The Betty Crocker Cake Mix Theory of Sustainable Democracy

If we are to keep democracy alive in Pakistan, we have to shift to a genuinely participatory democracy.

Feisal H Naqvi August 22, 2012

There is an old fable of a criminal who is given the choice of either suffering a hundred lashes or of eating a hundred onions. The convict first opts for onions but soon finds that he is revolted beyond measure. He, therefore, asks to be flogged instead and, of course, finds that he can’t take the pain either. He is then allowed to go back to eating onions but once again finds himself unable to proceed. The net result is that he suffers both punishments.

The fable of the onions and the lashes is normally used as a metaphor for Pakistan’s zigzag progress from dictatorship to democracy and back; how we first thirst for democracy, then get revolted by the corruption and inefficiency that attends it, then get entranced by military rule and its promise of an efficient, technocratic future, then get revolted by the corruption and arrogance that inevitably attends all dictatorships and so stagger back to democracy, only to repeat the whole cycle all over again.

The question, of course, is how to break this cycle of suffering and stupidity. One answer comes to us from the wizards at Betty Crocker. And yes, I’m serious.

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me explain. Betty Crocker is the name of a popular line of baking goods best known for cake and pastry mixes that can be used by busy housewives and untalented cooks (such as myself) to produce reasonably tasty desserts with minimum effort.

Back in the 1950s, the marketing wizards at General Mills (the company which owns the Betty Crocker brand) were perplexed by the failure of instant cakes to achieve popularity even though instant piecrusts and instant biscuits were massive hits. Given that cakes and biscuits contained much of the same ingredients, the failure of instant cakes to sell was, indeed, very odd.

The eventual solution, as figured out by a psychologist called Ernest Dichter, was that instant cakes were so easy that housewives using the mixes didn’t feel any pride in presenting them. The solution adopted, therefore, was to deliberately leave out a few key ingredients such as eggs, milk and oil. These ingredients could then be triumphantly added by the cakemaker who could then — with some justification — claim to have ‘baked’ the cake. Or, as the ad put it, “You and Betty Crocker can bake someone happy.”

Ok, you may ask, but what does all of this have to do with democracy in Pakistan? Part of the answer comes from MIT professor Dan Ariely in his book The Upside of Irrationality.

Some years ago, Ariely actually carried out a series of experiments to see how much people value their own involvement in making things — something which he dubs the “Ikea effect”, named after the ubiquitous furniture store selling goods which need to be assembled by the buyer.

In his first experiment, Ariely asked volunteers to fold a piece of paper into a frog. The volunteers were then asked to value their creations. At the same time, other volunteers who had not been involved in making the frogs were also asked for their opinions. The differences in value were stark.

The creators valued their frogs at an average of 23 cents, while the non-creators valued the frogs at five cents. Subsequently, Ariely had the origami frogs made by experts. In this case, the non-creators valued the frogs at an average of 27 cents (or pretty close to what the creators valued their own frogs).

In his second experiment, Ariely again gave frog-building instructions to volunteers but this time deliberately made the instructions complicated and difficult to follow. The result was that those who completed their task despite the hurdles valued their creations the highest while those who had failed to complete their tasks valued the paper frogs the least.

Ariely’s findings can be summarised as follows: 1) people value things, which they have helped create; 2) the more the effort, the more people value their creations; 3) people don’t value things if they are incomplete, even if they have put great effort into them.

Let’s go back now and look at our political history. What we find are two main things. First, we have consistently maintained political systems that disenfranchise the citizenry of Pakistan. Leaving aside decades of military rule, even our democratic experiments have yielded governments in which decision-making powers have been concentrated in the minimum number of hands (see, e.g., the government of Punjab and the 10 or 15 departments — or whatever number it actually is — personally headed by Shahbaz Sharif).

Second, our experiments in democracy have continuously failed. Every time we have managed to get democracy restored in Pakistan, the net result has been civilian rule of such massive incompetence that the eventual restoration of military dictators has been welcomed.

Put these two factors together and the end result has been a disempowered population whose efforts to establish democracy have continuously failed. Is it any wonder then, especially keeping in view Ariely’s findings, that we have traditionally not valued democracy that highly?

At the same time, Ariely’s insight also gives one explanation for the survival of the current democratic experiment. Lest we forget, the transition from General (retd) Pervez Musharraf to Asif Ali Zardari was not painless but was driven by two separate popular movements: the first being the movement to restore the chief justice and the second being against the declaration of emergency by Musharraf. The democratic transition of 2008 was thus one of the most broadly based post-Independence movements in Pakistan’s history. If the people of Pakistan are now being atypically patient in suffering the foibles of the Zardari government, it is quite possibly because they were atypically involved in establishing this democracy.

The problem though is that the Pakistani public is not infinitely patient. If we are to keep democracy alive in Pakistan, we have no option but to shift to a more broad-based and genuinely participatory democracy. The current system in which four chief ministers and the president/prime minister rule the entire country is not sustainable. Otherwise, we may well find ourselves going through the whole onions and lashes routine all over again.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 23rd, 2012.