Promise and politicians in an uncertain world: Evidence from a lab-in-the-field experiment in India
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In parliamentary democracies, politicians play an obvious and critical role in choosing and implementing policies. A key question in implementation failures, especially due to the uncertainty about the true state of nature, is whether the failure is caused e.g. by deliberate inaction on the part of an elected office holder or by upstream recalcitrance or incompetence within the relevant departments of the bureaucracy. Our paper investigates the risk of politician induced implementation failure and possible mechanisms, based on social preferences, to reduce such failures. We examine the effect of introducing a promise in a non-anonymous dictator game played by local politicians in a controlled setting in rural India. In our modified dictator game, nature intervenes with a positive probability and chooses the most unfavorable outcome (zero) for the recipient. The recipient cannot observe whether nature intervened. We compare two treatments: (1) dictators only choose how much to distribute in case they, and not nature, decide the outcome; and (2) dictators first have to make a non-binding promise to the recipient and then play (1). We find that (i) the large majority of dictators promise to distribute a positive amount, (ii) many keep their promises, and (iii) the number of those who distribute zero in the promise-treatment drops significantly with respect to the no-promise treatment, i.e., recipients, on average, get significantly more. This suggests that forcing politicians making promises improve citizens’ welfare because it prevents them from hiding behind unfortunate events.
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