Economic Survey 2019-20 and the Missing Role of the Government

According to the Economic Survey 2020 (ES hereafter), wealth is created by the ‘invisible hand supported by the hand of trust’. This is another way of saying that economic prosperity can be achieved by free markets with the government playing the role of an enabler (primarily to enforce private property rights). The introductory paragraphs of the first chapter states the following: ‘During much of India’s economic dominance [in the past], the economy relied on the invisible hand of the market for wealth creation’; ‘the evidence across various sectors of the economy illustrates the enormous benefits that accrue from enabling the invisible hand of the market’; and that the ‘invisible hand needs to be strengthened by promoting pro-business policies’ (p. 1). In the chapter, there are quotes from old texts from the ‘Indian’ subcontinent such as Arthashastra and Thirukural to point out that wealth creation was strongly encouraged. Subsequently, as empirical evidence, they show India’s (historical) contribution to world GDP.

It is surprising to notice that our Chief Economic Advisor (CEA), Krishnamurthy Subramanian, the person responsible for the writing of the Economic Survey, did not object to the following mistake: ‘The ultimate measure of wealth in a country is the GDP of the country’ (p. 14). While GDP or income is a flow concept (measured over a period of time), wealth is a stock concept (measured at a point in time); however, let us try to believe that the chief economic advisor meant income when he wrote wealth. Otherwise, it is an elementary mistake.’

The ES misunderstands Adam Smith’s political economy when it talks about ‘invisible hand’. It is stated that ‘wealth creation and economic development in several advanced economies has been guided by Adam Smith’s philosophy of the invisible hand’ and ‘During much of India’s economic dominance, the economy relied on the invisible hand of the market’ (p. 6). What is the meaning of invisible hand in Smith’ Smith used ‘invisible hand’ as a metaphor to indicate that there are unintended consequences to individual actions and it figures only once in his Wealth of Nations. However, it is true that this term has been appropriated subsequently to paint the image of Smith as a free market economist, which he unarguably was not. As a counter to the view of Smith as a free-market apologist, it is important to note that Smith believed that education should be provided by the government to offset the cognitive ill-effects from division of labour and that it should be affordable to the worker who earns the lowest wage (for more on this, see Thomas 2019).’

According to the dominant economic theory (popularly termed neoclassical but marginalist more accurately), given preferences, technology, and endowments, under conditions of perfect competition, equilibrium prices (of commodities as well as labour) are (Pareto) efficient. [Pareto efficiency means that no one can be made better off without making someone else worse off.] Of course, mainstream economists recognise that an outcome might be efficient but it need not be fair. The ES reduces this formal idea to the following: ‘the market economy is based on the principles that optimal allocation of resources occurs when citizens are able to exercise free choice in the products or services they want’ (p. 6). Leaving aside the conceptual issues with the marginalist theory of value and distribution, how can the market economy in reality not just reproduce but also exacerbate the inequalities of wealth (or endowments), income, caste, and gender”

The ES appears to grossly misunderstand both the historical position and conceptual basis of Smith’s ‘invisible hand’. But was the market economy dominant during the time of Arthashastra as claimed by the ES’ Here are two excerpts from Thomas Trautmann’s 2012 book Arthashastra: The Science of Wealth (for my critical assessment, see Thomas 2016).’

‘As regards the quantity of rations to be issues to inmates in the king’s household: for upper-caste (Arya) males, the measure is one prastha of rice, one-fourth prastha curry (supa), salt one-sixteenth of the curry and butter or oil one-fourth of the curry. For lower castes, the measures are less. It is one sixth prastha of curry, and half the butter or oil. For women the measure is less by one quarter, and for children, it is less by one half. Thus ration units are proportionate to the status of the person and the body size.”(pp. 57-58)


‘In the case of commodities distant in place and time, the Overseer of Trade, expert in determining prices, shall fix the price after calculating the investment, the production of goods, duty, interest, rent and other expenses.’ (as quoted on p. 130)

The above two passages dispel the myth propagated in the ES that market forces had a ‘free’ reign in the past. In fact, it was exactly the opposite. There was a ‘division of labourers’, to use BR Ambedkar’s phrase, and food rations were provided on the basis of caste. Therefore, there existed no mobility of labour, and this is hardly surprising in a caste-based society. Moreover, prices were controlled because they believed in the concept of a ‘fair price’ which the market would not be able to set.’

ES also believes that the growth in incomes will trickle down to all: ‘Greater wealth creation in a market economy enhances welfare for all citizens’ (p. 11; emphasis added). ‘Wealth creation in the economy must ultimately enhance the livelihood of the common person by providing him/her greater purchasing power to buy goods and services’ (p. 14). How’ This happens in theory only if you make strong assumptions and neither is there strong empirical evidence to back this claim. On the same page, it is mentioned that the ‘freedom to choose is best expressed in an economy through the market where buyers and sellers come together and strike a bargain via a price mechanism’ and the reason is the following. ‘Where scarcity prevails and choice between one use of scarce resources [sic] another must be made, the market offers the best mechanism to resolve the choice among competing opportunities’ (p. 11). This is indeed the mainstream teaching of marginalist economics. It is true that marginalist economics views economics as a science of choice (under conditions of scarcity). However, what we require is a theory of production–available in the political economy of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, and JM Keynes. In India, there is neither scarcity of labour nor of capital. Ipso facto there can be no scarcity of commodities. What we are faced with is surplus labour and capital; the former is manifested in high labour unemployment and the latter in high excess capacity. The macroeconomic problem is thus one of aggregate demand deficiency.’

The current economic survey applies a (marginalist) microeconomic analysis to our central macroeconomic problem–unemployment (this is not particular to this year; for another such attempt when Kaushik Basu was the CEA, see Thomas 2012). Thus, it argues ‘that government intervention hurts more than it helps in the efficient functioning of markets’ (p. 12). Within the marginalist paradigm, government intervention reduces ‘economic efficiency’ and therefore is discouraged. However, for the most important macroeconomic problem of unemployment, the government ought to play a key role in the economy. This is necessary because domestic private investment is volatile and foreign private investment even more so. It is extremely unjust for any government to transfer its core macroeconomic responsibility of full employment to the private sector.’

[This is a revised version of my talk delivered at a public discussion on the Union Budget on 16 February 2020 organised by Bengaluru Collective, Centre for Social Concern, Ashirvad, and St. Joseph’s College. The link to the video is:’’v=8VA6OmzDp6A]


Author: Alex M Thomas

A passionate student of economics!