Pakistan’s Hobbesian nightmare

Published June 21, 2024
The writer is an economist. He is a Research Fellow at PIDE. The op-ed constitutes his personal opinion.
The writer is an economist. He is a Research Fellow at PIDE. The op-ed constitutes his personal opinion.

HUMAN history is replete with governance innovations. Some of these have changed the course of history. But perhaps none was as cataclysmic and transformational as the founding of the ‘nation state’. There were two primary sources of the rise of the nation state: power struggle between the Italian city states and the Church, and the intellectual contribution of the ‘scholastic’ school of thought, both aimed at freeing the affairs of men from the centuries-old ecclesiastical moorings regarding thought and life.

But if the affairs of men were to be governed by practical considerations, what ought to be the justification of having a set-up (government) that is a substitute for one based on divine law? Scholars and philosophers of the later mediaeval period remained seized with this question for some time. Of the earliest attempts to furnish an answer, two came from Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).

The Florentine diplomat and political adviser, Machiavelli, was crystal clear on the raison d’être of the existence of a government (or sovereign). In his celebrated book, The Prince, he stated: “He ought accordingly to encourage his subjects by enabling them to pursue their callings, whether mercantile, agricultural, or any other, in security so that this man shall not be deterred from beautifying his possessions from the apprehension that they may be taken from him, or that other refrain from opening a trade through fear of taxes; and he should provide rewards for those who desire so to employ themselves, and for all who are disposed in any way to add to the greatness of his City or State.”

(Three centuries later, the same was to be restated by the celebrated Adam Smith, albeit in slightly different words).

The profound repercussions of an unsafe, risky Pakistan are hardly understood.

Hobbes’ advocacy of a state was born more out of his fears. Like Machiavelli, he acknowledged that people have an innate desire to better their lot through the acquisition of riches. Various groups of people have a tendency to establish a social equilibrium among themselves, which keeps the wheels of development and commerce well-oiled. Hobbes, though, foresaw that a particular group may have an incentive to break that equilibrium in order to establish its hegemony or to impose its will. To keep that fine balance between different groups intact, he advocated giving the state the monopoly on violence. Otherwise, as he wrote, life would be “nasty, brutish and short”.

You do not need to be an Einstein to grasp the role of the state in light of what Machiavelli and Hobbes eschewed. Let us then start with the most fundamental aspect: how safe are we as citizens?

Just before Eidul Fitr and recently, Islamabad, the federal capital, witnessed record crime, which is but a small reflection of what is happening around the country. Its entire police force and more than 2,000 ‘safe city’ cameras could do nothing to stop it.

The plight of Pakistan’s main commercial hub, Karachi, is well-known: killings occur daily during muggings and petty theft has been the norm for decades. The same is the case for all other urban centres.

What of “the apprehension that they may be taken from him”? There is little or no enforcement of property or intellectual rights in Pakistan. Properties are forcefully occupied or taken, and people are picked up by the ‘deep state’ at will.

What of the “refrain from opening a trade through fear of taxes”? The state’s oppressive, extractive taxation system ensures that a huge informal economy prevails and citizens are put under an increasing burden of taxes to finance an unproductive leviathan that guzzles money to preserve its colonial ways (read PIDE-PRIME Tax Reform Commission report).

Lastly, what of the “rewards for those who desire so to employ themselves, and for all who are disposed in any way to add to the greatness of his City or State”? How about Dr Abdus Salam, who put Pakistan on the map of Nobel Prize winners? How did the Pakistani state and its people reward him? Short of hanging him in public, we did (and still are) doing everything to tarnish his legacy and achievements!

This may sound trite, but the profound repercussions of an unsafe, risky Pakistan are hardly understood. Theft, robberies and pilferage, be it by governments or individuals, constitute a transfer of hard-earned wealth. If it is easy to whisk away years of hard-earned wealth (vehicles, smartphones, etc) in a day from its rightful owners, what is the incentive to work hard?

Given such an environment, why do we bemoan ‘Dubai Leaks’? Would you like to keep your wealth here? Sure, those who earn wealth in a dubious manner do send it to safer havens, but crying hoarse over corruption cannot take away from the fact that citizens have little to no confidence in a state’s ability to safeguard their legitimately earned wealth, which results in its flow to other places.

Even better, ask yourself why Pakistan’s best brains have been fleeing the country for decades now. Gloating needlessly about $30 billion-plus in ‘remittances’ does not account for the aggregate loss to our economy due to our diaspora’s contributions elsewhere.

Pakistan is a Hobbesian nightmare since what Hobbes feared the most (life being “nasty, brutish and short”) is at play in Pakistan. And the government that he envisioned, which was supposed to act as a bulwark against this possibility, is nowhere to be found.

Let everyone be very clear: Pakistan’s state has a legitimacy problem. Its citizens have lost trust in the ability of the state to provide them with an environment where they can pursue their well-being without any fear. No amount of foreign tours for begging dollars, SIFCs, outlandish financial returns, etc, can convince foreigners when a state’s own citizens are so disenchanted and disillusioned. And neither can gimmicks such as sasti roti, public sector freebies, SNC, mega infrastructure projects or government-sponsored cash handouts bring back that confidence.

The writer is an economist. He is a Research Fellow at PIDE. The op-ed constitutes his personal opinion.

X: @ShahidMohmand79

shahid.mohmand@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 21st, 2024

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