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September 14, 2013



Why we break lines and why it matters

For as long as I can remember, I have been hearing the argument that we Pakistanis just cannot stand in lines. The argument is usually made in conjunction with the observation that this disability shows up only when we are in Pakistan, and as soon as a Pakistani lands abroad this predisposition vanishes. There is amusement as well as frustration expressed at this duality; khula tazaad, if you will. It is striking how much consensus we seem to have around this set of observations; not only that they are so but also that they are somehow representative of our character as a people and meaningful as social analysis.
Of course, like just any generalisation made about more than 170 million people, this set of observations is not entirely true. Not all lines in Pakistani are characterised by chaos and mayhem; not all Pakistanis abroad become immediately immune to queue jumping; and certainly this is not an affliction unique to us Pakistanis alone. However, the fact that we incessantly use this example as a reflection of our collective self-image and that we consider it to possess broad explanatory power is noteworthy. This, in and of itself, lends meaning to the observation.
It matters that lines get broken, that queues are jumped, that tempers rise, that faith in something as simple as a queue is questioned. It matters even more why this happens.
Please be reassured that I do not intend to jump into a tirade about the nastiness of queue jumping. Nor do I claim any great expertise in the pathology of breaking lines. In commenting on this observation I merely wish to invite readers to think about why this may be as it is and to suggest that maybe our behaviour in queues is symptomatic of phenomena more profound than just queues.
Let me suggest that a good starting point for understanding why we behave in lines as we do is to revert to the scholarship of Prof Ronald Coase (Economics Nobel, 1991) and Prof Douglas North (Economics Nobel, 1993), considered to

be amongst the pioneers of what has come to be termed as new institutional economics. North describes institutions as “humanly devised constraints that structure political, economic and social interactions” and, like Coase, would consider them to include the laws, rules, customs and norms constructed to advance and preserve social order. In such a conception, the idea of the line or queue is itself an institution: a humanly devised constraint that structures our interaction and seeks to preserve order and, at a very basic level, justice (after all, it would be unjust if those who come first are not served first).
The collapse of the idea of a line, therefore, is the collapse of an institution. Let me suggest, therefore, that our general lack of respect for lines is symptomatic of a general lack of respect for institutions; including a prevalent disrespect for law, for regulation, and in the broadest sense, for good governance. I realise that this may seem like a stretch of the imagination, but do please bear with me.
Each one of us has seen, been angered by, and possibly lashed out at our compatriots who blatantly break lines and jump queues. Too many of us may have resorted to doing the same ourselves. Maybe reluctantly. Maybe in retaliation. Maybe in rage. I suspect, however, that we felt bad doing so. Knowing that what we were doing is wrong, but convincing ourselves that ‘if I do not break the line, I will never get served’ and that ‘this is the way things work around here’.
In this articulation lies the recognition that the idea of the institution of the line has collapsed: the idea that if you stand in a line your turn will come when it is due; that you will be treated in the same fashion as everyone else; that you will forego your instant gratification (ie, immediate attention) in lieu of others doing the same; that in doing so social order will be maintained, preserved, and advanced.
The tragedy is that the notion of ‘if I do not break the line, I will never get served’ and ‘this is the way things work around here’ has been used far too often by too many of us to justify the stabbing of institutions; and not just lines. This argument, after all, is also based on the ‘doctrine of necessity’. One hopes that we have shunned this doctrine from the practice of high politics in Pakistan, but it seems to thrive still in lines and queues all across the country, every day.
From a governance perspective, the important realisation in the above is that people break lines not because they like chaos and disorder. We do so because we do not trust the institution of the line. The irony, of course, is that if I act on the assumption that the line will not work, then – by circular definition – it will not work. A society working on such an assumption will necessarily slide down the spiral of dysfunctional lines; indeed, of dysfunctional institutions.
Interestingly, herein lies the answer to the dichotomy identified at the beginning. I am likely to respect the line (for example, at a foreign airport) if I think that those around me will respect the line; I am not likely do so (for example, at a Pakistani airport) if I see that those around me are not. Obviously, then, if we could give people the confidence that the line works, then the line will work. My own recent experiences at the local passport office, at the Nadra office I visited to process my computerised national identity card, at fast-food counters, etc, suggest that where we see others respecting the line – or a respect for the line being enforced – we very quickly learn a very different behaviour.
But let us also not forget what Douglas North points out in his Nobel lecture, “Institutions are not necessarily or even usually created to be socially efficient… [they] are created to serve the interests of those with the bargaining power to create new rules.” Proof can be seen in a Pakistani queue gone astray – the parchi, the sifarish, the tantrum, the bribe are all tools used by those who have greater ‘bargaining power’ to create new rules for themselves and, in that process, to further distort an institution (the queue) that is already not working.
All of this, of course, is not about lines. Not even remotely. It is about institutions. We can easily extrapolate from the above to any institution in Pakistan. The reason we should seriously think about how we behave in lines, and why, is the same as why we should seriously read Ronald Coase and Douglas North. Because Pakistani institutions are failing – terribly. As the two Nobel winners will remind us, this is not simply a question of ‘politics,’ ‘corruption,’ ‘bad manners,’ or ‘illiteracy.’ At its core it is a question of institutional design; of transaction costs, of externalities, of incentive structures.
The lesson we should learn from the chaos in the Pakistani queue is the same that we should learn from Professors Coase and North. Those who manage institutions – whether it be the line at the railway station, national tax collection, the national electricity grid, or our irrigation network – need to think about institutional design (ie, rules of the game). That is the role of government.
But that alone will not be enough. As citizens, we too have to rethink our belief systems about the rules of the game and how we react, respond and give respect to institutions. To give Douglas North the last word: “both institutions and belief systems must change for successful reform since it is the mental models of the actors that will shape choices.”
The writer has taught international relations and diplomacy at Boston University and at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS.
Twitter: @adilnajam