The UPSC might be failing – slogging is bad


People are known to slog for an average of two years before they finally get through the mother of all competitive exams, where over 450 thousand people attempt and only a thousand get through.


Does that mean only a thousand deserve to become a civil servant and the rest not?


Maybe yes, maybe no.
I will tell you first why it may not be so and the conclusions which follow from it.


May not be

The task of cracking the UPSC prelims requires a huge capability, say 100 units. If you already have that capability you can get through the prelims and other rounds most easily, with no requirement of preparation.

If you don’t have the ability to crack the UPSC immediately, you will be spending resources in preparation.


Transaction costs – are bad

Every transaction (exchange of goods, services, emotional relations, etc.) happens due to trade surpluses, without both parties profiting from a certain transaction, it simply wouldn’t take place.


To effect such a transfer we have to incur certain costs in letting the transaction happen, such costs are generally in the form of lawyer’s fees or reasoning with friends. These costs are additional burden on the parties, and they are set-off from the trade surpluses.


Economists hate transaction costs. They say whenever there is a huge transaction cost in any transfer, i.e. the transaction cost is higher than the trade surpluses, the transfer is inefficient.


The division of the transaction cost may be inequitable sometimes, i.e. one party may pay less of the transaction cost, while forcing the other party to pay more.

Irrelevant to this article this happens universally in all transactions, and the laws of economics tend to bring about an equilibrium, ultimately distributing the costs equitably.[5]


For example:

You want a passport, society wants verification, the transaction cost is a bribe to the policeman who shall verify you. Due to the presence of the transaction cost the transfer shall not be perfect, i.e. you may get the perfect passport, but society will not get the perfect verification as the bribe translates into you paying for not verifying you in-depth.


You want your friend to decrease the volume of his speaker because you value silence. If you really value silence you would be ready to pay for him to decrease the volume, or he would be ready to pay you for letting him play. When you both approach each other for this bargain, you reach a solution where, he lowers the volume to a certain extent you can tolerate.

But say, you had a fight with him earlier, or you just don’t want to talk to him, or you will end up spending precious time in the bargain, in these scenarios, there are intangible transaction costs. Being ego, choice and time.

These impregnate the transaction which could have taken place, with inefficiencies, and the music is not lowered to the amount it could have been, or the price paid for lowering the music is higher than it could have been.


In every scenario, be it school exams, railway ticketing, dating, etc, due to presence of transaction costs, the transactions get marred (resources don’t reach who value them most), and that is why economists and policy makers hate these.


Slogging is Transaction cost

I tried to clarify what is transaction cost as far as I could do, taking it from there, let’s identify the transfer, the parties, and the transaction costs here.


Society is one party and the individual is the other, the test is the transaction, and the preparation is the transaction cost.

Given that anyone and everyone can slog and can garner enough capability to get through by proper expenditure of resources, and such expenditure of resources being transaction cost,[3] the only question which remains is that how large is such expenditure. Transaction costs like these also come under rent-seeking behaviour.[4]


Rational limits of preparation for UPSC

If a candidate has 90 (out of 100) units of effort as talent already, he can substitute the rest 10 units required for cracking the UPSC by investing resources in preparation. As such it would be minimal transaction cost.

If a candidate has 60 units of effort present with him, he will need to invest in preparation for the rest 40 units. The transaction will tend to become ineffective.

But if, one has only 40 units of effort as talent, then also he may substitute the rest 60 units of effort by investing in preparation.

When more than 80 units of effort are generated through investments in preparation, that is when 80% of the transaction is only transaction cost, the transaction is going to be totally ineffective.[1]


For a moment even if we forget that such transactions are ineffective, we can’t ignore the fact that even the most undeserving (with sub 40 capability) can get through UPSC through slogging.


The most undeserving candidates shall get through by spending huge amount of resources available to them in the form of time, energy or money (most of us do not have all three at any one point of time), and ultimately the UPSC will remain a test of how much preparation a candidate has done (how much resources have been spent) not how fruitful his appointment can be.


Stochastically speaking the rich (money, time, influence and energy) candidates shall have more resources at disposal and therefore it is more probable the rich will get through. Limited to those instances the UPSC is a test of plutocracy and not merits.


Slogging is disastrous

What happens afterwards is really uncalled for. In other words, if you have spent INR 24 lakhs a year (2 lakh a month for premium UPSC training), you would definitely try to get back that amount at the first available instance.

This is also true for those candidates who slogged day and night, toiled for months for the appointment, they would also try to offset the discomfort caused to them for the preparation and would look forward to a comfortable life which the UPSC never (expressly) promised.

Also, in economics of sunk cost,[2] undeniably services get overvalued due to its existence.


Once you are less accountable for Rs. 1000, you would enter a vicious cycle wherein you would siphon off more amounts to cover your less accountability and be lesser accountable in further cycles.


In time you would learn (or not learn and get caught) how not to be accountable.


All human beings are subject to this disaster

If you say that, despite preparing for two years, you would not try to get back your money (set-off the transaction cost), it means either:

  • you are irrational and don’t follow economic principles (like maximisation and incentive analysis), or
  • you are rational and the emoluments and salary which civil servants receive are excessive in nature so as to cover for the resources spent in preparation.


Both of which are bad for the society given that we neither want irrational administrators nor overpaid civil servants.


Or maybe, fortunately for us, you derive huge pleasure out of serving the society, to the extent that you are ready to spend your resources for exchange of an opportunity to serve your fellow brothers and sisters.


Maybe yes

The UPSC might not require people who actually deserve to become civil servants, maybe UPSC only needs people who can legally lay claim to the appointment, through an acceptable mechanism.


Maybe the work doesn’t require so much ado after all. Maybe any literate, rational and diligent person would be enough for the position of an administrator.


Or maybe the UPSC has thought about all these already, and have put in tests in the interview rounds to find out the most deserving candidates. Maybe the UPSC is absolutely right in limiting the number of attempts.


These are just my reasonable concerns, maybe there are flaws in this approach, I welcome you to contribute and synthesise this thesis.




[1] RH Coase, ‘The Problem of Social Cost’ (1960) 3 Journal of Law and Economics 1–44

[5]Wayne, James J., A Scientific Macroeconomic Model Derived from Fundamental Equation of Economics (October 23, 2014). Available at SSRN: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2522490

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