Was Plato thinking today’s Pakistan?

November 01, 2017

When you can’t understand why people behave in a particular manner, the most natural thing to do is to convince yourself that people do not know what they are doing. At the same time, democracy in Pakistan is becoming increasingly dysfunctional by each passing day. Plato’s great worry about representative government was that leaders and ultimately citizens would “live from day to day, indulging in the pleasure of the moment.” He was right, at least in case of Pakistan, where we find democracies overspending with complete disregard to the long-term sustainability of the economy. The focus is either to pocket resources through non-transparent undertakings or indulges in fanciful projects to gain cheap popularity. Or to merely give colleagues what they perhaps want in the short run in shape of perks and enhanced entitlements – the abject rise in the packages of the Pakistani lawmakers and its bureaucracy since 2008 is unprecedented anywhere in the world. On top of that, lobbyists, decision-makers and others with vested interests have by now made a science of gaming the system to produce private benefits. Today on a net currency conversion basis, the aggregate wage level of an average Pakistani parliamentarian and a government servant is the highest in South Asia and significantly higher than even their counterparts in China. The great irony being that the lower paid executive is doling out $50 billion to a recipient executive, which is not only richer (in individual capacity) but also supports a far more opulent lifestyle!

Plato’s other concern with democracy stemmed from his philosophy that the ruler or leader should not draw strength from the institutions under him but that the institutions should draw strength from his higher moral and intellectual ability - and the people from his impartial benevolence, in many ways quite similar to the teachings and hierarchy in Islam. He believed that at some point the dependence on power yielding institutions turns these very institutions into predators, which then indulge in promoting self-interest and fighting counterproductive turf wars. Anyone, outside their fold (generally the public) becomes the victim. Fast-forward this to today’s Pakistan, and you find his prophecy coming true to the hilt. The so-called four pillars of state or the power centers fight for their respective domain and overtime have framed self-centric laws whereby assuming the status of untouchables. If you are a member of any of these four clubs you are okay, otherwise you are left with no rights, protection nor recourse. The stairway to power exclusively goes through these corridors marking a clear divide between the power elites and the common man. For example, PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf), which started as an idealist party soon realized that to attain power it had to join the club and which it did.

Now, this would have been acceptable if only this self-serving lot would have somewhat been delivering. This they have not been doing. But the real trouble is that as a discipline, meritocracy and nationhood in Pakistan disintegrate as the political and top brass leaders behave even more irresponsibly. Add to this list the news media as well when irresponsibility is the subject. In fact, the term meritocracy itself has become grayed in Pakistan where people mistrust the competence and intent of the very civil servant who is charged with the responsibility to hold the system together and dispense fair governance.

It should have been evident that meritocracy – a system in which the most talented and capable are put in leading positions – is better than plutocracy, gerontocracy or aristocracy and perhaps, even the rule of the majority, democracy. But the paradox of the current political crisis is rooted in the fact that the Pakistani elites today are being blamed for the very reasons in which they should be taking pride: their ability to hold the rule of law, fair play, their resistance to public pressure to do the right thing and their lifestyle mobility. They are seen more like the mercenary elite rather than the meritocratic elite.

Plato has probably not been forgotten as even the modern day rational thinking often draws upon his philosophies. It was in 1942 that the famous management guru, Joseph Schumpeter, published his only bestseller, ”Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy.” The book was popular for a good reason. It was a tour de force of economics, history, and sociology. Though it coined memorable and innovative phrases such as “creative destruction,” it was essentially a book with a lot of gloom and doom. “Can capitalism survive?” he asked and then answered himself in a way that says it all, “No, I do not think it can, as ultimately the decay caused by democracy and populism will corrupt it and bring it down.” However, unlike in the time of Plato, today’s popular leaders aren’t interested in overtly taking over national assets, but instead, they tend to usurp power through the institutions they control or represent. The political leaders promise to save the people but in reality marginalize them by taking away the very civil liberties and rights in the same place from where the common man draws his strength– Parliament. Plato argued that democratic norms and principles, in theory, should liberalize people but it does not always happen this way in the real world. He must have been speaking for many liberals when he argued that being a loser in a meritocratic society is not as painful as being a loser in an openly unjust society. In his conception, the fairness of the game reconciles people with failure, because otherwise, they can revolt. Today, at home, where people’s patience is fast running out, it looks as if the great philosopher got it spot on!