111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

Robin with a twist

John Rawls in ‘A theory of justice’ wanted everyone to agree upon principles of justice from behind a veil of ignorance – ie to agree on governing principles with no knowledge of the station you would hold in society or the abilities and fortunes you might be dealt.

Why? Because our social consciousness informs our opinions and actions and we are prisoners of our thoughts and experiences. We empathise mostly with those we can relate to. We act in self-interest, look out for ourselves.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if our elites had to agree on rules with the knowledge that they’d have to swap roles with others? Generals, judges, politicos, lawyers, journalists, businessmen agreeing upon rules that govern everyone, while not knowing what role they’d be required to play after the rules are agreed upon? And then add the further twist: elites to be required to agree on rules with no knowledge whether after the role swap they’d be part of the elite or part of the ordinary.

At some point in the evolution of our state’s compact with the citizen, it became the citizens’ responsibility to protect the freedom of the state. It was the state’s rights and freedom that were to be protected at the expense of the citizens’. Take the missing person’s case as an example. The citizens’ right to liberty – a constitutional right that is least mentioned in our jurisprudence – and fair trial had to be sacrificed to protect the state’s right.

If the state had curtailed the individual rights and liberties of some but had in turn secured the collective rights and interests of the rest, there might have been an argument backed by record to show that curtailment of the rights of some promotes interests of the whole. That has not happened. Thus, at some point the upper middle class and upper class concluded that they would need to act on a self-help basis: hire guards, drill water bores, install generators and UPSs etc. So they did.

We have concluded that the state doesn’t have the capacity or the will to protect rights and provide the services it is responsible for. For the masses, losses lie where they fall. They don’t have the means to fend for themselves. Their access to rights and services rests on chance – the philanthropy of the haves. The upper class has the money to provide for itself. But the upper middle class, which has power but not all the money it wants, is most affected by the pain of a failing state and rising costs.

The current activism in the name of protecting the interests of the average citizen is in effect a tug-of-war between the upper class and the upper middle class. The argument here isn’t that there is conspiracy or considered action by the upper middle-class power elite against the moneyed elite. It is just a cause-and-effect argument. In the good old days when the upper middle-class power elite was gaining consciousness, the state was able to provide basic services.

Let’s take Islamabad’s example. Whether you were part of the upper class or the upper middle class, you went to ICB/ICG in the 70s and 80s. If you were lower middle class you went to Model Schools. If you were upper middle class, Poly Clinic provided the best healthcare available. Tap water was potable. You could boil it out of abundant caution. Those who came back from foreign trips would astonishingly explain how a water bottle is as expensive as Coke in the West.

You didn’t have large private hospitals because there wasn’t a need. You didn’t have bottled water stacked in grocery stores because there wasn’t a need or demand for that. You didn’t have private schools as the go-to means of education because public schools had the capacity and the ability to educate. The rich might have used elite private hospitals, schools and bottled water, but the upper middle class (which had power but no extra money to spare) didn’t need it.

The state’s ability and desire to provide services has experienced a meltdown. Today, the upper middle class doesn’t wish to suffer a Poly Clinic. If a loved one is in need of medical services and you hold their lives dear, you’ll head to a private hospital. No one from the upper middle class seeks admission in ICB. You’ll admit your kid to a private school. Thus, it is the quality of service or cost at the private hospital and private school that is of concern, not that at a Poly Clinic or ICB.

The price of bottled water has been making headlines. We have been told how ensuring provision of cheap bottled water is a fundamental right that is to be protected. But whose fundamental right is it? Household penetration of bottled water is approximately five percent of our population. The price of bottled water isn’t what keeps the average citizen up at night. He can’t afford it. He doesn’t drink it. The upper middle class does and appreciates cheaper water and the SC’s activism in this regard.

Many water companies that supply piped water in counties in the United States will send you lab results (along with the water bill) certifying the quality of tap water to confirm that it is fit for drinking. Those who live in Karachi explain how they have to buy water tankers for everyday use. Even those in Islamabad worry about the supply of piped water, let alone its quality. But there is little activism and ear-pulling on the quality of the piped water supplied by the state to the masses.

The same goes for public hospitals. Inspections of private hospitals in full media glare and the price of their services have made headlines. The thoughtfulness of the SC in taking to task evil money-minting hospitals cannot be appreciated enough. No one should set up a hospital to make a profit. Only those who wish to serve their fellow beings should. But does the average Joe care? He can’t afford private healthcare or the services private hospitals have been asked to subsidise.

We who belong to the upper middle class made a realistic assessment at some point, maybe subconsciously, that fixing the state or relying on its ability/intent to secure our rights is foolhardy. The obvious solution to fixing the problem of overcharging and underperforming private hospitals and schools is performing public hospitals and schools that provide free or subsidized healthcare and education. But we know fixing the state and public policy takes time and effort.

Why not opt for the more realistic and immediate-term solution of forcing other private citizens (who are richer and can afford to subsidise fellow citizens) to provide us the services we need at prices we like. Doesn’t our constitution’s Article 3 demand this: “from each according to his ability to each according to his work”? After all, medicine and education (or water provision) shouldn’t be about making profits. They should be about service. The money minded can go do other things.

But there are some wrinkles in this line of reasoning. One, fixing the cost of services such as health and education in the private sector by arbitrary direction (ie such-and-such must be done at such-and-such price) instead of regulation (ie breaking down barriers to entry to increase the supply of required services, and providing a market mechanism to regulate price together with regulatory oversight to ensure quality) doesn’t do anything for the masses that can’t afford private health or education.

Running numbers on the percentage of our population that uses elite private hospitals and schools would produce an instructive picture. It might turn out that through such direction the upper class, engaged in provision of the services required and desired by the upper middle class, is being forced to subsidise the cost of such private services for the benefit of the latter. What this doesn’t do is address the health and education nightmare confronting the masses.

Two, capital and savings fly wherever they are safe and not threatened by legal and political uncertainty. After 9/11, expat Pakistanis felt unsafe and invested some savings in Pakistan’s real estate as a backup – resulting in a boom here. Many who work and live in Pakistan, and love it, invest elsewhere because of the risk of uncertainty their savings and capital face here. The courts’ enthusiasm for price fixing and intervention in businesses will exacerbate such uncertainty.

In due course, the unintended consequences of such activism will drown momentary middle-class euphoria. Robin hoods make for popular fairytales. But even there they are helping the poor.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

Email: sattar@post.harvard.edu

Babar Sattar, "Robin with a twist," The News. 2018-12-15.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Social needs , Social aspects , Economic growth , Economic issues , Economic policy , National issues , John Rawls , ICB , ICG