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Opinion

August 12, 2014

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Up the revolution

While it is acceptable for one’s youth to be spent in the pursuit of utopian political dreams, there comes a time when the callow confidence of youth should give way to the accumulated wisdom of years.
I mention this because judging by the bleats emanating from our intelligentsia, it is acceptable to continue mouthing vague demands for a better tomorrow, no matter how old you are. Seriously people, it’s time to grow up.
To clarify, my problem here is not with those demanding a better tomorrow. Please do demand a brighter, better future. But also tell me how you are going to get there. Otherwise stop wasting my time.
Let’s take this perennial demand for a ‘fresh start’, this mythical future in which you can suddenly discard all the corrupt, old politicians of Pakistan and replace them with honest, dedicated public servants.
To begin with, it’s not possible. Musharraf tried it by requiring all politicians to have a bachelor’s degree. That succeeded in getting rid of a bunch of old fogies. But the old fogies were then swiftly replaced by a bunch of new fogies closely related to them. And the net result in terms of Pakistan’s political structure was zero.
The second point is that being a politician requires skill. Getting rid of all existing politicians and replacing them with new faces makes about as much sense as getting rid of all existing journalists and replacing them with people who have never written before. Yes, some existing politicians are crooks. On the other hand, so are some existing journalists.
What applies to professions applies equally well to social structures. Societies do not spontaneously organise themselves in gentler ways. If you blow up a building, the accumulated rubble is not likely to reassemble itself into a more aesthetically pleasing structure. Similarly, if you blow up the political structures which exist, the ones which will show up next will be nastier and meaner. Yes, in the long run things might be

better. But then again, things might have been even better in the long run without the explosions.
You would think that, of all people, Pakistanis would have learnt this basic lesson. We have, time and time again, abandoned faith in democracy and sought solace in shortcuts. 1958. 1977. 1999. Each one of those experiments in autocracy ended badly. Each one of our dictatorial interludes ended with mass protests. I am old enough to remember the last two transitions from army rule to civilian rule, and this time I swear, I thought we had finally learnt our bloody lesson. And yet, here we are again, columnists swooning all over the place in expectation of the tsunami about to wash everything away.
I’m tired of hearing tsunami aa rahi hai. Uss kay baad kya aaye ga?
There is a legendary story about how Lyndon Johnson raving to Sam Rayburn about the team of bright Ivy leaguers accompanying John F. Kennedy to the White House. Rayburn, a crusty Texan, served as the speaker for the longest period in US history and by 1960, had more than a half-century of elected service behind him. As Johnson went on and on about the intelligence and brilliance of the “Harvards”, Rayburn remained unconvinced. Rayburn’s final verdict: “I’d feel a lot better if some of them had run for sheriff once.”
The truth of Rayburn’s observation was borne out a few years later. In November 1963, Kennedy was personally popular but his civil rights bill was stuck and going nowhere. After Kennedy’s assassination, he was succeeded by Lyndon Johnson, a man whom most of Kennedy’s admirers saw as the antithesis of their fallen hero’s aspirational politics. But Johnson succeeded where Kennedy failed. By using every single tool at his disposal – some legal, some not so legal – Johnson managed to break the power of the Southern Democrats and get Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1964. It wasn’t pretty. But the job got done.
The standard response of the armchair revolutionary to such examples is to venture into either political mysticism about the genius of ‘our people’ or to veer off into the opposite direction and talk about how the only way to develop Pakistan is with a firm (as in dictatorial) hand at the tiller, one not accountable to every public whim.
I have little patience for mysticism, be it political or religious. In both cases, it boils down to sentiment without substance. The democracy and autocracy argument, on the other hand, has more intellectual heft. Fortunately for me, this argument has been picked apart by noted development expert, William Easterly, in his most recent book, ‘The Tyranny of Experts’.
Easterly’s fundamental point is very simple. He concedes that there are many examples of autocracy producing good results in poor countries. But this, in turn, does not mean that autocracy was responsible for those good results. Instead, the fact that some poor countries have flourished under dictators is explained by the fact that (a) many poor countries have dictators; and (b) accelerated development tends to happen mostly in poor countries.
Easterly then illustrates his point in a different (and simpler) way. Most violent felons in the US are black. This does not mean that all black people are violent felons. Similarly, the largest number of people identified by the world as ‘terrorists’ are Muslims. This does not mean that all Muslims are terrorists. And so, there are many development success stories regarding dictatorships. This does not mean that dictatorship is the way to economic progress.
I know Pakistan needs a lot of improving. But that improvement can only happen through parliament, not on the streets. I also understand there is a lot of frustration amongst people who are unhappily placed. But at least those of us who are beneficiaries of the system should shoulder the burden of explaining to others that destruction is not the answer. To quote Sam Rayburn again, “A jackass can kick a barn down. But it takes a carpenter to build one.”
The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court.

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