So India has, atleast for now, turned its back on retail trade liberalization. It has been rightly criticized for this decision since the case for liberalization has been widely discussed and is largely obvious.
Alex Tabarrok weighs in with the argument that if it is to improve the standard of living of its people, India needs workers to move from less productive sectors like farming, retail, and so on to other more productive and higher value added industries, and retail trade liberalization hastens this process. I agree with the first point. The second, about retail trade liberalization hastening the process, though may be more contentious and needs a more nuanced appreciation.
It is surprising that Alex does not explore the argument further since he does acknowledge the perils of liberalization - the painful labour market transition and the fact that, atleast immediately, the losers generally outnumber the winners. He simply confines his analysis to a standard line - transitions always involve some pain; creation always involves some destruction; growth always involves change; the alternative, however, is stagnation.
I think this is pretty lazy, even specious, scholarship. Unfortunately, it is also widely prevalent in academic discussions on reforms. There is a reluctance or inability to think through the real world problems that come in the way of pushing through such reforms, especially in democracies. It is all the more surprising since these supporters do identify the potential challenge. But they refuse to think beyond stage one.
The case for any liberalization measure proceeds something like this. First trumpet the benefits of liberalization. Then gain enough support to liberalize regulations. The benefits start to flow, but accompanied by the pains of transition. Then rationalize that any liberalization will have losers, who may even be large in numbers, but "today’s losses and gains are fleeting, the permanent winners are the workers and consumers of the future who will know only the benefits of productivity".
India's tryst with retail liberalization has resonance with similar structural transformations across other sectors, both in India and elsewhere. The fundamental issues bear striking similarity with the conditions when China liberalized its markets and encouraged foreign investments. The newer firms ended up competing with large and uncompetitive public sector units (PSUs) thereby generating the risk of lay-offs by these PSUs. The US economy too, as Joe Stiglitz pointed out in his New Year essay in Vanity Fair, faces a similar labour market challenge as it transitions from manufacturing to productive services.
In all these cases, the key to successful transformation is the effectiveness in managing the losers or those displaced during the process. Traditionally, academicians and policy makers pay disproportionate attention to the reforms themselves while ignoring the more important issue of getting the mechanics of the transition process right. What needs to be done to rehabilitate those affected by the changes? What are the immediate and medium-term measures?
As democracies become increasingly politically divisive, effective rehabilitation strategies will become even more important if governments are to push through such reforms. China appears to have managed the transition effectively, albeit less efficiently. It kept the large and failing PSUs running with heavy state support. The spectacular economic growth in other sectors helped the government with the resources required to backstop this transition hemorrhage without curtailing the progress of the reforms. Now that the transformation has stabilized, the government is slowly removing its support for the PSUs.
Since the pains associated with the transition invariably comes in the way of the effective implementation of the reforms, it is critical that the mitigation cum rehabilitation plan gets the required focus. However, assuming that governments rarely get the transition plan right, a second best option would be, as the Chinese have done, to let the existing public systems continue to maintain life-support till the transition takes strong roots. While this has its costs, it will mitigate the hardships and ease the reform path.
In India's case, it is important that those likely to be displaced from retail trade be absorbed elsewhere in the labour market. This will not happen by itself and merely through the dynamics of economic growth and resultant job creation. It will require enabling policy frameworks and massive investments in education, especially in the acquisition of vocational skills. It will also require policies that encourage the creation of large enough self-employment opportunities.
Most importantly, it will need a universal social safety system that can atleast partially cushion those losing out from the bitter pain and social dislocation that follow. In any case, this social safety net is an essential pre-requisite for cushioning those most vulnerable from the vagaries of liberalization and increasing integration with the global economy. Unfortunately, the opportunity to establish a comprehensive social safety net is being side-tracked by the obsession with populist, inefficient and even wasteful piece-meal interventions.