Posts Tagged ‘Rationality’

Understanding Poverty

May 2, 2011

There is a set of people in every country who are called the ‘poor’ and the ‘non-poor’ have quite contradictory assumptions about them. For example, despite ample evidence it is considered politically incorrect to say that the ‘poor’ trade their votes because the entire legitimacy of representative government rests on responsible voting behavior. Yet, the same people often say that the ‘poor’ do not know how to spend their money; they waste their income on inessentials ignoring higher priority needs of food, health and education. Hence, policymakers recommend the ‘poor’ be given ration supplements or food vouchers instead of equivalent cash transfers.

The question is inescapable: Are the ‘poor’ rational or irrational? How can the same set of people be rational in one domain and irrational in another? (more…)

Has Islam a Place in a Modern World?

November 11, 2008

By Bettina Robotka 

The question of whether there is any positive role for Islam or for religion as such in a modern world is gaining urgency in the light of an ongoing “War against (Islamic) terror” and the spread of militant and conservative interpretations of Islam. The picture which this Islam tends to paint of an ideal Muslim society is that of a patriarchic, male-dominated community inhabited by intellectually unquestioning Muslims who live in closely knit kinship relationships including tribal, biradri and caste units, who accept existing society as given, and who are supposed to follow what the state defines as right or wrong through its laws. There is limited place for individuality, no place for questioning of the basics of social, political and economic life and the task of moral, political, economic and spiritual guidance seems to be left to a small group of Islamic scholars and mullahs who have no worldly knowledge, who are neither elected nor responsible to the public, only to God when the Day comes and who have the monopoly in understanding and interpreting Islam.

On the other side of the divide, by the West we are told that modernity means the application of reason and rationality, men in their individual capacity are the lords of the world and the ones who decide what is right and what is wrong and which way to go. Religion has no place in that set-up, because religion has proven to be irrational by refusing to accept the scientific facts researched by scientists like Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and by refusing to adjust the religious dogma to fit the realities of the material world. God is thought to be irrational; knowing and believing seem to exclude each other. Secularism, the division between the church and the state, between blind dogma and the human quest to know, to discover the material world and to rule this world through that knowledge, has been declared “progress”.

How should we deal with this? Do we have to choose between religion and modernity, between backwardness and progress?  My answer to it is in the negative. Western modernity has produced unbelievable scientific and technological advancement. But alongside with that, it has produced two world wars and umpteen local wars killing an uncounted number of people; it has produced Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it has created affluence for few, hunger and poverty for many; it is destroying the environment in its race for more material goods, the hold over natural resources and more consumption for a minority. It is threatening the very survival of human life and has failed so far to solve the basic problem of humanity – to provide a humane society for all which is in balance with nature and the universe.

The reason for this I see is the abolishing of religion and the belief in God. It is religion which provides man with morality; it teaches us what is right and what is wrong, it gives us direction and guidance. By abandoning religion and concentrating on material advancement only the moral basis of human society has been lost. But “progress” understood as material and technological progress only is dangerous. It amounts to defining progress as being able to kill more people in a shorter time because of more sophisticated technology. Knowledge acquired without the moral values to handle it has proven to be destructive.

One of the reasons (among others) why communism didn’t work was that the moral attitude one needs to work for the good of all society rather than for money or material gain was lost by banning religion and it could not find another adequate ethical basis. Communism as a materialist idea only did not work. Neither does the Western model of modernity designed as a materialist outlook. So far no substitute for giving a moral basis to human society apart from the belief in God has been found and practiced convincingly. Even in secular Europe whatsoever ethical values are there originated from Christianity even though the majority of the Europeans are not members of a church and do not believe in God. This truth has been realized in the wake of the discussion about European values which had to be part of the draft for a European constitution.  Since then we are witnessing a resurgence of religion over there.

If we look into the history of humankind all societies have developed a religion, a belief in a Power that is greater than us and to whom we are responsible. Religion is intrinsic to man, that is what Karen Armstrong said in one of her interviews. Islam is the last of the revealed religions and it is a valid guide towards the Truth which is a balanced and happy life for human society. In Islam there is no discrepancy between knowing and believing, between the material and the spiritual sides of the world. Belief (Islam) and knowledge (the world) – both come from the same Source, that’s why both can not contradict or destroy each other. Islam is rational and it wants us to use our reason when studying the stars, the sun and the moon, the change of the seasons and the histories of former civilizations. It wants us to go even to China for more knowledge. God wants us to know (Him) and one of the ways for that is by studying His creation. The Christian West has so far missed this point which must be valid for Christianity also because it guides towards the same Truth.

Therefore, the question is not if Islam or religion has a role to play in a modern society but how to read and understand Islam in the light of the realities around us. The problem is not with Islam, it’s with the Muslims.

Bettina Robotka is presently teaching in Karachi.

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Why are Political Parties Not Issue Oriented?

October 7, 2008

The implication in an earlier post (Who Wants Peace in the Subcontinent?) was that the non-existence of political parties advocating peace was evidence that voters did not want peace with neighboring countries.

Here we immediately fall into the trap of taking foreign concepts and applying them uncritically to alien situations. Are political parties in Pakistan really ‘political’ parties or are they something different?

When one thinks about it, there are no major political parties in Pakistan today that advocate anything specific in terms of policy. One would be hard pressed to unambiguously associate a party with big or small government, free trade or autarky, protection or competition, privatization or public sector dominance. What one does find are parties associated with various personalities all of whom promise to do the same things better than anyone else.

This observation calls for a closer look at the nature of democratic systems and the place of our own variant of democracy in that scheme. It seems reasonable to argue that an ideally functioning democratic order requires the existence of a sufficiently large number of undecided voters open to being persuaded to switch party affiliations. It is this pool of undecided voters that creates the possibility of a political party transforming itself from a representative of the minority to a representative of the majority. It is this possibility that motivates a political party to present an agenda that is most responsive to the preferences of the voting population. And this requires it to spell out its positions on issues of foreign and domestic policy like war, health care, land reform, minimum wage, etc.

The essential requirement of this system is the existence of a sufficiently large number of voters open to being persuaded to change their voting preference in response to a more attractive policy agenda. It is not necessary that all voters be in this category. The majority of voters in all democratic systems are lifelong supporters of one party or the other based on their agreement with the broad philosophies of the contending parties. But without the large pool of undecided voters such a system would cease to function because there would be no possibility of a minority party gaining enough marginal votes to win an election.

This brings us to the most critical aspect of such a system that remains neglected in discussions of democracy in Pakistan. What are the conditions that govern the behavior of undecided voters? First, the issues of policy must figure reasonably prominently in their hierarchy of needs and, second, they must have the confidence that their representatives would honestly and consistently represent the political preferences of the voters.

Now contrast this scenario with the reality in Pakistan. Here the calculus of the majority of voters is quite different because their basic physiological needs and rights remain unfulfilled and dominate their concerns. They look upon their representatives as potential lifelines to social protection, livelihoods, and access to basic entitlements; the political representation of their policy is a secondary concern at this stage of economic development.

In the absence of the rule of law, all political systems tend towards a system of patronage and the rational voter seeks to be on the side of the strongest patron. It is of little importance whether the moral or policy positions of the voter are in harmony with those of the representative. Voter behavior bears this out. Voters regularly elect representatives who they know to be dishonest and a constituency is much more likely to reject a representative in a subsequent election if he has proved to be without influence than if he has changed his political position or loyalty by 180 degrees.

It is no surprise therefore that the same people or families get elected time after time and freely change parties or swing from one policy position to another. And it is also no surprise that the primary objective of political parties is not to put together policy agendas (because they can take voter behavior for granted) but to try and win over as many of the strong patrons as they can to their side. The party with the greater number of patrons wins and then has to reward the patrons. The size of political cabinets is an indicator of this phenomenon.

This is not something aberrant. All social systems reflect their history and are shaped by them; change comes slowly at best. The mistake is to take a concept or institutional arrangement from a system at a different level of development and apply it to one where it is not relevant. The lens through which we examine reality has to be the right one for the task.

It is important therefore to understand the evolution of the democratic order in Europe. One would realize the important role of the options that opened out to commoners in Europe by the spread of the rule of law. The rule of law allowed the separation of the functions of political representation and social and economic protection. The voters were not dependent any more upon one representative for both. They could now vote their true political preferences and still be assured that their basic rights and entitlements would be protected. This milestone marked the emergence of ‘political’ parties in the real sense of the term.

Without equality under the law and access to impartial justice, Pakistan is not yet at a similar level of development. We may choose to call our system democratic but it is a uniquely peculiar democracy embedded in a hierarchical society operating without the rule of law. In such conditions, what we call political parties are really patronage groups. It is not surprising that these groups are owned by families, have dynastic transitions, and have no loyalties to any political positions or principles.

In the event of disagreements within groups, they give rise to splinter groups that are exactly similar except for the office-bearers. Hence the alphabet soup nomenclature of the groups. It is not something you can envisage in the UK; the existence of Labor (N), Labor (Q), and Labor (P) would be inconceivable.

This is a long explanation for why the absence of a political party in Pakistan advocating peace with neighbors might not actually signal the existence of a population that really believes in the virtue of confrontation with India.

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Who Wants Peace in the Subcontinent?

September 30, 2008

It is often asserted that the majority of people in India and Pakistan desire peace. Do you believe that?

Even if they don’t, some suggest that if only people knew how much it is costing to keep up the state of conflict they would become advocates for peace. Well, here is the information as calculated in 2004 by the Strategic Foresight Group, Mumbai, in their report Cost of Conflict between India and Pakistan.

The summary of the report claims that “the Siachen conflict alone will cost India Rs 7,200 crores and Pakistan Rs 1,800 crores in the next five years;” that “India and Pakistan have the potential to enjoy a trade of about $1 billion if the hostile environment continues and $13.25 billion if peace prevails on a cumulative basis for the next five years (2004-08) resulting in an opportunity loss of $12 billion;” and that “Kashmir lost 27 million tourists from 1989-02 leading to a tourism revenue loss of Rs 16,500 crores.”

Whether the numbers are fully accurate or not, it is safe to say that they are likely to be very large. This kind of sustained conflict cannot be conducted on the cheap. The magnitude of the costs should not be a surprise.

What is a surprise is the fact that such a report has not made more waves. It has not woken up people and made them angry at so much money being diverted from development that would otherwise benefit ordinary people. It has not made them demand peace from their political representatives. On the contrary, the report has faded from memory like most of the news items in newspapers. Why?

Could it be that the oft-asserted existence of a very large number of people desiring peace is a myth? Had that been the case surely there would have been a “Peace” party that would have rallied support using the report as damning evidence of the cost of conflict.  Would it not have made political use of it to canvass support, to campaign on the platform of peace and development, and contested elections on that agenda?

But the fact is that there is no party of peace in either India or Pakistan, not even one that comes close to such a position. In fact, almost every party in opposition in either country accuses the ruling party of having sold out on Kashmir. Does that not suggest that the political parties consider the voters to be hawkish on conflict?

This raises some disturbing thoughts and challenges our complacent presumptions about what people want and how they behave. Is there a paradox and, if so, how can we explain it? I read a very perceptive essay on the 2004 US elections by a young Pakistani-American high school student. Comparing the strategies of the Right and Left he quoted William Reich’s explanation of how the fascists took power in Germany. Reich wrote, “While we presented the masses with superb historical analyses and economic treatises on the contradictions of imperialism, Hitler stirred the deepest roots of their emotional being.” Do voters vote their emotions rather than their pocketbooks? If so, what lies at the deepest roots of the emotional being of the Indian and Pakistani voter?

Of course, there is more than one explanation for every observation – therein lies the fascination of the social sciences. It would be useful if readers can help identify the flaws in the logic of the argument presented in this post.

Cost of Conflict between India and Pakistan, 2004.

Telling the Truth About the Election by Asad Haider, 2004.

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Is There an Irrational Voter?

March 9, 2008

With reference to our comment on the Politics of Identity, a number of readers have taken issue with our conceptualization of rationality and the claim that all voters are rational. In this post we respond to the issues raised by the readers. 

The gist of the points raised is as follows:

  • You have failed to stress that the rationality of the Pakistani voter is different from that of the liberal citizen who was the subject of the Stanley Fish column on which you commented. 
  • What about the frequent comments made that Bush was a great guy to have a beer with and that is why he was worth voting for? How do you view that?
  • Is voting always rational or is it sometimes visceral? Of course, one’s gut can be taken to be rational based on prior calculation.
  • The voter does not have the expertise to be rational; he cannot calculate, for example, what is best for the economy, etc.
  • It is important to take note of all the literature from behavioral economics. It does at least put into serious question many basic insights of microeconomics. It probably does the same to voting theory in political science. What is your view of this literature that essentially says that people are systematically irrational?

The first thing to reiterate is the point of departure in our previous post: “The starting point in this analysis has to be the conceptualization of the voter and the only one that can be supported (at least till it is disproved) is that the voter is rational and votes to advance his or her interests.” We take the rationality of the voter as a plausible starting hypothesis but are open to modifying our position if the hypothesis is disproved. So the question to address is whether the points raised by the readers are sufficient to disprove the hypothesis of the rational voter. 

The answer can be yes or no depending upon what one understands by the term ‘rationality.’ There is a generic sense and a specialized definition of the term. Both Professor Fish and ourselves used the term in its simple and generic sense in which rationality implies the use of the process of reasoning. Thus a voter is rational if he or she uses reason as a basis for his or her choice. It is important to note that it is an entirely different issue as to whether the process of reasoning itself is flawed or based on incomplete or incorrect information.

In this interpretation of the term, the Pakistani and the American voter cannot have different rationalities since both use their reason. But the reasoning is applied to a different set of issues. And the different nature of the issues can make a lot of difference to the nature of the resulting politics as we argued in our comment. The bottom line is that the rationality is constant; the issues vary. We will elaborate on this and present a surprising twist in a subsequent post.

We have already mentioned above that in this interpretation the quality of the reasoning is a separate dimension. It is quite obvious that the quality would vary considerably across individuals. The spectrum can stretch all the way from the very informed voter who has meticulously studied the position of all the candidates on all the issues to the uninformed voter who feels that if the candidate is a Republican it is enough assurance that the voter’s interests would be advanced. In between there can be the lazy voter who thinks that a fellow who is a good beer companion will also be a good political representative. And there can also be the rational non-voter who feels that the candidates are so much alike that it does not matter who one votes for or if one votes at all.

We now address the question pertaining to the existence of the visceral voter. Of course, such a voter can exist. Every time one hears the words “over my dead body” one can safely assume that one is in the presence of a visceral decision-maker. One can imagine a black voter in a constituency with a white candidate just after the bitter apartheid struggle in South Africa. The white candidate may be the best placed to advance the material interests of the black voter and yet the voter might say “over my dead body.” So one can think of situations in which the pain a voter inflicts on himself is outweighed by satisfaction obtained from the prevention of any gain to the ‘enemy.’ Is Hillary playing to the visceral voter by slyly hinting that Barack Obama has a Muslim middle name?

Such behavior can be categorized as irrational. But it is important to keep in mind that no theory applies to all individuals or any specific individual. If a theory adequately describes the behavior of a good percentage of voters it can serve a useful purpose. So the question is how many visceral voters are out there in the situation under consideration? If the number is very large, the rational voter theory needs to be replaced by something that better captures the reality of the situation. Our own sense is that the percentage of visceral voters is small in the contexts we are discussing and can be safely ignored for our purpose.

We now turn to the specialized definition of rationality as it is employed in neoclassical economics and choice theory. Without going into details, it is sufficient to state that in these theories rationality is not just a process of reasoning but a specific process of reasoning that satisfies a number of postulates. When those postulates are violated the behavior is said to deviate from rationality. As our readers have pointed out a lot of research in the behavioral sciences has shown that the postulates are systematically violated in some cases. One set of experiments shows that while all factual information remains the same, just the way a decision is framed (say in terms of lives saved versus lives lost) can cause individuals to switch their decisions.

This is indeed true but all this implies is that the specific definition of rationality is inadequate for some purposes. Neoclassical economic theory and choice theory are weak in incorporating the psychological dimensions of reasoning in their model. It is not that individuals are irrational; rather the model of decision-making is not rich enough to cover all types of situations. This is a specialized area but interested readers can type the names of the leading researchers (Kahneman and Tversky) in Google to find the links to the relevant literature.

So, the conclusion remains that it is adequate to believe that the large majority of voters are rational and that rationality (understood as the use of reason) is the same everywhere.

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