Onus of democratic underperformance - Rashid Mahmood Langrial - Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Source : www.thenews.com.pk

Each time something goes wrong, we chide the politicians for their acts of omission or commission; if ever something goes right, we lecture them on how it could have gone better but for the vested interests of the political class. Politician-bashing is not limited to op-ed pages alone. It is a national pastime; you can hear it at an upscale coffee shop in Lahore or Karachi or under a banyan tree in the village square or for that matter in that daily litany of evening soap-operatic talk shows.

Given the near universality of this class of political analysis, isn’t it surprising that political behaviour has largely remained unaltered over the decades in our part of the world? We cannot explain away the dissonance between political behaviour and popular expectations merely on the grounds of vested interests of the political class. Vested interests are, of course, a factor but we have assigned an almost infinite explanatory power to vested interests as drivers of dissonance. Chanakya, political strategist and principal architect of the rise of Chandragupta Maurya to power, understood the algorithm of politics much better than we do. He wrote in Arthasastra, his master treatise on statecraft, in fourth century BC:

“A prince should be a fox, to know the traps and snares; and a lion to be able to frighten the wolves...a sagacious prince, then, cannot and should not fulfil his pledges when their observance is contrary to his interest, and when the causes that induced him to pledge his faith no longer exist.’’

Chanakya, in his rider clause, “when the causes that induced him to pledge his faith no longer exist” has provided the most basic insight into the working of the political markets under any dispensation. Democracy is essentially a system to ensure that the causes, that make the politician pledge his faith, continue to hold even when observance of the pledges is contrary to the interests of the politician.

Unfortunately, the entreaty for politicians to honour their commitments does not provide sufficient motive power for advancing the cause of social welfare versus private benefit. In societal division of labour, every agent has a private motive and a social function. The farmer who produces surplus wheat does contribute to the social function of food security but in the performance of this function, he is motivated by his private benefit to earn income. Politicians are not interested, per se, in efficient provision of public goods and services; they are interested in gaining income, prestige, power, ego rent and some degree of altruistic value associated with the office for which they run. In order to run for office for the first time, they have to make credible pledges for improving provision of public goods and services; in order to run for office again, they have to deliver on earlier pledges while in office.

In case there is uncertainty about next elections or about the completion of the current term in office due to threat of non-democratic takeovers, the principal lever to hold politicians to their pledges of social welfare is gone and, in Chanakyan terms, the causes that would have made the politicians remain faithful to the pledges no longer exist. Social welfare, therefore, is a by-product of the politicians’ desire to stand for the next term. Certainty about regular future elections and need for political credibility are inextricably linked and such certainty firms up only through repeated observation of an uninterrupted democratic dispensation over the long run.

Does the regularity of elections and absence of non-democratic takeovers alone guarantee appropriate political behaviour? If that were the case, we would observe very little of inappropriate political behaviour in more stable democracies like India; unfortunately, regular elections and consequent democratic stability alone does not suffice. Politicians have two key competing objectives in their calculus: seeking and holding office and formulating and implementing sound policies to advance the social welfare of the electors; of these, the latter objective is the by-product of the process of pursuing the former.

Striking a good mix, much less an optimal mix, between the two competing objectives is almost impossible in a country like Pakistan where policy space is largely occupied by extra-political arms of the state. When we look at the policy arena of the government as a Cartesian space, some of the key quadrants are off-limits for the politicians. The rest of the quadrants are frequently interfered with by the custodians of the off-limit quadrants. The remaining policy space of sectors like health, education and municipal services is stuffed with pre-committed expenditures; rigid salary expenditures in these sectors easily constitute 80 to 90 per cent of the fiscal outlay. At the end of the day, politicians are left with a much smaller segment of the policy space than is needed to make any meaningful trade-off between public good and private benefit. Encroachment of policy space by extra-political forces coupled with uncertainty of the democratic continuity has important implications for functioning of the political market.

Firstly, it affects the type of persons who enter the market as political entrepreneurs; uncertain payoffs imply that only the high risk-takers would join the profession; less of policy space would prevent public-spirited individuals from joining the political class; and relatively low ego rents in presence of more powerful arms of the state would discourage the brightest. Moreover, interruptions in the democratic continuity discourage people from adopting politics as a career, skew human resource allocation by established political families and prevent universities from teaching politics of public policy as a discipline. To understand this last point, imagine that there was a state that outlawed banking as a profession at regular intervals for a decade after every ten years and then expect first rate banking services during the episodic restoration of the profession.

Secondly such scenario results in breakdown of signalling mechanism between the politician and the elector: elector, no more able to use performance in office as sorting indicator between a congruent and a dissonant politician, resorts to secondary criteria as a proxy for expected performance, and votes on account of caste or clan or ethnicity. Discontinuity of democratic system also affects the ability of the voters to punish the dissonant behaviour of politician as focus shifts from politicians’ performance in office to their conduct during the non-democratic rule, particularly to their efforts for restoration of democratic order.

Politicians’ failure to deliver on public goods and services is often cited as the raison d’ĂȘtre for packing off democratic governments and for denying decision making to politicians in certain off-limit quadrants of policy space. What is presented as the solution to the failure of political market is, in fact, the very foundation of such failure.

The writer is a Lahore-based policy specialist. Email: rashidlangrial@gmail.com

Blog: rashidlangrial.blogspot.com

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