Symbolic Public Goods and the Coordination of Collective Action: A Comparison of Local Development in India and Indonesia

  • Rao V
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Most economists think of common property as physical – a body of water, a forest – and as
bounded within geographic space. In this paper, building on work in social theory, I argue that
common property can also be social – defined within symbolic space. People can be bound by
well-defined symbolic agglomerations that have characteristics similar to common property. I
call these “symbolic public goods” (SPGs) and make the case that such constructs are central to
understanding collective action. The point is illustrated by contrasting how conceptions of
nationalism in Indonesia and India created SPGs that resulted in very different strategies of local
development. Indonesia emphasized collective action by the poor that resulted in a form of
regressive taxation, enforced by the ideology of svadaya gotong royong (community self-help)
that was both internalized and coercively enforced. India emphasized democratic decentralization
via the panchayat system driven by the Gandhian ideology of gram swaraj (self-reliant villages).
This has resulted in an unusual equity-efficiency tradeoff; Indonesia has delivered public services
more efficiently than India, but at the cost of democratic freedoms and voice. I argue that the
challenge for these countries is to not undermine their existing SPGs but to build on them;
Indonesia should retain the spirit of svadaya gotong royong but to channel it in an equitable and
democratic direction, while India should build the capacity of the panchayat system by giving it
fiscal teeth, while promoting underutilized institutions such as Gram Sabhas that encourage
accountability and transparency.

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  • Vijayendra Rao

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