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December 13, 2015

Of mice and men and elephants


December 13, 2015

Have you ever wondered why we don’t have mice the size of an elephant? Or to put it another way, why don’t elephants look like giant mice?

The short answer is that different parts of the body scale differently. If you triple the mass of an animal, its bones will only be twice as strong. This means that as animals get bigger and bigger, their supporting structure (ie their bones) take up more and more of their body.

To put it in simple terms, if you had a magic spell which could make a mouse as big as an elephant, that mouse would not be able to walk because its bones would not be strong enough. In order to walk, the giant mouse would need legs like an elephant. Which is why elephants have massive legs and move slowly while mice have skinny legs and run very fast.

The point that I’m trying to make is that scale matters. Things that work at a small scale don’t often work at a larger scale. Not in animals. Not in human societies.

I have been pondering this point (much of which is cribbed directly from a wonderful post on the website, Farnam Street) for two reasons: first, the importance of local bodies elections; and second, the very strange mass letter sent out by former CJ Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

Let me begin with the former CJ. Last week, he sent out a mass letter to all Pakistanis which can be summarised as follows: Pakistan is in terrible shape. Nothing good has happened since the Quaid died. We should have a presidential system. (Not so hidden subtext: I’m the greatest man since the Quaid. Make me president. I will fix everything.)

In logical terms, the ex-CJ’s letter is a complete non sequitur. You can replace the final point in the letter (we should have a presidential system) with a completely different assertion (we should grow more tomatoes) and the two would be equally well supported.

But let’s leave aside the letter. There are many people who believe in a presidential system and who think that Pakistan would do better if such a system was introduced here. Why do they want such a system? And what is wrong with their demand?

Many people want a presidential system because they believe in the ‘great man’ theory of history. They believe that all it takes is one leader of genius, one man of vision, one paragon of integrity and somehow, everything will become better. Pir saaen aavaan tay mithay chaawal khawaan.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. One person can – and often does – make a difference. But making a difference is not the same as ensuring a lasting change. Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was the chief justice of Pakistan for more than eight years. Yes, he made a difference. But he didn’t really change anything. As I wrote last week, the quality of justice afforded to the common man was abysmal before the Judicial Revolution. And it remains abysmal today.

If you want to ensure lasting change, you need to change the underlying dynamics of society. Love them or hate them, but both Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Ziaul Haq changed Pakistan in lasting ways. Benazir Bhutto? Not so much.

Let’s leave aside the imponderables and come to the point: would a presidential system result in better governance for Pakistanis? The short answer is no. And for the same reason that you don’t have elephant-sized mice: the one-man show leadership style doesn’t scale well.

A charismatic captain of a cricket team can inspire his teammates to new heights of achievement. He can make them run faster or train harder or field with more intensity. But the impact of that charisma doesn’t extend much beyond the other ten men in the team.

Take a different example. Suppose there are four people on a desert island. They don’t really need much of a government. Everybody takes care of themselves and if somebody thinks about not working hard the consequences are obvious enough to discourage them.

Now imagine that the population of the island goes from four to four hundred or even four thousand. Suddenly, you’re going to have disputes. You’re not going to be able to trust people in the same way as before. You’re going to need decision-makers and enforcers. In short, you’re going to need bureaucracy.

Think of bureaucracy as the bones of an animal: they provide the structure and the support. And just like increasing the size of an animal means that you need to massively (and not just proportionally) increase the size of the bones, increasing the size of the governing unit means a massive increase in the size of the bureaucracy.

To return to my point, a pure presidential system means that you would have one man trying to run an entire country. That would in turn require a leviathan of a bureaucracy. Think of an elephant the size of Godzilla. Think of the support structure required. And think how slow and ponderous that animal would be.

If you want a responsive government, your best bet is a small government – a mouse that can move fast rather than an elephant that can only lumber slowly from place to place. Obviously, there are a lot of things for which you still need a big government (like having an army). But equally obviously, there are a lot of things for which you don’t need a national government. Like building schools or clinics or sewers. Like regulating sabzi mandis. Like collecting garbage.

To repeat, local governments and presidential systems are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the countries that I know of with presidential systems also have very robust local governments. Instead, my point is not just that a country needs a mix of government systems (some national, some local) but that unless there is a good reason to the contrary, decision-making should be as decentralised as possible.

In Pakistan, we have often taken the opposite of this approach, in large part because we have had so many would-be saviours – some military, some civilian – all of whom believed very firmly in not sharing power with anyone. Till recently, we had not reached the stage where federal governments were willing to coexist with provincial governments (let alone provincial governments with local governments).

If we have some degree of local governance today, it is because since 2008 the leaders of our major national parties (ex-cricketers excepted) appear to have finally learnt that power need not be an all or nothing affair, that one can disagree with a political opponent and yet concede their right to rule, that tomorrow is another day, and that the pie is big enough for all to share. Note, and I repeat, ex-cricketers excluded.

What then of the former chief justice and his embryonic movement for a presidential system? Well, I’m not particularly worried about that eventuality. Before we start worrying about the pros and cons of a presidential system, his Lordship will have to form a party, he will have to get people to join his party and he will have to get his party members elected in sufficient numbers to the provincial and national assemblies to rewrite the constitution.

Even if he gets that far, his Lordship’s brainwave will still have to survive judicial scrutiny given that: (i) the Supreme Court has recently announced that it is the guardian of our “basic structure”; and (ii) the said ‘basic structure’ apparently also includes a “parliamentary form of democracy.” As Ghalib once put it, “kaun jeeta hai teri zulf kay sar honay tak.”

The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Twitter: @laalshah

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