Tuesday, February 23, 2010

No Such Thing As "Good" Or "Evil" In Politics

First of all, let me advise you to read this op-ed in the WSJ on Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary and the judges brouhaha from last week (via Rabia). It basically encapsulates my thinking on the matter, and saves me the trouble of writing anything on it.

I do want to make a related point, however. But before I do that, let's take a step backwards.

It's always easy for me to identify immature political analyses -- I do so by simply looking at whether the writer or opinion-maker has a normative slant on things. That is, in the analysts' view, are some people "good" and others "evil"? If yes, then that analyst is a bad analyst, at least in my book. Why? Because it takes the easy way out, and ascribes things to human nature when really the analyst should be looking deeper.

Now, of course I know that there are some people in politics who embody unmitigated evil (Hitler) and some people who are above moral reproach (Mandela). But, for the most part, it pays to assume that most people lie somewhere in the middle, and that their actions will be determined not by who they are but where they are; by the structural constraints and incentives and local contexts that come their way.

Does that mean that there is no room for human ingenuity, skill, temperance, personality, family history, stupidity, or other agentic characteristics to affect outcomes in important ways? Of course not. But it does mean that we should attempt to look beyond mere personalities when trying to figure out why things are the way they are. We can criticize the person of Asif Zardari all day for being corrupt -- and it is true, he is corrupt -- but such a position elides the fact that (a) that most Pakistani politicians and public figures are corrupt, and (b) that Pakistan would be not be significantly different if Random Politician X from the PPP was in charge of the country, instead of Zardari. So what does it matter that Zardari is corrupt? How does that change anything? It doesn't.

This is my worldview, and you can agree with or disagree with it, but that's how I think in general terms.

So what does all this have to do with the Chief Justice? Well, as it turns out, a lot. When Iftikhar Chaudhary first rose to prominence in 2007, he was widely celebrated and feted by the country's media, its body politic, civil society and the urban middle class. The reason for this celebration, we were told, was that Iftikhar Chaudhary was Good and Brave and a Hero for taking on Pervez Musharraf. He was, in other words, a knight in shining armor, striking a blow against entrenched interests, and speaking for the people.

Did I believe any of this? Of course not. Because identifying a political actor's interests and preferences and constraints is the first thing I do when looking at said actor, it was easy for me to see that there was a highly plausible explanation for Chaudhary's actions that didn't include the words "Man, isn't he the greatest effing thing ever?" Sadly, however, I was in the minority on this because many -- indeed, most -- people did fall for him.

By contrast, I believed that the Chief Justice was following narrow, parochial interests, that he used the anti-Musharraf momentum that was building in the country in early 2007 to good effect, and that he rode the way of populism all the way to the deepest recesses of Pakistani hearts in an attempt to aggrandize as much power as possible from the bench. This made him smart, but hardly Good. He was just another dude looking out for himself. Was he helping the so-called aam aadmi while doing so? Perhaps, but that is beside the point.

The last few months have shown that I was basically right about this. Everything from the petrol tax to the way in which the NRO was overturned to this latest blatantly unconstitutional measure** in blocking Zardari's appointments smacks of political opportunism. It is not the work of a bench interested in checks and balances and fulfilling constitutional roles. It is the work of a bench interested in stepping over its bounds, and being a viable and powerful political player. No sane, rational observer of Pakistani politics can doubt this. It's just a fact. The Iftikhar Chaudhary-led Supreme Court is now the judicial wing of the PML(N).

So what is the moral of the story? Contrary to what you may think, this post is not an attempt to show how smart and right I was -- I have been wrong so many times about so many things on this blog that it beggars belief (and it's all there in the archives for you to peruse and make fun of me). Rather, the point is to show that as a method of analysis, it pays to take out of the equation our perceptions of whether someone is Good or Evil. Politics, as they say, is the art of the possible, and some people are better artists than others. But that hardly makes them fit for deification.

**So it turns out that blocking the appointments was not "blatantly unconstitutional". My bad. Still ham-handed and self-interested though.


Umair Javed said...

Cant comment on the unconstitutionality of the CJ's intervention, given the fact that his consult is binding on the president. However what you've raised is a very interesting point on whether the lawyers movement and the subsequent rise of an independent judiciary marks a disjunct in the pattern of politics in the country.

The state has remained overdetermined in every sense with one institution obtaining primacy of power. Hence any challenge to that institution is seen not as a challenge from below or a popular challenge but rather a challenge from a corporate-like entity unhappy at its role within the internal configuration. So if the first 15 odd years were marked by the increasingly dominant bureaucracy, Ayub sort of shifted that configuration towards the Military, Bhutto tried to bring in a new balance of power by giving power to one particular office, Zia reinforced the Military as the dominant institution and so on and so forth.

The Judiciary's attempts at changing the internal configuration have relied on obtaining support from a wider social formation (not simply from the class of people it recruits from) and the popular classes are very much on the side of the Judiciary (at least in Punjab). They see the Chief Justice as the ultimate savior of 'democracy'.

This is where the important dimension of time comes about. If we go about using pyscho-social understandings of the situation, we're pretty much reducing the entire phenomenon to an interplay of power held by one man who is unhappy at his current position in the state power structure. How much of this is reflective of the larger sentiment in the judiciary, its hard to say, some might be happy at just taking their paychecks at the end of the month. More importantly, his position as the savior of the common people might again just be a personalistic ploy, which will reveal itself temporally, when army or parliament steps in to put the judiciary back in its place after the CJ's reign ends.

But the larger point is that IF the popular classes see the judiciary as a new way of approaching the state...its position as an invokable, inclusive institution will become engrained in the public imagination, something that perhaps will add constraints on future actors within the judiciary to act in roughly the same manner as the CJ (if they want to maintain its newly found dominating role within the state). Or its possible that new members of the Judiciary are more than happy to resume their collaborationist positions that existed before 2007. Either way it remains a temporal question.

NB said...

Vaisay dude, one question. I know that terms like good and bad are
irrelevant for the purposes of political analysis as the normative
judgment doesn't really add anything in terms of your understanding.

But individuals do have certain principles and preferences that factor in to their decision making, which are not just products of their relationship to their respective constituencies.

What i mean to say is that personal morality of the person in charge filters down in terms of culture, upon their respective institution. Zia's personal religious beliefs had an impact on the army and his policies, the constituency he chose to rely on during his time, etc.

Similarly, with your example of the Chief justice, you are right to
say that he is an opportunist, a fact which can be discerned from his actions if one were to analyst them beyond the superficial. So its not that the characterization of of his supposed morality is irrelevant, it is that it is superficial and incorrect and thereby misleading, and that it is more important and helpful to classify him as an opportunist.

Would Pakistan be different if Zardari were not corrupt? I disagree with you in that i feel it might. For example, if (in Dimension X) corruption was Zardari's biggest pet peeve , he might select his cabinet differently. Not entirely differently, because i appreciate
that constraints do apply, but he is effectively operating under a
different set of constraints if his morality compels him to ignore
certain considerations, namely whether someone in his cabinet is
necessary for the purposes of facilitating his own corruption.

You might argue that Zardari's power is predicated upon his persona, of which corruption is a part. But then take Musharraf. Might he have chosen differently had embezzlement been a priority? How would that have affected us? What Im saying is traits (which have their respective objective normative value) do matter, but that they must be slightly more detailed and specific than just good and bad.

Or to put it more finely, it is the personal trait that matters, not whether that trait is good or bad.

(Obviously, some traits are clearly either black or white in terms of morality, whereas others (like opportunism) are grey).

Smci said...

Would it be inaccurate to say that Chaudhary is the world's most powerful Justice?

The thing that struck me back in December with the whole 'overturning the NRO' gambit was the immediate adherence to the ECL resulting from the charges.

Who exercised the executive authority to order and empower the immigration officers to stop Ahmed Mukhtar?

Maybe someone here could clarify that dynamic?

I mean the WSJ Op-Ed compares the two Judiciaries and intimates that the Chaudhary court is acting like a buncha Judicial Oligarchs, but as the famous saying attributed to Andrew Jackson goes, "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it."

Who is enforcing the courts will against the nominal executive?

Ahsan said...


"Cant comment on the unconstitutionality of the CJ's intervention, given the fact that his consult is binding on the president."

No, the President is only meant to consult with the CJ. Please explain to me where in the constitution it says that the CJ's word is meant to be binding.

As for the larger point of what direction the judiciary as an institution is going to go in, who knows? Certainly the history of democratic transitions is replete with actors and institutions acting selfishly in their own interest, striking bargains with other players to do so, and in so doing -- completely unintentionally -- cementing democracy in their countries (this is especially true of Latin America and Southern Europe).

Even so, we should not be under any illusions WHY they are acting the way they are. That was the point of my post.


Couple of points. First, yes you are right that the personal preferences and dispositions of actors matter. I said as much when I noted that "Does that mean that there is no room for human ingenuity, skill, temperance, personality, family history, stupidity, or other agentic characteristics to affect outcomes in important ways? Of course not. But it does mean that we should attempt to look beyond mere personalities when trying to figure out why things are the way they are."

For instance, Musharraf and Zia faced very similar structural constraints (pariah status when they came in, superpower-led war in the region, economy in a state of collapse, religious parties as allies in local coalitions) but left Pakistan in vastly different states. Much of this is due to their varying views of the world. So of course, preferences matter.

My only point was that (a) they matter only up to a point, and (b) that these preferences should not be imputed with a sense of benevolence by outside observers. So the CJ's supporters think his preference is to make the country a better place and stand up to tyranny, while I believe his preference is to aggrandize power in his person and office. Neither side is arguing against the view that personal preferences matter, but the content of those preferences is self-consciously non-normative in my case.

On the Zardari corruption issue, it's important what "alternate" state of the universe we imagine. In your alternate world, Zardari not being corrupt = Zardari in power not being corrupt. In my alternate world, Zardari not being corrupt = someone else in power being corrupt.

Of course, your general point stands, which is that personal traits matter. There would be no WW2 without Hitler (though there probably would've been a WWI without the Kaiser). But it's not simply the case, as you allege, that correctly identifying personal traits is all we need (the opportunist vs. brave issue for the CJ).

It's the very explicit heuristic device that enables one to expunge from our analysis entire categories of personal traits, i.e. those that are normative. You'd be surprised (or maybe you wouldn't be, I don't know) how many people fail to do that.


That would be PM Gillani.

Smci said...


I thought Gilani suspended the Interior Minister and the relevant Immigration officials for enforcing the ECL on the Defense Minister?

Ahsan said...


Haha, I wasn't talking about the ECL in particular. I was making the more general point that Gillani is the one who makes the bad news coming regularly from the judiciary more palatable to the executive.

Smci said...


Yeah, that's my point.

Why is Gilani willing to execute the Supreme Court's rulings? Because he fears a populist pro-Judiciary sentiment? Or what else?

What would the reaction have been if the PM, speaking on behalf of his 'majority' said "the Court can go screw itself, our bureacracy is still abiding by the NRO?"

Or is it simply that he's picking and choosing his battles and didn't really want to get into a schlong measuring contest with Chaudhary?

Rabia said...

I'm kind of impressed with Gillani... for a few months there I thought he was going Leghari on us but I guess he (and Aitzaz) figured that sticking with the PPP was better for their political futures in the long run.

Ahsan, Article 260 of the constitution which was inserted in with the 17th amendment does make the CJ's consultation binding on the specific matter of judicial appointments. Of course one could argue that by overturning an executive order based on a 17th amendment constitutional article the CJ is being as morally questionable as if Zardari were to dissolve the parliament or something. Of course the larger question is whether the CJ should have such a monopoly on deciding judicial appointments - I don't see how that is balanced or sustainable at all.

Ahsan said...


Whoops, sorry there, looks like I was wrong on the binding thing. Point withdrawn then.


The latter. I don't think there's anything to gain from a public confrontation with the judiciary right now. The only difference between Gilani and Zardari is that the former is smart enough to see that.

Anonymous said...

You agree with that article? Over turning the NRO was a bad thing? Please

Ahsan said...


Well, no, not exactly. I'm happier to be in a world without than the NRO than with the NRO, so in that I obviously disagree with the article.

Rabia said...

Gillani and Zardari are playing games. The are trying to confuse the people.

karachi khatmal said...

first of all this is a burger blog so all its statements are bullshit (this one was for my anon homies)

secondly, the WSJ compared the NRO to south africa's reconciliation ordinance. gwahahahahaha! fucking pathetic piece of tripe.

thirdly, ahsan.

you feel that whoever would be in power in pakistan is bound to be corrupt. (the alternate universe example)

you dislike these machinations that are undergoing between the politicians (and i suppose we can count the judiciary as the pols as well) and you point out quite rightly that the country continues to suffer despite the battles between the 'good' and the 'bad'

my question is, why do we then give a fuck? please spare me the 'if we don't make a change no one else will' crap. pakistani politicians are generally reprehensible creatures. yeah yeah ZAB was a rock star, but he had his own guys anally raped (NB's excellent post on Hayat Khan corroborates that fact)

so yeah.

none of them has ever brought about change that wasn't to some degree already inevitable. again, if we take the ZAB example, the riots of 68 and the war of 71 had already left the situation far too untenable for the same old faces to roll back in. and even if i'm wrong on him, it happened 40 fucking years ago.

i don't mean to diss anyone, or their intelligence. but why do we find our politics so fascinating, when they are so morally bankrupt and intellectually repugnant?

it makes me think of watching soap operas. they have no artistic merit, they won't add anything to your intellect, and you always know how its going to turn out, no matter how many outrageous plot devices the producers throw up.

and, as you well know ahsan (you bold and the beautiful fanboy), soap operas are centered around having good and bad people.

again, i would like to clarify that i am not advocating apathy, or being apolitical. talking to your driver about contraceptives is also a political act. so is setting up a neighborhood committee that bans pressure pumps, or fixes the sewerage system. but politicians don't deserve any attention or concern. they don't give a fuck about us, it's time we start returning the favor.

Nabeel said...

I think there is no such thing as absolute good or evil in any sphere,not just politics...

And if I'm not wrong you have pointed out yourself that a significant and positive outcome of the judiciary asserting its powers is that it's more difficult for the executive to do as it pleases and strengthens the checks and balances...in the long term isn't the lawyer's movement a positive?

on another note, pwned in stuttgart :( i have no idea why iniesta started on the left wing, why busquets and xavi switched their normal positions, and how the hell marquez pulled off that flyweight imitation.

and i'm shocked by inter's win over chelsea. did not see that coming.

Ahsan said...

Karachi Khatmal:

Yeah, the soap opera bit is definitely part of it. Come on, politics is entertaining as hell! And more seriously, I think we keenly observe things because we want to identify trends and hope for the best, because it obviously affects millions of lives.


Yes, in sum, it might end up being a positive, but that doesn't mean we should credit Chaudhary for doing anything other than looking out for himself. We can end up with "good" social outcomes with people acting selfishly -- think of basic Econ101 analysis on the market -- but we should keep in mind that the actors are acting selfishly. Same thing here. My only gripe with this whole thing is how beyond reproach him and the rest of the judges have become, when there's no reason to suggest that they should get that treatment.

On the footy, I'll take the away goal and result, thank you very much. But that's 3 crap games in a row now. Worrying.

takhalus said...

dude symbolism is very important to movements. The symbol rarely lives up to the pedestal its placed on.. JFK would not have turned into a saint for the yanks if he'd actually completed his term. Obama is seeing the same..so did the right wing counter "revolution" of 1994.. that brought gingrich to power

Anonymous said...

i completely agree with takhalus...

pakblend said...

i completely agree with takhalus...