India, Infrastructure and Democracy

Vikas Bajaj’s excellent article on how rail and other transportation bottlenecks are limiting India’s growth contains a paragraph that should worry everyone who believes in liberalism and democracy:

Critics say the growth and modernization of Indian Railways has been hampered by government leaders more interested in winning elections and appeasing select constituents, rather than investing in the country’s long-term needs. It is one of the many ways that the political realities of India’s clamorous democracy stand in contrast to the forced march that China’s authoritarian system can dictate for economic development.

It’s worth making several points in response. One would be that it’s not as if there’s no interest-group politics in China. Another is that as impressive as China is, the world has many more examples of democratic countries reaching full-scale rich country developed status (including a few Asian countries, the Anglosphere, Western Europe, and now Chile) than it does of authoritarian ones doing so, where you’re basically looking at Singapore. So it’s not as if autocracy is proven path to economic development. Trains are also something of an exception in the whole infrastructure realm. I remember a memorable conversation with a French person who explained to me that “good trains must be very straight” so you can only build them in “countries where you have a strong state, like France and China, where you just draw the line and take [pounds table] the land.”

That’s nice as far as it goes, there are some real upsides to that mode of governance, I think it’s fair to say the US has gone too far in the direction of Build Nothing Anywhere Near Anything, and yet also fair to say that there are a whole bunch of people in China who wish the strong state hadn’t been so capable of seizing their land.

At any rate, India’s growth has been very impressive by almost any historical standard. China has, however, achieved the greatest level of sustained growth in human history. So it’s natural for India to feel some China envy. And clearly India could do better than it’s doing, and ought to try, and the richer democracies should probably put more emphasis on helping India than we currently do. But I’d hate to see some kind of conventional wisdom get entrenched whereby India’s big problem is a lack of oligarchic dictatorship.