NON-FICTION: IN SEARCH OF THE HOLY GRAIL

Published June 3, 2018
The problem with human affairs is that causality is not easily apparent. Too many factors are involved that must all be considered
The problem with human affairs is that causality is not easily apparent. Too many factors are involved that must all be considered

Some things are easy to understand. Take a cartridge; essentially a three-stage vehicle made up of a percussion cap (primer) at the base, propellant charge — which is a chemical explosive that acts as the main engine to power out the bullet — and the bullet itself. When the trigger is squeezed, a spring mechanism makes the firing pin hammer the primer which starts a small fire. That reaction ignites the propellant charge, which pushes the bullet out of the cartridge, sending it rotating through the barrel grooves at high velocity.

It’s easy to figure out the causal pathway because the process is linear: X leads to Y, Y leads to Z.

Not so with affaires humaines.

Economist Ishrat Husain’s magnum opus is a very useful book in terms of information, data and chronicling, but suffers because of its huge ambitions

Post-Enlightenment, a number of philosophers and their epigones put unflinching faith in rationality: scientific progress, having discovered the laws of nature, will “solve the problems of subsistence, social organisation and institutional design on a scientific basis,” to quote political scientist James C. Scott.

That didn’t happen. The ‘administration of things’ couldn’t banish politics. Scientific and technological advancement, instead, created new spheres of politics and, with it, conflict.

Today, since Norwegian-American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s critique of what some describe as static economic theory, economists have come a long way, broadening the scope of inquiry to include other disciplines such as political science, sociology, anthropology, biology and even cognitive neurosciences. The attempt is to understand and, possibly, present the full picture. There can be no prognosis without the correct diagnosis and that requires tracing the causal pathways — how and why does A lead to B, or doesn’t.

For sure, that has made economics far more interesting, especially for non-economists. The New Institutional Economists, for instance, have more attractive insights to present than a traditional economist presenting graphs and stats and mathematical equations. Why Nations Fail or Violence and Social Orders sound like more fascinating titles than Mastering Metrics. And yet, broadening the scope of inquiry means talking about so much in such diversity that it becomes something about everything and, therefore, something about nothing.

Still, it’s useful to think about the impact of sociopolitical equilibria on economic relations; to argue that economic relations and progress cannot be studied as a standalone area; that studying power relations and their social expression is important to understanding why Nogales (Mexico) and Nogales (the United States), two border cities from the same geographical area and having a similar culture, are so different in terms of prosperity, distribution of wealth and institutional responses.

Ishrat Husain, former bureaucrat, former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan and an eminent economist, has tried to do more or less the same in his latest outing with Governing the Ungovernable: Institutional Reforms for Democratic Governance. He has other books to his credit, but none sought to cast the net so wide. He has been a policy insider, having talked and debated reform and written about it over four decades, not just with reference to Pakistan, but also — when he was at the World Bank — about East Asia.

Those are impressive credentials. But predictably, Husain faces the same problem as others before him and the many who shall follow him into the labyrinth. It’s a Daedalian maze that tests even its creator. The easy way out, then, is to get the waxen wings and fly out of it. Logical, I will say, but not entirely satisfactory. Consider.

Husain’s book discusses nearly everything, from the economy to policy and society to governments (federal, provincial and local) to the civil services, the judiciary, legislature, the military, the religious edifice, administration of justice and the role of external players. There are chapters dedicated to all these institutions and in chapter 16, he tries to put Humpty Dumpty together again by positing the question of how to structure the key institutions.

There is no overarching theory here, which is both good and not-so-good.

Good, because there are now as many theories as there are theoreticians and it limits and restricts the domain; not-so-good because if one sets out to put together a number of elements and their interactive dynamics, theory provides the string.

The result: a lot of very useful information and data, much busting of some myths — my favourite being about the military’s business ventures, referred to as ‘Milbus’ in literature, which causes much misplaced mourning in certain circles. Husain is top-notch with his careful eye for detail. He swims effortlessly in the charted waters of economy, civil services and policy. But he enters no less bravely in areas that fall outside his known domain. That’s where he has to rely on others, in most cases newspaper articles.

For instance, in dealing with the military he tries to do a literature review — a commendable attempt given that from Samuel Huntington to Morris Janowitz to Samuel Finer to Amos Perlmutter to the second- and third-generation civ-mil theorists, there’s no dearth of theories precisely because no one seems to get it right all the way through. Ditto for the chapter on religious edifice and the challenge of radicalisation. How does one deal with that? There are scholarly works on religion, exegeses (Fazlur Rehman Malik et al), religio-legal frameworks (Wael Hallaq) and then there are works dealing with political violence that uses religion as a marker (William T. Cavanaugh et al). It’s expansive, it’s explosive and it’s wide open to debate.

The judiciary itself, given judicialisation of politics that often leads to politicisation of the judiciary, is a subject that has garnered much literature. One can go on with reference to other areas in the book. Does this render the book less useful?

No. Husain has written a very valuable book; even the chronicling makes it a compulsory read. But in essence, it depends on how one approaches it and what the reader wants to get out of it. Since it is ambitious in its multi-disciplinary approach, it seems to say ‘I am the big book’. And in some ways it can lay claim to that. But big books — going by the experience of Huntington and Francis Fukuyama to name just two — also beget much criticism for two reasons: for attempting too much and for ignoring smaller details.

That’s inevitable. You can either put up a big map showing countries and regions, or look for a six- or eight-figure grid reference on a smaller map used for route marching. No one can do both. No one should even try.

This is where we face the paradox: should we look for the wood and miss the trees, or vice versa? I know of nobody who has resolved this.

There’s also another problem when one sets out to find causal pathways: juxtaposing the descriptive with the prescriptive. The descriptive can be complex, is complex. But no matter how many strands one can identify, the prescriptive — in other words, the policy — requires getting down to listing one, two, three, the rather banal essence of what one has to do in real life.

Husain faces the same problem. He might scale the heights, but he has to come down and spell out the one, two and three. That’s the diminuendo after the descriptive crescendo. Those who deal with policy know well that feeling. After all has been debated and threshed, it’s about answering the simple question: okay, so now what? What must we do?

An added problem is the prescription itself. If we do this, this and this, we will get to where we want to go. Good governance, efficient institutions, honesty and transparency (there’s a lot of that where Husain talks of Islamic banking) etc. Sure. The problem is, how do we get to that point from where we are? Put another way, as one of my golfer friends once said, if you get your backswing and follow-through right, you’ve got it. Duh!

In summation — to use Husain’s term at the end of his chapters — this is a very useful book in terms of information, data and chronicling — a very tedious process in itself. But it’s not a big book in the sense of presenting an overarching theory.

Frankly, I am quite happy for its not being that because les affaires humaines are far too complex and make the quest for that Holy Grail a frustrating affair.

The reviewer is executive editor at Indus News. He was a Ford Scholar at the Programme in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, DC

Governing the Ungovernable:
Institutional Reforms for
Democratic Governance
By Ishrat Husain
Oxford University Press,
Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199407811
568pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 3rd, 2018

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