Anticipating the Unintended #88: Economics Matters, Capitalism Works

This newsletter is really a weekly public policy thought-letter. While excellent newsletters on specific themes within public policy already exist, this thought-letter is about frameworks, mental models, and key ideas that will hopefully help you think about any public policy problem in imaginative ways. It seeks to answer just one question: how do I think about a particular public policy problem/solution?

India Policy Watch: Pro-market Vs Pro-business

Insights on burning policy issues in India

— Pranay Kotasthane

Indian governments have a rule-making obsession. These myriad rules, regulations, and laws are particularly onerous for running businesses. One anticipated unintended consequence is self-evident: over-regulation incentivises businesses away from the regulated activity into an activity that is far more harmful.

But that’s not all. The other unintended consequence is that overregulation increases rent-seeking opportunities i.e. some businesses cut side-deals with regulatory agents and thrive. Hallward-Driemeier and Pritchett explain this succinctly in their 2015 paper:

“when strict de jure regulations meet weak governmental capabilities for implementation and enforcement … researchers and policy makers should stop thinking about regulations as creating “rules” to be followed, but rather as creating a space in which “deals” of various kinds are possible”.

Kar, Pritchett et al in a 2019 paper find further evidence of the way these deals play out. They reach an interesting conclusion that as regulatory stringency increases, the proportion of firms obtaining clearances, permits, and licenses quicker also increasesIn their words:

“..quick deals are often the result of weak implementation via regulatory capture and/or influence or evasion, rather than the result of better regulation or the more speedy completion of regulatory processes. In other words, firms are able to get permits and licences much faster, without due diligence being undertaken for their business activities, by influencing the regulatory bureaucracy and/or their political bosses. As a country’s state capability increases, there is greater ability to counter the pressure for regulatory capture and hence the proportion of such quick deals falls.”

This results in a low-level equilibrium where regulatory capture becomes the de facto norm.

Such deal-making reality is relevant in India today as sector after sector, market concentration is on the rise i.e. a few select firms are able to get clearances, permits, and licenses by cutting side-deals with governments. Unsurprisingly, a lot of media attention is on exposing these special high-level political connections or direct influencing mechanisms.

What’s lost in the din is that while such exposés can shed light on particular instances of government-business dealings, they don’t help reduce levels of corruption. One business tycoon gets replaced by another and the story repeats. As long as higher regulatory burden continues to coexist with low enforcement capacity, side-deals flourish.

The solution then is to decrease the regulatory burden in the short-term and increase enforcement capacity in the long-term. Simplifying rules are pro-market not just pro-business. They negate the advantage that some companies enjoy on account of their special connections with regulatory agents. That’s precisely why simpler tax, policy, and legal environments are pre-conditions for making India’s market more competitive.

Read the full edition here.

Disclaimer: Views expressed on Anticipating the Unintended are those of the authors’ and do not represent Takshashila Institution’s recommendations.