Gresham’s law and public morality

Published: November 5, 2012
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The writer is a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court. He can be reached on Twitter @laalshah. The views presented in the article above are not those of his firm

The writer is a partner at Bhandari, Naqvi & Riaz and an advocate of the Supreme Court. He can be reached on Twitter @laalshah. The views presented in the article above are not those of his firm

The elections to the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) were held this past week. Like the other 2,000 or so members, I was inundated with SMS messages requesting me to “vote and support” candidate X. On some days, I got more than 50 such messages. Some of the hopefuls even went to the trouble of calling me. A determined few went further and showed up at my office.

At the same time, despite the intensity of the campaigning, not a single candidate for a single office of the SCBA made any substantive promise. No manifestos were printed. Certainly, none were distributed. No one tried to win my vote by saying that they would seek to improve the problems faced by those who actually argue before our country’s Supreme Court. Instead, to the extent anybody bothered to make a pitch for my vote, it was based entirely on relationships: vote for my friend, vote for my cousin, vote for my political compatriot.

Lest you think this is not a big deal, let me explain. For at least the past two decades, and more specifically over the past five years, the SCBA has been one of the more important political organisations of this country. When the Chief Justice was removed by General (retd) Pervez Musharraf on March 9, 2007, the movement for his restoration was led in part by Munir Malik, the then president of the SCBA. Munir Malik was succeeded as president of the SCBA by Aitzaz Ahsan, the lawyer for the Chief Justice. Aitzaz Ahsan then led the second phase of the lawyers’ movement against the imposition of Emergency by General (retd) Musharraf on November 3, 2007, which eventually resulted in the restoration of the Chief Justice and the other ousted judges. Even today, while the bar associations of the various High Courts and district courts remain independent and very significant entities, the SCBA occupies a privileged position in the legal fraternity by virtue of its connection with the apex Court.

There is also no shortage of issues for the SCBA to discuss. The tenure of the current chief justice has seen an unprecedented expansion in the role of the Supreme Court. The Court has become completely identified in the public eye with an aggressive commitment to public interest litigation, a development which is highly debatable, both in legal and political terms. As professionals who practise at the Supreme Court, SCBA candidates should obviously have a position on this issue just like they should have ideas on how to deal with the massive backlog of cases in the Supreme Court. But none of the candidates bothered to express any thoughts on these issues to their voters.

Entry into the SCBA requires 10 years of practice at the High Court level followed by a rigorous interview and selection procedure. Members of the SCBA can therefore — with some justification — regard themselves as the cream of Pakistan’s legal crop. And yet, I repeat, not a single candidate in the SCBA elections bothered to make any substantive argument. More significantly, I seem to be the only person bothered by this omission.

My question is this: if the elections to an elite body of highly skilled professionals are to turn on nothing more than personality issues, what hope is there for the rest of this country? We hear so often that democracy cannot flourish in a country populated by poor illiterates but the membership of the SCBA is neither poor nor illiterate. We hear equally often that the only cure for bad democracy is more democracy. The SCBA has been holding annual elections for decades. Why, then, do the SCBA elections present the same sad picture as our political process?

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner and a business legend in his own right, argued some years ago that while Gresham’s law had become obsolete in terms of currency, it could nonetheless be applied to societal mores.

For those not up to date with economic theory, Gresham’s law is the contention that bad money drives out good. In other words, if a state starts diluting the amount of precious metal in its coins, people will start hoarding good coins and only using adulterated coins.

Munger’s variation of Gresham’s law is that bad morality drives out good or, in other words, that public morality is in a race to the bottom. Once one person cuts corners, everybody else starts cutting corners too because that is the only way to survive. Pretty soon, there is nobody left who does not cut corners.

What, then, is the solution? Munger does not spell it out, but the answer lies in the works of Charlie Frankel, another thinker quoted by him during the same lecture. Frankel was an American philosopher and humanist who argued that systems of government were “responsible” in direct proportion to the degree that the people who made the decisions bore the consequences. At least to my mind, that simple argument explains more about Pakistan’s current state than all of the books titled using some variation of “The World’s Dangerous Country”.

Coming back to the topic of this column, I am forced to concede that the SCBA has become what it is because of the apathy of lawyers like myself. Put simply, SCBA candidates do not care about substantive issues because lawyers like myself do not force them to care. Well, starting today, that is going to change.

The next SCBA elections are exactly a year away. More importantly, the SCBA membership is small enough that even blocks of 10 or 20 voters count significantly. Assuming I can round up at least 10 votes, the plan is to put together a set of policy reforms and see if we can get any of the major candidates to bite. It may or may not work. But at least I’ll feel better when the next SCBA election comes around.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 6th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (17)

  • C. Nandkishore
    Nov 5, 2012 - 10:39PM

    That’s good. But don’t make the mistake Anna Hazare did here in India. You cannot change wholesale. One or two changes per year is acceptable to all. And in ten years you have twenty changes which is quite good.

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  • Nadir
    Nov 5, 2012 - 10:56PM

    Just goes to show that certificates, passing exams and degrees makes not one educated nor wise. The poor and illiterate dont get the credit they deserve they are far more rational that we assume, after all its takes all your physical and mental resources to make do and survive with meagre resources and stunted opportunities.

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  • NO BS
    Nov 5, 2012 - 10:58PM

    First sensible column from you, keep it up !!

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  • sabi
    Nov 5, 2012 - 11:07PM

    In Pakistan Lawyer proffesion has never been a priority for a young man.The first most priority is medical,then engineering .army civil service etc..If someone can not qualify for these field because of his merit he has no choice but to go for lawyer profession(33% Marks in intermediate and secondary education enough for this field) .Attitude and behaviours of lawyer community in this country shows that they are reluctant professionals.What else can be expected from this hopeless community.
    .Exceptions are excluded

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  • Waheed Mazhar
    Nov 5, 2012 - 11:33PM

    Mr. Naqvi is rightly concerned and lets hope that somebody bites on his idea. I am sure he can gather more than 10 or 20 votes…young lawyers, to my expectation, will definitely like his idea and join him. I would also like to encourage the proposition that young lawyers should come forward to contest the election. This of-course is a suggestion for future elections, while I duly respect the well deserved victory of Mian Sahib (Mian Israr ul Haq), he is a very competent and honorable member of our fraternity.

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  • Arifq
    Nov 5, 2012 - 11:49PM

    Dear Feisal

    “When the Eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber” – Sir Winston Churchill.

    Wishing you all the best and hope to see your name on the ballot next year, certainly a good omen for SCBA and judiciary.

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  • Waheed Mazhar
    Nov 6, 2012 - 12:01AM

    @sabi:
    I keenly look forward to your remarks as they are enlightening. Although this one is factually true to some extent but I don’t think that our education and grading system reflects a good standard to measure the level of competence of a student, so the sarcasm of 33% marks is too harsh. I have noticed a marked change in the traditional approach towards this profession and during my limited tenure of eleven years, have come across many lawyers who are neither average nor reluctant professionals. It’s one of those professions where one gets a chance to learn everyday. And its also one of those professions where desire to seek higher / foreign education is increasing and this profession can rightly boast of a great number of foreign qualified, locally educated, dedicated and competent professionals, who are transforming the image of this profession positively.

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  • sabi
    Nov 6, 2012 - 5:02AM

    @Waheed Mazhar:
    Thanks a lot for your kind appraisal.In the end of my above post I said “exception is excluded”.It is heartning to know from your post that this class which I refferd to as exception is becoming bigger and more vocal.
    I do agree with you that present system of education doesn’t necessiraly reflects the true intelects of individuals.There are many who were just average but in their practicle life turned more promising and reponsable citizens.and vice versa.
    Wish you all the best in this career and hope you will enlighten more of your collegues with your precious behaviour.Pakistan needs people like you.

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  • Zeux
    Nov 6, 2012 - 5:09AM

    Feisal and not a typical anti imran khan article. that’s a change

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  • Hamid Khawaja
    Nov 6, 2012 - 11:04AM

    If I were a lawyer, I would be with you next year. I wish you success.

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  • Syed Hassan
    Nov 6, 2012 - 11:26AM

    As always Faisal talk sense.

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  • Riaz Khan
    Nov 6, 2012 - 12:24PM

    Excellent article! Love your articles Feisal.

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  • Mohsin Raza
    Nov 6, 2012 - 2:26PM

    This guy has started campaigning too early.

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  • Nov 6, 2012 - 3:22PM

    I wonder what the torch bearer of democracy and human rights, Asma Jehangir has to say about the style of elections at the SCBA.

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  • Hello2
    Nov 6, 2012 - 3:23PM

    It may come as a surprise to readers that over 2400 years ago, in 405 BC, Aristophanes in his comedy “The Frogs” refers to bad politicians whose prevalence is attributed to factors similar to those favouring good money over bad. He laments that gold and silver coins are hoarded for their intrinsic value, while brass coins circulate freely. Similarly, “with men we know for upright, blameless lives and noble names. These we spurn for men of brass…”

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  • Akhter
    Nov 6, 2012 - 6:57PM

    An accurate summation of the state of affairs at the SCBA, however i feel that your efforts will fall on deaf ears ( Bhains ke aage bheen bajaana”)
    Let me explain I have actively campaigned in local villages and asked them to at election time when a representative comes for their vote ask him/her “what is your manifesto for the next 5 years? where do you see the economy in 5 years? and more importantly HOW will you get there?”
    You can imagine my frustration when they reply we have no right to ask questions were just told whom to vote for by Chaudary sahib or Malik Sahib!!!!
    But Good luck anyway! hopefully there will still be a country for you to stand election in.

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  • From Planet earth
    Nov 7, 2012 - 8:07PM

    Candidates use all illegal and immoral methods to secure their victory. Azizi once rightly said, “In this country one stands up or sits down only to secure ones prime interests.” I regularly cast vote to the candidate who promise me to protect my personal interests whenever they be a subject matter before the Bench. I openly concede while others do the same without professingRecommend

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