Some days ago, Mr Saroop Ijaz wrote a scathing piece on Imran Khan in these pages. That article has begot a letter from my friend Shafqat Mahmood, himself a writer and analyst of high merit. I do not intend here to discuss what kind of language must be employed in criticising an individual or an organisation because I believe that a strong argument must be able to stand on its own and should normally avoid emotions. Adjectives and expletives tend to draw attention away from the argument, if there be one, and that is quite unnecessary.
Having said that, let me try and raise some issues. I hope, in the spirit of an ongoing dialogue, that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf will focus on my submissions here.
Apropos of ending corruption, the number of days does not matter. I am sure Khan meant 90 days, not 19 days, though 90 is an equally arbitrary number here despite being a slightly safer bet.
But can he do it?
Please note that the question here presupposes that it is indeed crucial for Pakistan’s development to end ‘corruption’. There’s another assumption too, less obvious: that Khan and his party not only understand the structures of the system but can also predict the outcomes of whatever interventions they have planned. I say “whatever interventions” because at least I am not privy to their policy design.
However, the less obvious second assumption that Khan understands the structures of the system and can also predict outcomes is one that is not borne out by a vast corpus of literature in different areas of social sciences, especially public policy.
For instance, in his celebrated work, System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life, Robert Jervis argued the concept of systems effects as “when a set of units or elements is interconnected so that changes in some elements or their relations produce changes in other parts of the system, and (b) the entire system exhibits properties and behaviours that are different from those of the parts.” The implication should be evident: even if one understands the system (highly unlikely), the outcomes of changes and their directions, given non-linearity, cannot be predicted.
Decades before Jervis, in 1936, sociologist Robert Merton argued in an article, The Unintended Consequences of Purposive Social Action that: “Although no formula for the exact amount of knowledge necessary for foreknowledge is presented, one may say in general that consequences are fortuitous when an exact knowledge of many details and facts (as distinct from general principles) is needed for even a highly approximate prediction.
“In other words, ‘chance consequences’ are those which are occasioned by the interplay of forces and circumstances which are so complex and numerous that prediction of them is quite beyond our reach.”
Nathan Glazer reached the same findings in his 1990 work, The Limits of Public Policy. Similarly, in a 1973 paper for Policy Sciences, Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber presented the idea of a wicked problem.
Using their framework, in a 2009 article for Daily Times I wrote:
“A wicked problem is generally one that is either difficult or almost impossible to solve because of contradictory and changing requirements and where information is incomplete. To add to the degree of difficulty, a wicked problem involves complex interdependencies, such that tackling one aspect of the problem can create other problems.
“Essentially, this means that no course of action can be based on a definitive formulation because a wicked problem successfully eludes one; courses of action cannot be correct or incorrect or true or false but only relatively better or worse; every attempt is a one-shot experiment which may or may not work; stakeholders have different frames for understanding and solving the problem; there are multiple value conflicts and so on.”
The problem, now generally referred to as “interactive complexity”, is increasingly being written about, not just in relation to public policy but also military operations in environments where the militaries have to fight, to quote Rupert Smith, “among the people”.
Two things should be obvious: one, understanding the structures of social (as opposed to scientific-technical) systems is not entirely possible and having information on outcomes which are the result of interactive complexity is even more difficult. But let’s park this thought for a while and introduce another.
Are rents entirely bad?
In a 2000 study of rents (Rents, Rent-Seeking and Economic Development: Theory and Evidence in Asia) Mushtaq Khan, an institutional political economist, along with KS Jomo arrived at a different finding. In that edited volume, as well as in his other writings, Khan has consistently challenged the belief that eliminating rents and rent-seeking behaviour is a “precondition” for successful development. His work suggests that not only is there no evidence for this sequencing, inquiries reveal reverse causality. He speaks of transformation potential which he defines as the capacity of a state/society to transform rent-seeking behaviour in ways that are conducive to growth. The study looks at Taiwan and South Korea, among other states in the region, and notes that these states in fact used patron-client relations through selective but firm interventions to further growth.
Does this mean nothing can be done? That would be a wrong message. Policies can and must be formulated but they need to be sharply aware of limitations and unintended consequences. They must also avoid simplistic slogans and deadlines.
The paradox here is this: Imran Khan needs slogans to win adherents and exploit the general despondency. But equally, his movement, by raising undue expectations, can do more harm than good.
In a brilliant chapter for a USIP book, Jeremiah Pam invoked an epigram from that eclectic scholar Paul Valery: “That which is simple is always false; that which is not simple is always unusable”. This is the paradox of complexity. From politics, to economics, to public policy design to military affairs and the use of force, it serves leaders and policymakers well to appreciate this paradox.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 15th, 2012.