Elusive liberalism

April 12, 2016


The writer is a political and development economist.
The writer is a political and development economist.

SOME recent policy half-measures have raised hopes among liberals and hackles among clerics that Pakistan is becoming a liberal state and the Sharifs’ liberalism’s fearless champions. To see if this is true, one must define liberalism and then see if we are moving towards that ideal.

Literally, conservatism is aversion to change and liberalism openness to it. More substantially, liberals support change which establishes freedom, equality and rationality in life. In contrast, conservatives usually support a status quo which entrenches the power of elites, disempowers weaker elements and promotes xenophobia.

This general definition transforms into specific meanings in the three basic life spheres: social, political and economic. Social liberals are open to beneficial social ideas, support social equity and fight anachronist traditions which harm society, especially weaker elements. Political liberals support deep democracy, dispersion of power horizontally and vertically, and domestic and global politics driven by the rule of law rather than raw power.

Economic liberalism is more confusing given the presence of neoliberalism, in reality a conservative theory despite the misleading name, which supports a small economic role for states. But real liberal economics, championed by the likes of Keynes and Stiglitz, prescribes an active role for the state to ensure economic stability, equity and environmental protection.

The liberalism debate largely focuses on the social realm only.

Having evolved from lower beings, humans encapsulate both animal-like urges representing survival of the fittest and the rule of the jungle as well as higher and finer urges around fairness and equality. Conservatism represents the former, ie, humanity’s worst and liberalism the latter, ie, its best. But having emerged late in evolution, liberalism is still the weaker force and its hold over humans patchy.

Thus, humanity’s enormous and unique potential to establish peaceful and just societies remains untapped due to the continuing addiction to conservatism. One finds many individuals and even states espousing social liberalism but holding conservative political and economic positions such as supporting drone attacks and free-market economics. But only three-barrelled liberalism (social, economic and political) represents complete liberalism.

So, is Pakistan embracing three-barrelled liberalism under the Sharifs? Politically, little horizontal or vertical dispersion of power has occurred. Party structures, cabinets and assemblies remain largely powerless and power is concentrated among close relatives. While LG elections have been held after much foot-dragging, they have largely been deprived of effective power. The rule of law has actually eroded with the establishment of military courts and there is little interest in improving civilian courts.

Economically, the picture is no better. The PML-N has always been the party of the rich and its present policies emerge from this inherent tendency, eg, the focus on i) indirect rather than direct taxes, ii) privatisation rather than a broad range of options in revitalising parastatals and iii) grandiose projects rather than small-scale development which builds human capital. Policies which could truly rebalance the economy towards equitable outcomes, eg, land reforms and access to capital and quality education for the poor, remain ignored.

Finally, socially we have seen some progress with the passage of pro-women bills and some action against extremism. One must be thankful for each of these even limited actions individually for they will make a difference. But one must also look at the bigger picture to see where we stand after them.

In doing so, one soon recognises that even socially, the progress is limited. It merely represents a few steps away from deep conservatism which probably have not even put Pakistan at the centre on the conservative-liberal spectrum let alone left-of-centre. So many socially retrogressive policies and practices remain entrenched.

In Pakistan, discussions on liberalism largely focus on the social realms only. Economic and political issues are rarely viewed ideologically along the conservative-liberal divide. There is little difference between the economic and political policies of right-wing parties such as the PML-N and supposedly left-of-centre parties like the PPP. But clearly, it is unrealistic to expect long-conservative Pakistan to suddenly become a liberal bastion when, excepting Scandinavia, political and economic conservatism is increasing even in the traditionally liberal developed states of Western Europe and North America.

More realistically, one must compare Pakistan regionally. But even here the picture looks bleak. If someone ever invents an index of liberalism covering social, economic and political realms, Sri Lanka will certainly be the regional leader of the pack and Pakistan would probably lag behind India, Bangladesh and Nepal, surpassing Afghanistan only among the larger Saarc countries. Thus, from a comprehensive lens, despite limited recent social gains, three-barrelled, complete liberalism remains an elusive goal in Pakistan.

The writer is a political and development economist.


Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2016