Are “free” good politics but bad economics? | Counter-currents

free bus pass for women
Women on a Delhi bus display their pink tickets. | PTI

Freebies versus wellness

Gifts are goods and services offered free of charge to users. It is alleged that some state governments in India have a confusion between ‘free and welfare’. There is only a thin line between the two. Those who are against “freebies” are generally also against “welfare” provisions.

The issue of “freebies” finally reached the Supreme Court of India through a public interest litigation filed by a prominent politician. The intervention plea filed called on the central government and the Electoral Commission of India to take steps to regulate political party poll manifestos and hold parties accountable for the promises made in these manifestos.

Proponents of this argument argue that states should invest in necessary infrastructure that will benefit citizens and avoid unnecessary handouts that will empty their coffers.

Labeling policy

The worst way to politically tear down something (or someone) that stands in the way is to label it(them) with an undesirable name and then start a campaign highlighting all the negative aspects of it (them ). Unfortunately, this strategy is used time and time again to defame policies and programs such as reservations, affirmative action, and various social welfare measures aimed at uplifting the marginalized and oppressed poor.

Contextualize the current “free debate”?

Welfare critics often cite a Chinese proverb that says, “Give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day.” Teach a man to fish and you will feed him all his life.” No one can disagree with the logic of “empowerment” inherent in this saying.

However, there are some people who are not entitled and unwilling to this kind of empowerment. It is those with different abilities, communities and genders that have been traditionally exploited and oppressed for centuries, etc. They are supported by progressive governments from time to time through social welfare measures or things given below market price or so-called gifts.

The logic of social protection has been widely accepted by social scientists because of its power to provide safety nets for those who are out of the market, have no freedom of choice and lack purchasing power.

Social scientists have warned, however, that this social engineering through social welfare, to be effective, requires more “communicative action”, as well as “political rigor” and “implementation efficiency”. “. Whenever governments have failed to adequately communicate both the symbolism and useful results of these social welfare measures for the development and integration of the nation, regressive politicians attempt to tear down the whole the social protection system that traditionally provided safety nets for the poor. Unfortunately, this is also what is happening around the current debate on “freebies”.

Will “gifts” dry up savings?

The Delhi state government has offered free health care, free education, free travel for women, free water and free electricity for low consumption users. The government of Tamil Nadu provided free bicycles for school girls, free laptops for students, free health insurance and even cattle, a goat, a chicken, etc. free to the rural poor.

Questions have been raised about the sustainability of these programs and their potential impact on public finances. The funny part of this debate is that those who oppose “gifts” given to the poor are not against the many privileges and gifts they themselves enjoy as politicians.

All these social investments in health care, education, power supply, rural agriculture, etc. will improve access to development infrastructure that is otherwise inaccessible to them, and thus the human capacity of citizens will subsequently improve. It will promote the social and economic development of the State in the long term, even if it dries up the coffers of the State a little for a short time.

“Gifts” beyond welfare

What about mixers, fans and TVs that are given out to people for free?

Development economists and Nobel Laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther, through their extensive field experiences in India, have proposed ways to design measures to reduce poverty around the world. For them, poverty is not just a single or simple problem, and it manifests as complex and multiple problems and each deserves its own response.

There are different reasons why people are depressed, sick and have no access to financial markets and infrastructure. Therefore, the best way to propel an economy is to put money in the hands of the bottom half of the population. Spending on the poor creates a multiplier effect as their consumption increases.

So even giving “freebies” such as mixers, fans, and television to the poor is not bad economics.


If today’s “gratuitous” debate is about the regulation of campaign speech, it is only a matter of campaign procedure, but with little impact. For example, election speeches made by unelected candidates are not official statements about the future government’s fiscal plans and therefore actions taken in this regard may not be of much value. If the question is about the logic of social welfare or the logic of spending money to stimulate the consumption of the rural poor, the call for the abolition of so-called “freebies” has no scientific basis. .

(Kandathil Sebastian is a social scientist based in Delhi. He is actively involved in evaluating and researching social development programs throughout South Asia)

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