On the streets of Pakistan, and in its shops and offices, it is not uncommon to find people refusing to engage in the seemingly commonsensical act of standing in line. The constant elbowing and jostling that characterises most attempts to buy goods, enter a building, or receive a service of some kind produces constant delays and frustration, but is something that continues to persist nonetheless. This tendency manifests itself on the roads as well; as anyone who has ever driven a car in Pakistan will attest, lane markings and traffic lights are often treated as little more than easily ignored advice as cars choke intersections and jam traffic for hours on end. Again, it is the inefficiency of the whole process that is perhaps most jarring; simply forming lines and following instructions would lead to both time and energy being saved. The alternative – breaking or ignoring rules and engaging in a frenzied free-for-all – is clearly counterproductive.

One common explanation that is invoked to make sense of this phenomenon emphasises a lack of education and civic awareness. The argument goes that if people were taught to stand in line and follow directions, they would automatically start doing so. Evidence for this comes from other parts of the world, where children are taught these things at an early age and the attributes of good citizenship are imparted in classrooms. Yet, while there is some merit to this argument, it is insufficient for explaining the chaos that characterises even the most mundane interactions and transactions in Pakistan. Indeed, there is a prior, causal question that must be asked: do people in other countries form lines because they are taught to do so, or do they form lines (or follow instructions to do so) because the broader social context is one that encourages and even rewards such behaviour?

One way to answer this question would be approach it as a kind of collective action problem. Put simply, a group of individuals seeking to access a limited resource are confronted with several potential problems. For example, if they do not act quickly or decisively enough, they may lose out altogether as their faster or more opportunistic rivals deplete the resource in question. Assuming there are no pre-existing ties between the individuals competing for access to the resource, it may also be fair to assume that a lack of trust and information might prompt some of them to acquire more the resource than might otherwise be considered to be their fair share, with the assumption being that their rivals might attempt to do the same. It is often considerations like these that prompt the selfish competition symbolised by the absence of orderly queues; why wait in line for something when you believe that pushing your way to the front is the only way to guarantee you will receive the goods or services you desire?

This problem can be addressed by creating institutions that regulate these interactions. A small community seeking to rationalise access to a common resource, like a fishing pond or a field, might setup some kind of neutral body, perhaps based on custom, that creates and enforces rules designed to facilitate equitable access to the common resource. This body might also have the power to sanction those individuals who defect from this collective arrangement. This combination of rules and enforcement, managed by a legitimate authority, is arguably one of the things that builds trust in society and, if implemented properly, also provides for the kind of routinised interactions that build faith in the system’s capacity to deliver. Over time, the efficiency of this institutionalised arrangement incentivises individuals to stick with it.

At some level, the state as an institution represents a solution to society-wide collective action problems, constituting a centralised, legitimate, and powerful means through which to create and impose rules within a given territory. If this is true, it is worth asking what would happen if the state were to exercise its power arbitrarily, militating against attempts to build a routinised, rule-based order. If the state cannot provide the predictability and enforcement that underpins the efficiency of following rules, it stands to reason that individuals will revert to the alternative, relying on their own devices to achieve their objectives. If people do not stand in line, it may simply be because there is no guarantee that the line will be respected and that those waiting for their turn will be rewarded for their patience. The same goes for traffic; absent effective enforcement, opportunists who refuse to adhere to the rules will simply foster a breakdown of trust that induces the majority to act in their self-interest rather than the collective good, with predictably chaotic results.

The state cannot, of course, be expected to force people to stand in queues, although the same cannot be said for traffic. Yet, there are other spheres of public life where the arbitrary nature of state power in Pakistan, with its concurrent laxity in the creation and enforcement of rules, has obvious effects. For example, the lack of faith that is often expressed in law enforcement agencies is arguably a direct result of the state’s abdication of its responsibilities; when police routinely harass citizens, and when the powers-that-be mastermind disappearances, it should not be surprising that people take the law into their own hands or simply choose not to report crimes. A similar, if apparently unrelated, phenomenon is of groups organising around their professional identities to pool their resources in the pursuit of collective goals. The legal community in Pakistan is an example of this; while many decry the way in which the custodians of the law have often resorted to violence in their encounters with the police, it might be worth reflecting on why they, as well as doctors, journalists, and others believe that they need to band together to protect themselves from the predations of both the state and other groups in society. 

The absence of queues is not just due to a lack of education or sense; it is an understandable response to a situation where following the rules does not guarantee anything. Writ large, this is a problem that affects Pakistan in several ways. Until the state can create and uphold a rule-based order based on democratic participation, legitimacy, and equity, social and political life will continue to be characterised by distrust and opportunism.


The writer is an assistant professor  of political

science at LUMS