Egalitarian societies
BY N I A Z M U R T A Z A | 6/1/2015

NATIONAL progress is a universal aspiration but the root causes of why it eludes most countries remain a near-universal puzzle. People usually focus on immediate causes.

Imagine a typically inquisitive child pestering her mother before sleeping about why only some countries succeed. The patient mother explains that progress comes from good governance. But the inquisitive child persists: but, mother, why do only some countries have good governance; is it luck? The mother gently explains that good leaders provide good governance.

Unsatisfied still, the child asks: but, mother, is it luck that some countries have good leaders, and where do they come from? Slightly exasperated and also clueless by now, having exhausted the limits of usual layperson knowledge about this topic, many mothers may point towards the heavens or Rawalpindi.

Forget clueless parents, it took experts decades to conclude that strong political institutions produce good leaders. The persistent child asks the experts another question immediately: why do only some countries have strong institutions? Experts are gradually concluding that strong institutions emerge in egalitarian societies, ie, those exhibiting lower inequities in access to land, capital, education, etc and high ethnic homogeneity or harmony.

This causality chain is easily explainable. In inegalitarian societies, elites from powerful ethnicities will monopolise political institutions. Their representative leaders will provide self-serving governance. This will impede broader progress, as Pakistanis have seen for decades.

The inquisitive child now asks why only some societies are egalitarian. This reflects the different policies that national rulers have followed over decades and centuries. Land inequities at independence existed in Pakistan because of Mughal and British policies but not in Korea due to Japanese land reforms.

Having traversed the long causal chain between good governance and societal egalitarianism, we finally discover that there is a vicious circular relationship between societal inegalitarianism and bad governance which represents the root cause of national stagnation. Societal inegalitarianism produces mal-governance, which further entrenches inegalitarianism. Countries trapped in this strong, vicious, circular relationship stagnate.

Not just inquisitive children, but even adults would ask how the vicious circle can be broken.

Three sets of countries have broken it since 1750, leading to spectacular progress there. Europe did so through scientific discoveries and colonialism and East Asia through hard work and generous American aid given Cold War politics. Gulf emirates achieved partial progress through fortuitous oil discoveries by outsiders. These countries also possess high ethnic homogeneity and long national histories. Thus, the secret recipes of these countries are unfortunately not replicable in Pakistan, with its fractured society, short history, seesaw American relations and lack of abundant oil and colonies (at least after 1971). Pakistan must study the more sedate and gradual progress achieved by similar countries like Indonesia, India and Brazil, mostly under democracy.

In fact, dictatorship grievously harmed Brazil and Indonesia, as it has Pakistan. Social mobilisation by civil society groups, some of which later joined politics, was critical.

Foreign investments and remittances have played important roles too by increasing layperson incomes.

The combination of social mobilisation and foreign flows initially reduced societal inegalitarianism marginally, which resulted in marginal governance improvements under democracy, which further reduced inegalitarianism gradually.

Thus, the vicious circle between inegalitarianism and bad governance is converting at snail`s pace into a virtuous circle between increasing egalitarianism and improving governance. This incremental, iterative process represents Pakistan`s best-case scenario.

This glacial and unspectacular prospective path for Pakistan may leave dumbfounded people looking for naÔve and tired short-cut recipes like `ruthless accountability for two years to debar corrupt politicians, followed by free elections after election reforms under a techno-military government`. Even if all current legislators are debarred without cause, the new cohort of politicians emerging from free elections will likely be little better. Thus, Pakistan`s stagnation is fundamentally not due to chance individual failings of current politicians but societal structures which endlessly produce `bad` leaders, whether elected or unelected.

This structural analysis makes people uncomfortable as it seemingly denies the power of free will. So, what stops Nawaz Sharif from delivering good governance, starting today? Structural analysis recognises free will, eg, it assigns a major role to social mobilisation by ordinary people, but also its limits.

Free will does not provide humans unbounded joyful options but a much thinner sliver of manoeuvrability. It is bounded by physical and biological laws, official laws and finally, more subtly, by one`s early socialisation. The latter makes drastic overnight improvement s in habits improbable.

These constraints make human behaviour usually reasonably repetitive, as even a cursory glance around us confirms, and hence predictable.

Social sciences thrive on this repetition to study how humans behave usually in different contexts after applying their free wills. They then make predictions about likely behaviour in similar future contexts, but without the predictive certitude of physical sciences studying highly repetitious subjects.

Thus, one finds not even one modern-era case of bad leaders becoming good overnight, making this eventuality improbable today. Governance improved as new leaders emerged due to slowly changing societal structures. Unjust structures do collapse as people apply their free will to fight them. However, this usually happens gradually unless countries enjoy the tail winds experienced by the fast-growing countries mentioned earlier. In the absence of tail-winds, change in Pakistan will happen gradually too. In fact, it is already happening gradually.•

The writer is a governance expert and a senior fellow with UC Berkeley.

Published in Dawn