Less fragile than we look

What we need instead of one-man rule is a country where decision-making is pushed down to the lowest possible level.

Feisal H Naqvi March 20, 2013

A Hard Country. Tinderbox. On the Brink. Playing with Fire. Eye of the Storm. Descent into Chaos. The Crisis State. The Unravelling.

It is difficult, if not actually impossible, to find a book about Pakistan whose title does not convey the impression that this is a very fragile and perhaps, ungovernable country, one which could collapse into complete anarchy at any moment. In my view, this pessimism is unjustified. Yes, Pakistan is a mess. But it is neither fragile nor ungovernable.

Let’s begin with the issue of fragility. Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile distinguishes between the lifespan of the perishable (humans, animals, etc.) and the nonperishable (books, states). His argument is that while in the case of perishable items, the younger always has a longer lifespan than the older, the same is not necessarily true for non-perishable items. Instead, in some cases, the “Lindy effect” applies, which is to say that older items actually have a greater expected lifespan than newer items.

Not convinced? Let’s look at the Lindy effect in practical terms. Hundreds of thousands of books are published every year. Most of them disappear after a first printing while some last decades. A book that has stayed in print for 20 years, thus has a much greater expected lifespan (i.e., is far more likely to stay in print for another 20 years) than a recently published book (no matter how critically acclaimed the newer book may be).

Pakistan is a country whose imminent demise has been predicted every day since its birth and yet, it has managed to survive into its seventh decade. Going by Taleb’s analysis, Pakistan today, is far more likely to survive for another 70 years than when it first came into being.

But what then of our myriad problems? How does one govern a country which boasts both Marvi Sirmed and Maulana Samiul Haq as its citizens? How can such disparate individuals be united under one banner?

The short answer is that you do not unite them. No, I’m not saying that Pakistan should be broken apart. What I’m saying is that we need to recognise the incredible diversity of opinion within this country and adopt our legal structures accordingly.

Diversity of opinion is not a peculiarly Pakistani problem. In the words of Yevtushenko — first quoted to me by my ustaad, Aitzaz Ahsan — “Yours is not the only one, my son.” Charles de Gaulle once sighed about France, “How do you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” I suppose the Pakistan equivalent would be to ask “how do you govern a country with 246 varieties of extremists?”

What then is the magic solution? In a nutshell, we need to take the “Federation” part of this country’s title more seriously and stop worrying so much about the “Islamic” part. Yes, we now have the Eighteenth Amendment. But we need to think about federalism, not just in terms of differentiation between provinces, but in terms of differentiation within provinces as well.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibiting the sale of  “intoxicating liquors” was enacted on January 16, 1919. By the time it was finally repealed on December 5, 1933, Prohibition stood as a monument to the limitations of government and the ingenuity of man. Despite more than a decade of efforts, more people drank more alcohol than ever before. But the repeal of prohibition did not mean the repeal of all alcohol prohibition efforts. Even today, almost 80 years after the repeal of Prohibition, approximately 10 per cent of the US lives in “dry” counties where the sale of alcohol is either forbidden or severely restricted.

The point that I am making is simple: law-making needs to be localised, not just provincialised. Obviously, there is only one Constitution for all of Pakistan; but that does not mean that there is only one way in which to run our lives.

Part of the problem with our heritage — whether colonial, Mughal or Ghaznavite — is that it has left us with a mania for centralised decision-making. In our families, all decisions default to the patriarch; in our businesses, all decisions default to the chairman; and, in our bureaucracies, all decisions default to the secretary of the department. Even worse, the provincial Rules of Business provide that no policy can be changed except with the concurrence of the chief minister!

What we need instead of one-man rule is a country in which decision-making is pushed down to the lowest possible level. Power now needs to be taken from the provinces and devolved further into the districts, from the districts to the tehsils, and from the tehsils to the union councils.

But what of the human consequences, you may ask? Do we want to live in a world where residents of rural districts have fewer rights than city dwellers? Can a state justify giving different rights to different citizens?

Well, it depends. Obviously, all citizens should have the same fundamental rights. But the same logic does not apply to statutory rights; after all, residents of Punjab already have different statutory rights from residents of Sindh.

Let me make my point in simpler terms: for many years, reformers have argued that the people in the tribal areas should have the same rights as people in Lahore. Presumably, the intent was to improve the lot of people in the tribal areas. However, by tying themselves to the idea that there can be only one law for everyone, we have also made ourselves vulnerable. In other words, instead of Fata-wallahs living like Lahoris, we are now looking at a future in which Lahoris will live like Fata-wallahs. I really don’t want that to happen.

Devolving legislative power down to the districts serves two beneficial functions. First, it gives power to people who, in the words of  Taleb, have “skin in the game”. Second, it allows for regional differences. Obviously, only limited differences can be accommodated. But if we don’t bend, our only other option is to break.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 21st, 2013.

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User | 7 years ago | Reply | Recommend

My comment above makes no sense,so I will try again

Part of the problem with our heritage — whether colonial, Mughal or Ghaznavite —

Why stop there?Because any farther back in the past than that and you might have run headfirst into your Hindu/Buddhist heritage.

Or did you stop because you think the problem started with Islam, and is perpetuated by it( in that case why mention the colonial heritage) . And in any case,North India has that same heritage.

— is that it has left us with a mania for centralised decision-making.

Centralised decision-making is the heritage of all nations/cultures on this planet- it is in no way uniquely Pakistani.

User | 7 years ago | Reply | Recommend

@Gp65: @sabi: Have been observing the discussion between you and sure? Salute you for graciously conceding to a different point of you. Takes real class and courage. Thanks a lot.Its your kindness.And for your post on Jinnah my reply on some other time.

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