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 Rajagopalan). 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.


Regulation enforcement has price. Albeit, it's not the only expense that looks weird when contrasted to clean water availability.

"India loses contact with its Moon lander minutes before touchdown"

Exactly, I think this is a very common problem and it is apparent all over the place not only in India, but in most developing countries. I think it is an attempt of "signaling" from these countries but it is also signaling from rich countries, which try to enforce politically correct policies in poorer countries without considering the consequences of these actions.

It's not the only expense that looks weird when contrasted to clean water availability.
"America proposes Space Force, as residents line up in Flint for their delivery of clean water".

The failure at water provision in Michigan is unforgivable. It's something that must not happen anywhere.

It's tempting to compare the US to India, but please don't. The American Community survey shows that 0.4% of homes has no plumbing at all (, there was lead in Flint water, uranium on Navajo nation, I don't remember an specific name but there must be a community with the problem of cyanide in water. The point is that you can count with your fingers the drinking water problems in the US. Try to do the same in an emerging economy.

Hey, in 1982, the Indian government passed a law that forbade the use of gasoline-powered Tuc-tucs...the three wheel yellow taxi common across all of India. I believe that they actually tried to apply the law in 2004 -- 22 years after having implemented the law. India is not the only state that has implemented laws that it had no intention of enforcing. But, in India its always amusing.

Less amusing is the current Indian government that seems hell-bent in "starting something" with Pakistan in the Kasmir.

'' seems hell-bent in "starting something" with Pakistan in the Kasmir ''
how ? india cannot allow radical islamic ideology on its land sponsored by pakistan. india simply revoked a very outdated art 370 from it's own land thats it. how is it akin to 'hell bent in starting something with pakistan'' moreover since when islamic extremists needed others to 'start something'

Yet, we love when unrestricted immigration makes America more like India. Why?

Yes, it was such a pity when the United States became more like the Kingdom of Italy between 1890 and 1920.

You mean this: .

Also absurd given the tons of evidence that the first wave of immigration was central to FDR's coalition and the New Deal, which did make America a lot more like the Kingdom of Italy between 1890 and 1920 eventually.

Deport those Fredos back to Wopland. They were never really white anyway.

Presumptive Laissez-faire sounds a lot like what the Indian government did until the 1930s!

Since the sign is in English, who is it targeting?

Not Americans.
"There even are places where English completely disappears. In America, they haven't used it for years!"

"Hey, buddy, this is America. Speak Spanish!"

Most Indians speak English, Hindi and a third language of their home region.

No, about 1 person in 6 is conversant in English. In 1947, the share was around 1 in 40.

I guess I can endorse the idea that with more limited resources a developing nation should be more targeted in its regulations. But I'd want to make clear this doesn't make the latest concerns of developed nations bad. The just might have to be viewed in context. Plastic bags may be a lesser evil in India, but building a bunch of asbestos into infrastructure could be a bad idea anywhere.

"They just might.."

Which makes "Presumptive Laissez-faire" sound somewhat dangerous, and long term costly.

A developed nation has to constantly test for asbestos, lead, etc built in during darker times,

Shut it, you moron.

lol, what are you mad about?

It's probably not anything to do with the relative dangers of plastic bags, asbestos building products, and lead in gasoline.

And it should be encouraged

His contributions are idiotic and therefore to be discouraged.

But you don't have the balls to say exactly how they're wrong.

My idea is that cost-benefit analysis for environmental regulation will break differently in rich and poor nations.

Is that wrong?

Makes sense -- but I was under the impression that regulation in India had been significantly reduced since the days of the 'License Raj'. Was the Licence Raj also caused by 'premature imitation' or something else that was uniquely Indian (since the level of regulation was actually much higher than in wealthier western countries)? Similarly, India's own-goal attempt to get rid of cash is obviously not driven imitation -- developed nations have not done so.

Developed nations want to abolish cash, too, but don't have the resources to enforce the law. The largest bill we have is the $100 that is equivalent to the $5, $10, or $20 of 1970. Gold was $35 in 1970 and $1500 today, a 42x increase. Houses cost $25,000 in 1970 and $200,000 today.

I agree with your premise that this is thoughtless imitation of virtue signalling. But I think you're overthinking this. Your response gives this policy more respect than it deserves.

The US doesn't have the capacity to implement all these nonsensical measures either. What the US has, in large measure, that India doesn't have is respect for authority. It also doesnt have peer pressure even for shared values. What India has is an all-against-all mentality of self-dealing.

Given India's population density and poor trash disposal systems, reducing plastic usage is far more important there than here. A tax on plastic bags would be the most effective form of regulation.

Note also that the sign is in English. This sign is meant to be seen, not obeyed. It's like the solar power plant mentioned recently.

Meh. The banning of plastic bags is pointless in the USA too. It certainly isn't "saving the ocean" when 2 billion Asians dump their trash directly into rivers. It's just meaningless Democrat virtue-signalling, with a bonus cheap shot at the oil industry, whose workers vote Republican.

So don't knock the Indian who isjust trying to show everyone how awesome he is. In English, no less. You were the target audience, and you've dutifully complied.

The data are that bans in the US have reduced plastics in our waterways, and I think that matters.

You don't? Taking the classic Republican position that any random pollution in your breakfast is fine?

Where does it show that the bans have reduced plastics in the waterways? There is not much plastic in waterways in development nations to start with.

I was a little fast with that link, the one below has it.

And since I'm here, another:

It’s hard to measure the impact of pre-existing plastic bag bans, but some initial findings look promising. A plastic bag tax levied in Ireland in 2002 has reportedly led to a 95 percent reduction in plastic bag litter there. And a study by San Jose, California found that a 2011 ban instituted there has led to plastic litter reduction of “approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in City streets and neighborhoods.”

Dont you think thats kinda weak?

Your linked SciAm article refers to a study by Sacramento without any links or references to that study. It is nothing more than hearsay and an unsupported conclusion. Is this what passes for "science" in SciAm now?

My guess is that Sacramento politicians commissioned a rigged study to say how great Sacramento politicians are.

Plastic in landfills does no meaningful harm except take up space.

I'm not at all opposed to waste production, but these plastic bans are just virtue signalling at the expense of the public. One should wonder why bans work in these places that vote in the banners, but the voters won't opt out of plastic themselves without a law. Stop me before I kill sea critters again!

My serious answer is that I don't sweat these details because, as I say, I think such studies align. And plastics in watersheds are expensive:

One RHRF in New York State cited that plastic
bags cost them more than $300,000 per year for reasons that include screen cleaning, employee time spent
fixing jams, and wear on parts. Another RHRF in New York State reiterated that employee time spent
fixing jams and cleaning machinery is costly and can take two employees at least one hour each shift to
correct issues. A third RHRF in the state estimated that between $500,000-$750,000 of their yearly
budget is spent on maintenance and cleaning due to plastic bags. The same RHRF estimated that, in
addition to the maintenance and cleanup costs, time spent on plastic bag and other film plastic cleanup in
order to remove the material from other recyclables costs an additional $250,000-$300,000 each year, for
a total in excess of $1 million per year.

From: An Analysis of the Impact of
Single-Use Plastic Bags - Options for New York State Plastic Bag Legislation 1/13/2018

Oh, maybe that was extra costs in the waste stream?

Not only is he a dope for every reason that you pointed out he was a dope, but also, in much of the USA trash is burned. Everything I put into the trash goes straight into a truck, and straight into the bowels of a 2000-degree incinerator.

But hey, let's pretend they end up in the ocean. And let's pretend they are "single-use" bags, as opposed to reality, where everyone uses them after they get home for dog poop, or bathroom trash bags, and so forth.

I say, let's jam up the the Dem's single-use sphincter. That would solve multiple problems.

>some initial findings look promising. A plastic bag tax levied in Ireland in 2002....

"Initial findings." From fricking Ireland. Seventeen years ago.

Jesus fucking Christ, people.

Even if some percentage is burned, reducing litter that does not rapidly decompose is still a good thing.

I would prefer a tax over a ban but reducing plastic waste in general is a worthwhile endeavor. And banning the most common form of plastic garbage would clearly reduce the amount of plastic garbage litter.

I don’t see how that’s remotely controversial. Are plastic bags really the hill to die on?

No, the straw bans are a step too far, but the bans against plastic shopping bags don't strike me as extreme.

Plastic shopping bans are light weight and fly away easily, they end up all over the place. It's completely plausible that the value they add over paper bags is less than the clean up effort to remove them from the public land space.

Agree. A reasonable response would be to tax single use plastic bags as an externality.

As an outdoorsman, my anecdata says these things can travel miles on the wind or in water.

Paper bags will be decomposed in weeks if not days. An externality to make plastic cost more than paper would do wonders.

Never seen straws 15 miles into the woods, but have no data to back up a conclusion one way or the other.

I have no idea if the people who play with me know they are doing it with soft pitches. It's practically Tee Ball.

You say: "much of the USA trash is burned"

It turns out: "Currently there are 86 incinerators across 25 states burning about 29 million tons of garbage annually – about 12 percent of the total U.S. waste stream."

So was this even for real?


I think your statement given your approach is completely reasonable. However, I believe the vast majority of trash burning occurs outside of large incinerators.

In rural areas the norm is trash burning on private property in burn barrels or trash heaps. It never makes it to an incinerator. Garbage trucks don’t drive miles into the hinterland to pick up trash. It’s a different world.

That said, I’m not convinced you’re wrong in general. But it’s certainly larger than 12%, that’s misleading in the extreme. I think given the evidence it could be deduced that probably less than half of garbage is burned. Probably.

Maybe I have a misplaced faith that the wonks will try to take a serious stab at the number.

Fwiw, I searched it a different way and found:


Cue Hernando de Soto.

Let's not sneer down our lorgnettes too much here.

A friend who travels broadly tells me that Indonesia and Malaysia are way ahead of us at tackling the single-use bottled water contagion that has contributed mightily to the microplastics now found everywhere from formerly pristine forests to seafood we consume. People in those countries carry their own plastic bottles and refill them as needed at various public outlets already in place.

"They've made the pivot," he says. Why haven't we?


One reason we (collectively) still buy so many plastic bottles is that we "plausibly recycle." I mean, many families are ernest. The costco water bottle goes in the blue bin and job done. But even if 98% do that, the 2% bleed of bad practices puts a lot of bottles in the wild.

The bottles and other single use plastic containers make up a large part of the trash we skim out of the little municipal lake on cleanup days. I guess other trash settles to the bottom, but we don't dive.

I wonder what the folks who initially promoted recycle/reuse/reduce decades ago would make of the combination of the average person's recycling and trash carts (the former is huge, the latter has a range of sizes you can choose, to save a few dollars, some families require two of both), in my city being several times larger than *just* our trash can used to be.

Funny, and related:

I don't think this is related to the original point. Yes, different countries will adopt certain policies at a different rate and that is expected if you understand democracy. The point is that for some poorer countries, certain elites are adopting policies that don't make sense for that countries' population... so it's kind of the opposite of what you mentioned.

Surely you considered the possibility that over-reaching regulation in India creates vast opportunities for an assortment of corruption opportunities?


That was my immediate thought, also.

Whether the sign is in English or in any other language does not make any difference as long as customers are supplied plastic bags free. Environmental groups complain that while it costs a pittance producethese bags, the state authorities spend huge amounts of tax payers money to manage the waste.
Apparently it never occurred to any policy maker that taxing such polluting shopping bags so that they are too expensive for consumers would be a strong disincentive for their use. Instead appeals are made through such boards which is only a waste if money.
Recently some state governments have banned outright single use plastic bags. But apparently only shopping bags are banned. As a shop keeper told me pointing to some items on the shelves, such plastic bags are pervasive and until something us done about that the problem will persist

Baaaalex seems to know a thing or two about being premature.

Very interesting paper. However, the negative effects of premature imitation should be considered against the possible positive ones. Can early toothless regulation "kick in" later down the road and bypass path dependency and lack of political will? If India gets hooked on plastic bags for the next 20 years, won't it be much harder to move away from them after that, rather than setting the precedent now?

Of course, the problem with India is signs. What that must have cost tax payers $100! That's the reason India is so poor. I guess economics is all about feelings and culture wars.

However valid his thesis - as someone else commented above, some of Tabarrok's other posts about India - the coffee one, I remember - have suggested that imitation is not so much at work as a separate insane devotion to the circumlocution office that far exceeds their colonial masters - his example here is so little salient that I think it must surely have almost pained him to use it, but he just had to - because, ya know, freedom means I'll tie that plastic bag in a painful tourniquet about my wrist before I let you take it from my cold dead hands. 95.5% of commenters here will generally agree with him about that, but going to that same old well weakens the post. Maybe he did it on purpose, because he's not quite ready to go live with it.

"The market test isn’t perfect, but it is a test."

Maybe Pakistan could be the test? For our laissez-faire period? A Pashtun friend of mine years ago was trying to convey a sense of his hometown, which was Peshawar (he had an ancestral home/land as well, that was in the countryside, but I think his family spent most of their time in Peshawar.)

"It is like .... that town, what is it called ... in the Western movies?"

Dodge City?

"Yes, like that."

Good story.

I wonder who the sheriff is in Peshawar? Lol would not want meet him.

This past week, India’s reduction in standard domestic corporate income tax rates from 30% to 22%, to 25% from 35% for recipients of incentives or exemptions, and 15% from 25% for new manufacturing is about as good an incremental step towards laissez-faire as one could hope for and one that may set the stage for tariff reductions as well as help to restrain growth in numbers of bureaucrats. But as one might expect at Marginal Revolution, the distortionary effects of tax policy are studiously ignored.

The article decries the official use of the second most commonly spoken language in the country, English, which has 226 million speakers. Yet switching solely to Hindi (Hindi and English are both used by the central government) with 422 million speakers would still leave speakers of the 21 other constitutionally recognized languages out of luck. And wouldn’t requiring translation for all the hundreds of languages used in India be even more imitative of the West? A typical east coast US school district for example has to provide translation services for more than 50 languages. Similarly imitative is Tabarrok’s advocacy of employment quotas by caste.

Interestingly all four of the case studies are equally as applicable to the US whose governance similarly produces maternity benefit laws of a benefit to a small minority of working women, inability to address unnecessary and costly housing construction requirements, incorporates elite preferences into solutions to the open defecation problems endemic in US cities, and producing a wasteful and inefficacious educational system.
India as well as the USA would be better advised to not just quit emulating the Scandinavian welfare states, but look to the south where Brazil, for example, offers an example worthy of emulation in state funding of mandated maternity leave benefits, the accommodation of informal housing and a low-cost housing construction regulatory regime, a national system to finance water and sanitation infrastructure that features a high level of cost recovery compared to most other developing countries, and rapid improvement in education quality using the Basic Education Development Index.

At any rate, given the failed political system of the USA with its hyperpolarization, entrenched and unaccountable bureaucracy, and staggering national debt, no country, particularly one as diverse as India, should avoid taking advice from US-based sources like the plague.

Just finished reading first 10 or so pages. Kudos to Prof. Shruti and Prof. Alex.

In India, in my opinion, people absolutely do not want to hear about any of the costs of regulation or costs of environmentalism. There is hardly any equivalent of Terry Anderson in India. In India expression of "good intention" is both necessary and sufficient for a politician, policy maker, or any urban elite. Nobody wants to pay attention to the actual results or the costs of the decisions.

After the maternity leave law was passed one progressive (super leftist) person I know - complained that the companies are simply hiring less women and laying off some of the existing ones. He was talking about what he observed and read in the newspapers in one city. But what is important to note is that he was utterly unwilling to hear anything about the costs of such the maternity leave law. (In general anyone in India is absolutely unwilling to listen to the problems faced by any businessman, merchant, industrialist, entrepreneur.). The second person, a lady, who was party to the conversation, claimed that if society wants children then society must pay for the birth and nurturing of children and hence maternity leave law must be enforced strictly. She was utterly unwilling to even listen that having children is mainly the need of parents (couples) and not so much of society. FA Hayek once suggested that socialism alters the very character of Individuals. That is clearly visible in India.

"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"

OK, maybe there are no cows sleeping in the street in Portland or Berkeley, but there are definitely people doing so.

Not sure about Berkeley. But Portland uses goats in this role.

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.

Elites or voters? I'm betting it's voters that are the primary driver of this.

I agree that India has far too many silly rules and regulations, but plastic waste is definitely an area that they can be active in. In fact it is more of a problem in India than in the West. Interestingly though the cost of having active trash picking up is also low. My proposal would be to tax plastic use and then use the tax to pay money to the residents of the neighbourhood on the basis of a sliding scale of cleanliness. You can be sure that the local residents would organise themselves in India to get this money.

This being climate protester day, what if America had a law that prohibited imports of intermediate or finished goods produced in a country with pollution laws less stringent than America's or with enforcement less stringent than in America? After all, globalization not only shifted jobs overseas but is destroying the environment here as well as overseas. The usual suspects who oppose more stringent environmental laws here use the excuse that other countries have lax environmental laws and lax enforcement. If America slammed the door on imports from those polluters, I have this feeling they would upgrade; but I won't hold my breath since American companies are profiting enormously from the pollution overseas. Meanwhile, Tabarrok continues his campaign, not against polluters in India who export intermediate and finished goods to America, but against stupid government signs in India.

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 assumption is that civilized people are a refined version of primitive people.

It's right and proper that countries take on innovations, including regulatory innovations, which were not present in the West at similar levels of per capita GDP.

That's why developing nations can achieve higher life expectancies than were in the West at the same GDP/capita.

So making an argument against "premature imitation", doesn't really seem correct, just a less useful subset of the argument that state with limited funds shold carefully choose their targets. But those should not necessarily be the same targets that Western states had at the same level of GDP/capita!

A policy where countries simply said "Oh, we're not going to do X, because the USA didn't do it at our level of GDP/capita" would be far dumber than what you see in India and China today.

I don't think it's that stark, he's just saying that in general India should focus their more limited state capacity on more important goals for their development level, and stop trying to have all the rules first world countries have. It's about managing scarce state resources.

Regulate the important stuff, focus on that: clean water, sanitation, toilets, toxic pollution before plastic bags and film dialogue.

If you can do the small stuff cheaply without needing a lot of state enforcement mechanisms, so much the better. Using market solutions like Alex proposes is a good idea too.

I think that's an almost uncontestable argument, it's just that most people would say this and I don't think the term premature imitation really adds anything to that.

They should target what they should target because it is the most effective for where they are, not because it is something the West did or did not do in earlier periods.

India also aspires to socialism and thus allowing more freedom is contrary to the world view of their elites. Their demonitization last year is a great example. I saw on this site that it cost 2% of GDP (and probably more in lost incentives) all in the name of maximizing tax revenue from "cheaters".

Seems appropriate:

"What you think about landfill and recycling is probably totally wrong ..."

Regarding the "ruling elite" part (their overemphasis on English, their ivory tower thinking, their lack of touch with the ground realities etc) - the other oft-ignored reality is that it is this class which pays most of the taxes.

As per the constitution of India no tax can be levied on agricultural income. Period. So 50% or more of the population, which depends on agriculture, is excluded. A large portion of those who are in agri market are peasants and agri-labors whose income is too low to attract any income taxes.

This is not to say that farmers pay zero taxes. They do pay taxes but most of that kitty is spent on subsidies given to them - for seeds, fertilizers, water, electricity, low interest loans, bailouts etc.

Farmers are in such a screwed up state that even the private toilets in their homes are being built using governmental money plus funds borrowed from world bank.

And all intellectuals and thinkers (including Prof. Shruthi and Prof. Alex) and policy makers follow a strict un-written rule of never blaming the non-elites (e.g. farmers) for any of their faults or their issues and always absolving farmers.

Tom Sowell once said that the educational establishment in US believes that the problems of education have their roots outside the educational establishment. Similarly the intellectuals and thinkers in India love to believe that the problems of the non-elites have their roots only in the elites. This tendency has percolated en-masse to social media. Everyone loves to attribute every problem (especially the economic ones) to the elites and exclusively to the elites.

Now coming to the main point - if the ruling elites pay most of the taxes then no wonder they will seek laws that they want and not the laws that benefit the "not so elites". It is like you have a sponsor for a project and the sponsor wants a lion's share of the benefits - especially if the sponsor is also paying for a lot of expenses which benefit the non-sponsors.

This phenomenon is not exclusive in India. Argentina's environmental regulations detail (copied from EPA) permissible emissions, without having laboratory equipment to measure it. It's all a big "let's pretend". On the other hand, we have the case of Israel, a small young and energetic State, that copy-pasted American feminist, egalitarian rules and imposes them on fanatical Muslim minorities and on medieval Jewish sectors. Out here we all imitate America.

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