Governance and Morality

People are frustrated with continued poor governance in Pakistan. So frustrated that one often hears a strange claim – we are afflicted with poor governance because we are bad people; we deserve our fate.

This logic implies that good people get good governments while bad people get bad governments. Does this logic make any sense?

First of all, there is no country in the world where people are all good or all bad – however good and bad are defined. And no one has yet adequately demonstrated that some countries have a larger proportion of bad people than others.

(Of course, some countries have relatively more educated populations but education has little to do with the mix of goodness and badness. In any case, all countries have passed through the stage when education was much less common than it is today. It is difficult to make the case that the quality of governance has improved with the prevalence of education. The literacy rate in Pakistan has increased steadily over the years with little impact on the overall goodness of society while the quality of governance has continued to deteriorate.)

Second, even if one concedes for the sake of argument that good people get good governments, one cannot conclude that the good governments always do good things. One would need to specify who exactly are the governments good for?

There are governments that are good for their own citizens but absolutely disastrous for people of other countries whom they have no hesitation in hurting to promote their own national interests. Examples of such actions by “good” governments are so many and so well known that there is no point in recounting them here. Anyone with a sense of history should be able to come up with a long list.

This happens because even most good people hold their governments accountable only for what happens inside their own countries and care far less for what the governments do outside the national borders. Good governments routinely lie to their good citizens about what they are up to elsewhere and the good citizens attach little importance to distant affairs unless the repercussions begin to affect their personal welfare. The reality is that politics is still very local while national interests have long been global – think of the slave trade, colonialism, etc.

Third, it is said that in countries like Pakistan people elect “bad” representatives who are outright crooks and not even good for their own countries. But do people choose in this manner because they themselves are bad? Or could the choice be due to some peculiarity of circumstances that forces good people to elect bad representatives.

Consider one such circumstance. Pakistan is an example of a society that does not offer its people access to justice or jobs unless they have the right connections. All such societies gravitate towards a system of patronage and the most effective patrons are the local strongmen who wield the most power and influence in the system.

Voters are smart enough to realize this plain truth and their electoral choices reflect this reality. The choices have very little to with the goodness and badness of the voters and everything to do with their need for survival in an unfair and unjust society. Voters are fully aware of the moral credentials of the representatives they vote for and also of the reasons for their choices.

This social reality forms the basis of the argument that the rule of law and equal opportunity based on merit are pre-conditions for good governance. Only when people can do without patrons will they be able to choose competent representatives instead of local strongmen. There is not much point in advising people to elect “good” representatives if they continue to need powerful patrons to obtain jobs, justice and protection.

To attribute the actions of powerless, helpless and dependent voters to their intrinsic goodness or badness suggests a failure to understand the constraints of their social reality. It also detracts from understanding what needs to be done to ensure good governance in the future.

It is the system that needs to be changed. Changing the people is not an alternative.

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