Deal-breaker

Published June 21, 2010

THE basic reason for the existence of a state, and of government, is the welfare of the citizenry. Does a country that fails to make this a priority remain a viable entity?

Welfare of the citizenry includes the right to access fundamental essentials such as health, education, housing and economic opportunity.

It includes other rights such as freedom of religion and expression, and an environment free of oppression, human rights' abuse and sectarian, religious, racial or ethnically motivated hatred. But at the most basic level, the first thing human beings need in order to survive is food without that most fundamental of all essentials, any other right is rendered quite meaningless.

Frighteningly, food scarcity has now joined the list of all of Pakistan's other grim realities. The figures are alarming according to the UN World Food Programme, the country's poorest households now spend over 70 per cent of their incomes on food alone, and this too despite cutting down on calorie intake.

In other words, people who earlier made do with one roti now have to make do with half. With seven out of every 10 rupees going on food that is barely enough to keep body and soul together; what does that leave for health, education or anything else?

Is it any wonder then that levels of desperation are rising across the board and manifesting themselves in all sorts of ways, from militancy to terrorism and crime? Pakistan's current predicament ought to be viewed as the ongoing breakdown of the rule of law, brought about in great measure by sheer need.

Theorists calculate that in the modern world, for citizens to become stakeholders in the political process and sustain a liberal democracy, the average income per family must be around $3,000 per capita. Pakistan's economic circumstances and management has been such, however, that the average family per capita income has become virtually fixed at $1,000. What these figures translate to is poverty and ceaseless deprivation for the average Pakistani family.

This country's citizens want food, potable water and affordable energy; they need education, healthcare and employment. They require — but rarely get — all the various benefits that accrue from these basic rights, including security, literacy, health and dignity.

Is it any wonder, then, that indications of the citizenry's lack of faith in the state's ability to protect them — from rising crime and terrorism to militant and secessionist movements — are increasingly in evidence?

When we identify the links between the Taliban and street criminals, kidnappers for ransom and citizens' riots, dacoits and food adulterators, we find that the common thread is the defiance of the rule of law resulting from a social contract in the process of collapse.

The social contract theory postulates, after all, that the civil rights it bestows are neither 'natural rights' nor permanent. In fact, the contract is a means towards an end the benefit of all. It has been argued, indeed, that the social contract is legitimate only to the extent that it meets the general interest.

Since civil rights come from agreeing to the contract, those who choose to violate their contractual obligations, such as by committing crimes, abdicate their rights and the rest of society can be expected to protect itself by punishing outlaws for violating the terms of the contract.

On the other hand, when failings develop in the contract, people renegotiate through methods such as elections and the legislature to change the terms. In the worst cases, outright rebellion can be expected.

The social contract theory holds that for a country to continue to survive as a viable entity, amongst the essentials is a citizenry that believes in — and, significantly, believes it has a stake in — the political process.

The theory was developed by the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who wrote that without a political government, mankind's 'natural' state would be a war of every man against the other all would be competitors over resources. In such a state, each person would have the right or the licence to pursue everything in the world, thereby inevitably leading to conflict.

To prevent this perpetual strife, Hobbes theorised, men accede to a social contract and establish a civil society, which he defined as a population beneath a sovereign authority to whom all individuals in that society cede certain natural rights for the sake of protection.

In other words, free men establish a political community — a civil society — through a social contract in which they gain rights in return for subjecting themselves to civil law or political authority.

Hobbes's theory influenced the subsequently developed principles of contractarianism, which then formed the backbone of theories of democracy. The idea of social contract explains how people gather themselves into states and/or maintain social order, with citizens giving up some rights to a government or other authority — which includes a tribal chieftain — in order to maintain social order through the rule of law. The idea of social contract became central to the notion, now associated with 'democracy', that legitimate state authority must be derived from the consent of the governed.

Seen through this lens, it becomes evident that what is happening in Pakistan is the collapse of the social contract, and the resultant rebellion in varying magnitudes. We agreed to be ruled by the state and its government in return for gaining certain civil liberties and protections protection of our lives, livelihoods, properties and rights; the right to economic and educational opportunity, healthcare and equality under the eyes of the law; the freedom to live in dignity and prosperity.

These requirements are not being met. And, one must point out, that the fault lies not with the current government alone but the policies of various governments over the decades that have brought matters to such a pass.

Why would a citizenry continue to abide by the laws and dictates of a state that gives them nothing — not even food — in return?

hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com

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