Sunday, August 5, 2012

Free-Market Democracy

A very interesting episode of the PTV classic Alif Noon surfaces ever so often on Facebook and elsewhere whenever there is a sugar crisis. In it, during a period of rationing, a dealer in sugar employs Allan and Nanna to buy up all supplies from the market to artificially drive up prices. They are part of a large force that purchases large quantities of sugar and then resells it for a higher price in the black-market. All is going well until Nanna accidentally tries to sell sugar to an undercover government agent who subsequently arrests the dealer. Allan is furious at his friend’s incompetence. Nanna, on the other hand, is ecstatic that he has helped arrest a criminal, and happily says to Allan, “Kuchh naiki ke kaam aise hote hein jo khud bakhud ho jaate hein, humein pata bhi nahi chalta ke hum naiki ke kaam kar rahe hein” (There are some good deeds that happen all by themselves and we don’t even realise we are doing them) to which an apoplectic Allan drily replies “Naiki ke kaamon ko bhi nahi pata chalta ke unn ke saath kya ho raha hai” (The good deeds themselves don’t know what’s being done to them).
Recently, I find that the reasoning in a lot of articles on politics seems to be following a similar principle. ‘Yes, politicians are corrupt, yes, they are selfish, and yes, they are dishonest, but allowing them to pursue their selfish and dishonest practices unfettered will result in the betterment of all’. Naiki ke kaam khudh bakhud ho jaaenge! The reason for this belief is an absolute unwavering faith in the system. The system of democracy is believed to be such that individual intentions and actions are rendered irrelevant. The state, society, its intellectuals and institutions need not worry about questioning politicians for malpractice as the electorate will automatically weed out any elements harmful to its interest. Awam ki adaalat! (The court of the people!)
As far as I can tell, this is uber-capitalism! ‘Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone’ according to John Maynard Keynes. That seems eerily close to the reasoning I’m talking about.
Of course, capitalism here refers to capitalism in the goods or money market, not in government itself. Proponents of the free market have long argued that the role and power of government should be limited to ensuring law and order. Consequently, they argue that there should be no regulation in any fields, including health or education, as any intervention results in the distortion of the free market and subsequently a sub-optimal solution. They also argue that government intervention is paternalistic and a curb of individual freedoms that will inevitably lead to the formation either of a nanny state, or an out and out tyranny. On the other hand, without government intervention or a centralised structure to regulate markets, an ‘invisible hand’ will automatically guide society towards prosperity.
The phenomenon I am trying to highlight regards the free-market nature of the political process in Pakistan. Essentially, in an effort to move away from the authoritarian rule of the past, there seems to be a concerted effort to move towards a system where the only check is the electoral process. The role of government is being removed from the pedestal of public service and brought down to a purely transactional affair. With a growing acceptance that politics is a profession devoid of scruples, the need for regulating the political process is rapidly being rendered redundant. The resultant system is one where the electorate are the consumers and politicians unapologetically pursue self-interest.
Unfortunately, the nature of the political market is such that it will most likely lead to an oligopoly and the subsequent exploitation of the consumer. There is a limited number of parties, very high barriers to entry, and with our levels of literacy, there certainly isn’t perfect information. Hopes of perfect competition are a long-shot to say the least.
The support of certain unscrupulous politicians for such a system is obviously understandable, but the growing acceptance and adoption of such views by opinion formers is more worrying. The check on individual self-interest damaging society is exercised by the society itself through the various media and through the education system. They make sure the devil is not given his due, but instead only surrender it begrudgingly when there is no alternative. This is the bulwark against the degeneration of the society into a Darwinian jungle.
Unfortunately, this bulwark is being steadily eroded in Pakistan as a reaction to years of deceptive authoritarian rules, with devastating consequences to society. Concepts such as selflessness, integrity or principle are slowing being labelled as archaic ideas that need to be supplanted by cold, calculating rationality without understanding the vital functional role each plays in a healthy society. After each new scandal, a section of the media talks about how there are no principles in politics, about how corruption is prevalent across the globe. What they seem to not notice is that while corruption scandals erupt in the first world as well, respectable journalists or intellectuals could never dream of going on television and telling the public that it was all part of the game!
This new rationality that considers sacrificing personal interest for societal benefit to be irrational is what is slowly but surely leading us to a combative naturally-selective society. If there are no principles in politics, then why should there be any principles in any other field? Why should the next COAS not march into the presidency when the opportunity presents itself? The constitution is a man-made document that is up for editing at any time. The best designed system can be corrupted and manipulated to the point of ineffectiveness unless it is backed by ideology or principle.
Lord knows our education system does little to inculcate civic sense or the principles of collective living, now these values are actively under attack. The result is the cultivation of a society where individual interests trump societal interests, and consequently power is more respected than principle. Bear in mind that natural selection does the exact opposite of what a modern society is supposed to - it kills off the most weak and vulnerable. 

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