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Is the government made up entirely of politicians?

October 20, 2010
Worth reading from last week: on the popular belief that private sector can do no harm while public sector is not to be trusted (obviously I’m generalizing, and recognize that the statement only holds true to a certain extent.)

“What is clear, whether it’s with the Tea Party in the U.S., or Tims voters in Canada, is that populism is maybe the pre-eminent force in North American politics right now — and that it’s inextricably tied to consumerism and the market.

Thomas Frank, the U.S. journalist and author of the acclaimed What’s the Matter with Kansas, underlined the Tea Party’s connection to the marketplace in a discussion last week on CBC Radio’s The Current. Frank noted that even though the unregulated market actually caused the deep recession in the United States, populists still see it as the cure-all for political ills.

“This is ordinarily the sort of situation where people turn dramatically against markets and against capitalism,” he said. Yet the Tea Partiers still hold up the marketplace as vastly superior to government, Frank said.

In Canada, the “Tim Hortons voters” are seen as more averse to politics than government. But that seems to have driven even more politicians to the doughnut shops, looking for votes.”

The problem, at least to me, is that people usually think that government is limited to politics – they are unable to distinguish between the actors and the system, unwilling perhaps to distinguish between players and the game. If something goes wrong in the country, it is the government’s fault, immediately. Perhaps, yes. But is it necessarily the politician’s fault? Is every politician to be held responsible for every faux pas by the government of the day? Or on the flip side, is the government to be blamed every time an individual messes up?

I have often been called a Zardari defender for saying that the Pakistani government cannot be entirely blamed for the disaster of the floods, for example, yet the concept is not that hard to understand. The government is not made up of rainmakers (although it might be wonderful if it were!) and Parliament did not conspire to sabotage dykes during the floods; indeed, it is trying to punish them (as if,eh?)

Arguably of course the government hasn’t done much, if anything, to bolster its image, but my argument is that this provides all the more reason for so-called concerned citizens to try and fix it – not from the outside, but from within. If corruption is a cancer, then it will not be removed solely through criticism (radiation). Chemotherapy is crucial too – and in this context, it is joining the public service.

Almost always, the private sector is preferred to the public one and that is one of the great tragedies of our times, because both need to work well for society to improve. When people ignore and demean the public sector, they do so at their own loss, whether short term or long term. In fact, everyone gets hurt when the government sucks. but few people try to improve it – they’re too busy pointing out the weaknesses (that are often actually symptoms of greater diseases themselves).

People are disillusioned by politics, but they take that cynicism to the government – and the government is made up of more than just politicians. It is made up of thousands of public servants (0r ‘the bureaucacy) who wield enormous control over the day to day functioning of the government apparatus and have considerable discretion in the use of their powers. As Mosharraf Zaidi says in this examination of technocrats: “The sustenance and vitality of change and reform in Pakistan is wholly dependent on this country’s civil service.

Fifty Fifty provides a good illustration of how corruption in Pakistan is not a characteristic of any specific government, but the symptom of a deeper societal problem.

My point ultimately is that people in Pakistan cannot pin all the blame on politicians: neither for the state of affairs in the country, nor for the failures of the government (and those two are interlinked but separate). If you truly care, then move beyond blanket criticism and be the change you wish to see in Gulistan e Johar, Iqbal Town, and F-10. You could do worse than begin to distinguish between the good and bad actors within the different spheres of government.

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