Book Review: The Voice of Reason

Book Review: The Voice of Reason

Pranab Bardhan’s collection of essays applies plain-dealing economics to a range of issues in policy and politics

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The book includes some interviews of Bardhan as well as a conversation between the author and Amartya Sen.

Title: Globalisation, Democracy and Corruption: An Indian Perspective
Author: Pranab Bardhan
Publisher: Frontpage
Pages: 260 pages
Price: 495

In the din of public debates on the Indian economy and related subjects, Pranab Bardhan often sounds like the soft voice of reason. He has been a consistent critic of one-sided views on complex issues such as economic reform, the impact of globalization on inequality, or the relation between democracy and economic growth. He often emphasises the need for nuance, context, and caution.

This is not the stuff of a thriller, but sometimes we do benefit from a little bit of economic education — the genre, so to speak, of most of the short essays reprinted in this book. Aside from these essays, written during the last 10 years, the book also includes some interviews of Bardhan as well as a conversation between the author and Amartya Sen. They are arranged under seven broad themes: globalisation, capitalism, inequality and poverty, democracy, corruption, India and China and “Indian polity and economy”.

The essays nicely illustrate how simple economic analysis (nothing beyond the grasp of an intelligent reader) can sharpen our understanding of public policy issues. In his discussion of corruption, for instance, Bardhan draws attention to some important structural causes of rising corruption, such as the soaring value of natural resources in a growing economy and the steady escalation of election costs. On land acquisition, he makes interesting proposals such as the wider use of annuities instead of lump-sum compensation. On labour reform, Bardhan presents simple but compelling arguments — and evidence — against the common notion that rigid labour laws are the chief obstacle to faster growth of the manufacturing sector in India.


Among other thought-provoking essays in this book is ‘The avoidable tragedy of the Left in India’, a friendly but forthright critique of the Left parties and particularly, of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In the wake of recent electoral defeats, the CPM seems to be caught between those who want it to move leftward and rightward respectively. Like Buridan’s ass, it tends to end up staying in place, at its own peril. Bardhan castigates this inertia and makes a spirited case for the Left parties to move firmly in the direction of social democracy. One may or may not agree with this prescription, but Bardhan’s analysis is certainly an important contribution to ongoing debates on the future of the Left parties in India.

The call for social democracy is related to another recurring theme of the book — the complementarity between state and market.

Bardhan often expresses qualified support for market-oriented economic reforms, but is also in favour of constructive state action to deal with market failures and equity concerns. Here again, his penchant for two-sidedness comes through. However, there is a third side that needs more attention: voluntary cooperation, outside (or beyond) the realm of state or market institutions. Voluntary cooperation has a tremendous role to play in many critical fields, including education, health, culture, science, peace-making, environmental protection and democratic practice. With recent improvements in levels of living, and the growth of information and communication technologies, the power of free and equal association is greater than ever. There lies, I believe, another possible source of inspiration for the Left.

The book is not without flaws. There is some repetition, as one would expect from a series of stand-alone essays and interviews. The copy editors must have been drowsy because there are glitches here and there, including a case of wholesale paragraph duplication (page 194). More facts and figures would have helped the book come to life. Nevertheless, there is much to learn from it.