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October 30, 2018

Ultracrepidarian

Opinion

October 30, 2018

I have been searching for a word that describes one who offers advice or opinion beyond his/her sphere of knowledge. I believe I have discovered the perfect term – ‘Ultracrepidarian’.

The etymology of this word is elucidating. In Ancient Greece, there was a great painter, Apelles. Experts and art critics agree that “Apelles surpassed all the painters that preceded him and all who were to come after him. His art was unrivaled for grace and charm.” His paintings were much sought-after and adorned the houses of rich and famous.

Apelles had a habit of placing his work in the market place in full view of the public, and while standing out of sight, listen to what was said by people about it. By chance, a shoemaker, Simon, happened to be passing by and looking at the painting, criticised Apelles for not drawing the latch of the sandal correctly. Apelles deferred to the shoemakers legitimate criticism and resolved mentally to correct the drawing. However the shoemaker did not stop at the sandals, and instead began then to finding faults with the way the artist had drawn the legs. At this point Apelles got furious, came out of his hiding and shouted at the shoemaker “Ne sutor ultra crepidam judicaret” (don’t let the cobbler criticise anything above the sandal).

The phrase uttered by Apelles evolved with time into what we now know as “ultracrepidarian”, which is defined as a habit of giving views on matters outside of one’s competence.

The ancient story finds relevance in today’s society, particularly in present-day Pakistan. We encounter people such as Simon the cobbler in all walks of life, who act as if they know everything without being able to distinguish between possessing knowledge and merely expressing and/or voicing opinions. This concept has become even more impaired with the umpteen sources of information which are just a tap away in the shape of Google.

While there is not much harm to society in having ‘Uncle Google’, or ultimately an ultracripidarian, in their midst (such people can never be avoided), this becomes an important and sensitive issue when it comes to running the affairs of a country.

Pakistan’s constitution provides for a parliamentary form of government in which, unlike a presidential form, where the president is directly of the choice of people, the prime minister is elected by a political party that can get the highest votes in parliament irrespective of whether it has the majority of overall votes in the country. The prime minister may then select his ministers but his choice is restricted in that he must choose the ministers only from the pool of parliamentarians.

This restriction can and has proved to be a problem for any prime minister who wants to make a positive change. For one, in a state like Pakistan where illiteracy is prevalent, the pool is limited because many politicians win on the basis of their careers as politicians and may not necessarily have great educational qualifications or expertise.

More often than not, even out of the limited number of appropriate candidates, the prime minister is forced to choose people who have shown loyalty to him, irrespective of their merits. This is why, in the past, in the majority of cases we have seen that neither experience nor credentialism was the basis for ministerial appointments, and this is so even in those circumstances where the ministry begs for a competent minister with the requisite technical knowledge to manage its affairs. The incompetence of one ministry affects the progress of the entire nation.

It should certainly be a matter of great concern to the public if a minister is governing a ministry which is beyond his or her skill set and expert knowledge of governance. For instance, can there be a law minister who is unaware of the laws in the country or the ministries of finance or water be run by people who are unaware of the expert knowledge required to govern that sector. Confusion is compounded into madness if everyone in government then starts airing their views on every issue beyond their competence and jurisdiction. This gives rise to speculations that the leadership of the government has no direction, and affects everyone’s spirit negatively.

The issue of professionalism – or lack of it – cannot just be restricted to cabinet members. Under the rules of business, the ministries are run by the hierarchy of secretaries. In technical ministries, the federal secretaries are not always appointed for their expertise and experience. Imagine then a ministry being run by a minister who doesn’t know and a secretary who cannot guide him/her. No country can be allowed to be run by practical ultracrepidarians.

What then is the solution? There has been much discussion that Pakistan should shift from the parliamentary to the presidential form of government so that the people can directly elect a president, and, as in the US, the president can then appoint technocrats from anywhere as ministers.

The presidential form of government – in which the president is directly elected and can then choose anyone to be members of his cabinet – is in my opinion neither the answer nor possible given the circumstances of Pakistan. One of the main reasons for this is that the president would then most likely be elected every time by the people of Punjab, leaving all other smaller provinces hurt, resentful and agitated. Secondly, parliamentarians too must continue to have the right to head ministries and sit in the cabinet and not be excluded.

The answer instead lies in a hybrid solution, which is to empower the prime minister to choose his cabinet members from amongst any expert, who would be accountable to the public as any other minister, at least in certain key technical ministries, when and wherever necessary, in addition to, and not in exclusion of, the elected representatives. History tells us that if this option is not given to the prime minister then – notwithstanding the best of intentions – this vicious cycle of bad policies and faulty management of ministries will continue.

To stop Simon-like cobblers from “criticising anything above the sandals” it will be necessary to amend the constitution. This public interest measure will require the collective will of all political parties.

The writer is a Supreme Courtadvocate, former caretaker federal minister, and former president of the SCBA.

Email: [email protected]

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