James Steuart, Strange(r) Economists and the Indian Economy


Inflation has been portrayed as the biggest challenge faced by Indian policy makers and its Central Bank, Reserve Bank of India, in recent times. The Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India and Professor of Economics at Cornell University, Kaushik Basu, recently presented his professional views on inflation – understanding and management, at the First Gautam Mathur Lecture on 18 May 2011. This is currently available for download as a working paper at the Ministry of Finance website. Various excerpts from this paper have made its way in some English newspapers and TV media. I will comment on this paper at length on a later date. Reading Basu’s paper makes me wonder whether monetary economists or other policy makers know what India is, who Indians are and what Indians actually do. In more abstract terms, do economists know the structure of the Indian economy? Do they know what motivates Indians? Is it primarily region, class, caste, religion, gender, education, self-interest, compassion, sympathy, fame, status? Although, to be fair to Kaushik Basu, he asks the RBI not to experiment and not to put up a façade of knowledge (which he frequently does). Without having a clear understanding of, what the 18th century economist James Steuart calls, “the spirit of a people”, it is impossible to formulate effective policies. Moreover, the focus on employment generation has completely given way to inflation stabilisation, using sophisticated econometric techniques. Therefore, this blog post revisits James Steuart’s views on how “the spirit of a people” influences economic engineering. In the Indian context, the consequences of monetary intervention might not be those which are depicted in conventional models of inflation.

Sir James Steuart (1713-1780) published An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Oeconomy in 1767 which was and has been overshadowed by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations published in 1776. Steuart acknowledged the importance of devising context-specific economic policies. However, we must realise that context-specific economic policy is not antithetical to general economic theories. In other words, proposing economic theories and models of a general nature is not inherently a problem; but, when applied blindly, they cause havoc, which is often supressed in very clever ways. Steuart writes:

“Every operation of government should be calculated for the good of the people. . .that in order to make a people happy, they must be governed according to the spirit which prevails among them” (p. 21).

An ignorance or lack of understanding of this “spirit” can have disastrous consequences. We see some of them in the worsening urban-rural inequality, falling of inflation-adjusted per capita incomes in interior villages [EPW, 2011], agricultural distress and forced migration [P Sainath, The Hindu, 2011]. One of reasons why such skewed policies are implemented is because of the rationale provided by “pure economic theory”, which Basu seems to praise for its scientific rigor and [semblance of] truth. To be clear, “pure economic theory” is something which Steuart was against because it assumed a certain “spirit” and claimed to be universal thereby neglecting important specificities and characteristics pertaining to individual economies.

For Steuart, “the spirit of a people is formed upon a set of received opinions relative to three objects; morals, government and manners: these once generally adopted by any society, confirmed by long and constant habit, and never called in question, form the basis of all laws, regulate the form of every government, and determine what is commonly called the customs of a country” (p. 22). That is, education, religion, region, caste, gender, etc would significantly affect the “spirit” of India. Also, important characteristics such as the percentage of Indians employed in agriculture, in unorganised manufacture, in self-employment, in rural areas, using informal sources of finance, who are socially poor (less than 100 rupees a day), who actually invest in stock markets, who read English newspapers and so on affect the outcomes of economic engineering. Not paying heed to these significant characteristics is the same as formulating an inappropriate policy. Let me highlight once instance. The RBI conducts Inflation Expectations Survey to estimate how the expectations of the Indian populace change over time and this result forms an input into monetary policy making. Despite this, the RBI did not survey any Indian living in rural areas; they seem to neglect and forget the fact that the main producers live in rural areas and their chief occupation is agriculture! This certainly deserves to be questioned. Policies should not be formulated “at any point which regards the political oeconomy of a nation, without accompanying the example with some supposition relative to the spirit of the people” (p. 23). If the “spirit of the people” is not taken into account, as the example above indicated, such policies could prove to be harmful. This also calls for greater dialogue between economists and other social analysts (sociologists, cultural theorists, political scientists, anthropologists, social workers, etc) when engineering nation-wide socio-economic policies. Hence, Steuart writes that “in every step the spirit of the people should be first examined” (p. 25).

Often, the attitudes of policy makers indicate how much their academic knowledge is irrelevant for practical economic and social problems. The reliance on “pure economic theory” is nothing but an intellectual looking, mathematically replete and made-difficult-to-understand version of free markets, because efficiency and rationality are our new gods! As Keynes writes in his preface to The General Theory, “the difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.” Today, these “old ideas” are not only fashionable and ‘scientific’ (and often unsuited to India), but they are also communicated relentlessly to the new generations through schools and universities. In conclusion, it is scary to realise that India’s policy making is done by those who are “strangers” to the Indian realities. Steuart warns us that “when strangers are employed as statesmen, the disorder is still greater, unless there be extraordinary penetration, temper, and, above all, flexibility and discretion” (p. 27).

One thought on “James Steuart, Strange(r) Economists and the Indian Economy”

  1. The last paragraph absolutely nails it. Education has very rarely been relevant to the real world of that time. This ensures most people do not think and just adhere to norms set by society (including corporate). The GoI is working on a parallel track to try and curb inflation, without understanding the adverse impact it has on the lower income groups. Food and fuel prices, which are skyrocketing, can be controlled with proper distribution techniques, but the government is labelling this as Demand Driven inflation.

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