With 2019 Lok Sabha elections a few days away, I have been thinking of one question: what explains the voters’ confidence in Indian governments to provide them with guaranteed incomes, guaranteed pensions, or guaranteed work even when governments are terrible at doing what they must – fix market failures?
In other words, the Indian State’s performance on law and order, education, and public health, is poor. And yet there’s wide support whenever Indian governments and political parties promise new schemes to accomplish even grander things. What explains this paradox?
I have two hypotheses.
One, the political enthusiasm hypothesis. This is the reverse of the voter apathy idea. It means that the voters who have a disproportionate influence on setting the political agenda (read middle-income voters) were never apathetic to politics but only to government provision of public services.
They became apathetic towards government provision of public services because with rising incomes, they could substitute the missing services with their own private solutions. Having done that, politics became a means to achieve other outcomes – those unrelated to market failures. Voting apathy never meant political apathy.
See this from the Exit, Voice, Loyalty thesis. Loyalty makes exit difficult. So the median Indian voter never really exited from Indian politics and instead chose to voice concerns unrelated to government provision of basic services.
My second hypotheses is more charitable to the Indian voter. I call it the expanding moral arc thesis. It is based on the book The Moral Arc by Michael Shermer. The book argues that the moral arc is continuously expanding. A few decades ago, the arc excluded non-White men in large parts of the world. Today, it includes all humans and even animals.
The key insight for us is that Indian politics is being played out in the background of this rapidly increasing moral arc. This makes the Indian developmental challenge more moral but less fast. The demand for universal basic incomes in India is a reflection of this expanding moral arc. The government’s role in India is seen as a moral project not a utilitarian one and hence we are okay to give its record on fixing market failures a free pass.