious sort can think that development is possible when hundreds of millions of adult citizens have the right to vote and procreate but not to decide what to do with their money.

Just because the government gives this money doesn’t mean it can override the individual’s freedom to choose. Neither the government, nor the taxpayer whose money is transferred can deprive the recipient of her freedom.

Let’s consider Mr Dreze’s policy arguments. He first argues that conditional cash transfers won’t work in India (as they did in Latin America) because public services are “missing to a large extent”. This is bizarre, for giving Indians the money to procure services like healthcare and education from private operators allows them to escape having to depend on the government. Just because conditional cash transfers complement public provision in Latin America doesn’t mean they have to do so in India too. There’s no reason—other than socialist ones—why India shouldn’t go in for privately provided, but publicly financed, services. [See this post on the critics of the UID]

Next, he argues that targeting the scheme properly is a problem in India. And in so doing, he expects us to believe that conditional transfers in kind (for instance, food entitlements) can be better targeted than cash. In reality, targeting will remain a problem, not least because of the ‘political economies of development’ which require poverty to remain a problem. A poverty line, even if arbitrarily drawn, helps show the extent of the challenge. But once you target policies around a poverty line you run into all ‘targeting problems’ (see the case of Karnataka’s BPL cards). The entitlement economy also breeds competitive intolerance and political violence.

On these feeble legs Mr Dreze erects his defence of the Public Distribution System (PDS), independent India’s largest and longest running ‘scam’:

First, (food entitlements under PDS) are inflation-proof, unlike cash transfers that can be eroded by local price increases, even if they are indexed to the general price level.

Food entitlements may be “inflation-proof” for the recipient, but not for the government, which still needs to pay for it. It also creates incentives for government to interfere in the pricing of food: from underpaying farmers, to blocking exports, to entering into non-competitive import arrangements. Moreover, Mr Dreze fails to account for the true economic cost of the PDS—procurement, storage, distribution, wastage, pilferage and the associated shadiness that characterises it from bottom to top. Once you see the PDS as mostly inefficient and usually corrupt, you are unlikely to think throwing more money through it is a clever thing to do.

A government that really cares about inflation hurting the poor will be careful about the consequences of its policies. On the other hand, the UPA government listened to Mr Dreze.

Second, food tends to be consumed more wisely and sparingly; cash, on the other hand, can easily be misused.

The contempt for individual freedom apart, there is a practical reason why Mr Dreze is wrong: you can’t save, lend or invest food. Food entitlements will at best lead to hundreds of millions of well-fed, but poor people. To use Atanu Dey’s phrase food entitlements are a pro-poor scheme. They will keep people poor.

Third, food is shared equitably within the family, while cash can easily be cornered by selfish individuals.

Why, hasn’t Mr Dreze heard of families who treat their boy and girl children differently? Can’t food be bartered for arrack or exchanged for cash? Indeed, food or cash, there is nothing to prevent selfish individuals from hurting their families. It is conceit to believe that a government that lacks the competence to deliver drinking water to its citizens can somehow change human behaviour. Social ills need to be addressed, but unless the government is parsimonious in ambitions, outcomes will suffer.

Then again, the irony of disparaging cash is surely lost on Mr Dreze, champion of a scheme to provide, err, cash for work. NREGA is a conditional cash transfer, isn’t it?

Fourth, the PDS network has a much wider reach than the banking system. In remote areas, where the need for social assistance is the greatest, banking facilities are simply not ready for a system of cash transfers (as it is, they are unable to cope with NREGA wage payments).

This is an argument for getting the banking system pervasively into rural areas. Indeed, implementing conditional cash transfers provides banks with an incentive to set up more outlets in rural areas. Liberalising the financial sector to enable greater financial inclusion is necessary in any case, and implementing cash transfers might provide enough of an anchor tenant effect to get it going.

Last but not least, cash transfers are likely to bring in their trail predatory commercial interests and exploitative elements, eager to sell alcohol, branded products, fake insurance policies or other items that would contribute very little to people’s nutrition or well-being.

There is nothing wrong in buying or selling alcohol and branded products. Selling fake insurance policies is illegal. Conflating the two is a manifestation of an ideological prism that abhors free markets and free people. Indians might be poor but they are aspiring for the comforts, fashions and fallacies of modernity. The government has no mandate to prevent his and condemn to have-nots into shall-not-haves.

Mr Dreze’s pre-emptive salvo seeks to defend against the dismantling of the edifice of India’s old, failed and corrupt political economy of poverty alleviation. Ideologues confuse socialism for development. The vested interests that collect rent from the PDS, government hospitals, schools and suchlike are fighting to retain their spoils. Both have little interest in making Indians prosperous.


DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.