Posts Tagged ‘Rules’

Rules and Discretion

January 17, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

What should be the allowance for discretion in the application of rules? This ought to be a contextual determination and one can use recent events in the worlds of cricket and politics to argue where the line ought to be drawn in Pakistan.

Healthy institutions rely on discretion to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities when changing rules would consume valuable time causing opportunities to be lost. But there is a huge caveat in this simple formulation: that discretion is to be employed for a higher purpose and not self-interest. The more upright the office-bearers of an institution, the more the availability of discretion can lead to gains in efficiency and achievement.

But what happens when office-bearers cannot be trusted to place institutional gains over self-interest? The damage from the abuse of discretion can result in losses far outweighing any possible gains from their legitimate use. In such situations, it would be best to stick to inflexible rules and sacrifice the possible gains that remain purely hypothetical in the absence of the integrity that is a perquisite for their beneficial use.

Let us turn now to Pakistan where it seems that every man has become a blind adherent of Adam Smith believing that it is the self-interest of the baker and the butcher that advances the welfare of society. This may be fine as far as the private sphere is concerned although in actuality it is problematic even there — it presumes, for example, the butcher acting within some ethical norms and not peddling donkey meat to maximize his gain. But the presumption does not hold at all when an individual is made responsible for a public trust. In such a situation, the individual is required to act in the public interest and not his own.

In Pakistan we have allegedly reached the point where every man is a butcher who is in it for himself. No doubt there are exceptions but they have withdrawn from the jungle in which only the most dishonest can survive or advance. Even if this allegation is not strictly true, as long as it is the general perception the ill-effects are bound to show up one way or another. And it is hard to deny that the general perception is precisely this, embedded into our psyches by our own leaders. As a reality check, there is one simple challenge: identify one major project in Pakistan since its creation that has not been scarred by a scam. And, in case there is one to be found, do furnish an assurance that a dormant scam would not be discovered a quarter of a century from now.

One should note that there is no lack of sanctimonious messiahs who decry the abuse of discretion when wandering in the wilderness. But just watch their actions when the very same people are entrusted with positions of trust. Therefore, the bottom line of this argument is that, no matter what anyone might say, we have to minimize discretion in Pakistan at least for this phase of our existence. We may forego the advantages of being fleet-footed but we would also not suffer the damage from being incompetent or dishonest. On balance, we would be better off sticking to some set of rules without discretion.

Take cricket, for example, where the team selected recently to tour Australia was deemed the worst ever to have visited that country. There is very little doubt that personal likes and dislikes have plagued Pakistani sports for decades and that the discretion allowed to selectors has resulted in gross injustice and heartbreak for many excellent performers in domestic tournaments. One way out of this unsavoury morass would be eliminate the discretion and select teams based exclusively on performance in first class matches. The two to three top performing players would qualify automatically for each position and be rotated in the national teams. A detailed set of rules could be specified to operationalize this process. There is no doubt that one would lose out on fast-tracking an occasional superstar like Wasim Akram but in general the team would be better off without the sidelining of scores of excellent players like Fawad Alam.

The crisis in politics from the arbitrary use of discretion is even more dangerous for the country. This is well illustrated by the recent controversy over the extension of the Chief of Army Staff’s tenure. This situation is particularly egregious because discretion has been employed in the absence of any provision to grant a legitimate extension. The judiciary has highlighted the abnormality and rightly recommended that proper rules be put in place. But, once again, given the track record of office-holders, there should be no room for allowance of any discretion in such sensitive matters. The most senior officer should automatically be appointed COAS (could anyone be actually worse than Zia ul Haq?) and there should be no provision for extension of tenure (there is no one really that indispensable).

The poor outcomes that result from the abuse of discretion are not the only damaging consequences that ensue from dishonest practice. Much more destructive is the societal ethos that takes root when discretion is routinely abused for patronage and individual gain on the basis of personal preferences. It engenders an environment in which people abandon the pursuit of merit and gravitate towards either bootlicking and grovelling for favours or the outright purchase of offices and positions. And once such a set of individuals entrench themselves in positions of advantage the malady just reinforces itself over time. No honest or meritorious person can be allowed to break into the system for fear of overturning the applecart.

Pakistan is very deep in a crisis of governance because of the blatant and unchallenged misuse of discretion over decades. The practice has been highlighted fortuitously by the recent egregious consequences in cricket and politics. We ought to take advantage of these exposures to begin to stress the primacy of rules and to eliminate room for the abuse of discretion.

This opinion was published in Dawn on January 5, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. The writer was the dean of the school of humanities and social sciences at LUMS.

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Interrogating Democracy

August 8, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

Brexit has triggered two arguments about democracy: (1) Voters are ignorant, and (2) Representatives are selfish. In either case the implications for governance are grave. It is significant that the questions are being asked in the West. They have always been on the table in countries like Pakistan but dismissed as reflecting the limitations of people rather than of democracy.

The answers in Pakistan are clear. The wisdom of voters is extolled in theory but undermined by contempt for their intelligence in practise. Citizens are never asked how the revenue they contribute ought to be allocated – they cannot be trusted to determine what is good for them or the nation. As for the representatives, voters are convinced of their dishonesty, their task limited to selecting the least crooked. The rulers themselves leave no doubt accusing each other of egregious malfeasance.

In the West the questions are more nuanced and therefore of greater intellectual interest. What is the limit to the knowledge of voters? They are considered independent and capable enough to choose local representatives based on their preferences but can they disentangle the pros and cons of multi-layered questions of economic policy? Should they be expected to do so? If they are, does that leave them vulnerable to being misled by those with vested interests?

Vested interests are at the heart of the second question. Have financial considerations now so dominated social ones that rulers prioritize the interests of capital over those of people? And have the interests of ruling elites become so enmeshed with the protection of capital that they have reneged on their promise to advance the welfare of citizens?

After all the ink that has been spent on Brexit, the conclusions appear quite sobering: Many voters acted seemingly against their economic interests to kick back at rulers whom they considered uncaring; Both factions of the rulers lied, one just more effectively than the other – incredibly, the winners admitted immediately after the surprise outcome that they had done so.

These conclusions are a sad commentary on the present state of democracy and a troubling sign of its future trajectory. As problems faced by nation-states become more complex in a globalized economy the stresses of the market will transfer to politics. Strains will increase and the side that lies more effectively will continue to gain ground till there is a break.

Some of the consequences are already quite obvious. Both in England and the USA, the plight of the population hurt by the workings of global capital is being blamed on migrants leading to a politics of fear, resentment, and racism. The rise of Trump leaves little doubt in this regard.

What then is to be done? The key is to realize that the system of democratic governance is comprised of rules some of which need to be re-examined, fine-tuned, or changed, if necessary. To take an obvious example: Is the system based on plebiscitary or representative democracy? If the latter, as is the case in Britain, was a Yes-No referendum on staying in the EU not an act of great irresponsibility taken only for self-interested political reasons? How can such reckless gambles be forestalled in the future?     

Consider a less obvious but equally consequential rule. Two Nobel laureates, Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen, have argued that Trump would not have emerged as the Republican presidential candidate if the primaries had followed a rule other than the first-past-the-post (FPTP), winner-take-all one. And David Runciman, a leading British academic, has claimed that “the primary cause of the referendum result is the first-past-the-post system, albeit through its secondary effects.” Referring to the fact that the UK and USA are among the few developed countries to follow the FPTP, he goes on to say that  “it also isn’t a coincidence that the two places where truly destabilizing populist politics have been let off the leash are Britain and the United States.”

This is a salutary reminder that electoral rules matter to the extent that they can break countries apart. The fact that South Asia has inherited the FPTP from Britain without any serious exploration of its appropriateness or implications does not bode well for our future.

It is not that we have been immune to rule changes – recall those that barred more than two turns as prime minister or required a graduate degree to be elected to parliament. Both were accepted as part of politics without serious intellectual attention to the importance of rules to good governance. Unless we pay attention to these details we will continue to suffer from the vagaries of democracy till popular pressure builds up for the only binary alternative we can imagine – never mind that the cure has always been worse than the disease. Thinking on constitutional arrangements has to advance to avoid a fate that thrives on ignorance.

This opinion was published in Dawn on August 7, 2016 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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