Feisal Naqvi

The logic of nonzero

In Uncategorized on February 5, 2008 at 4:02 am

In game theory terms, our basic mentality within Pakistan is that life is a zero-sum game: if somebody else is winning then I must be losing. If somebody else has money, then I must be worse off

There is an old joke told with much relish by Pakistanis about a visitor to hell being given a guided tour. The visitor is taken to various locked rooms where people of different nationalities are being tortured and punished. When the tour reaches the Pakistani dungeon, the visitor notices that there is no door to prevent the prisoners from escaping and asks his guide about this curious omission. “Oh,” says the guide, “We don’t need to guard the Pakistanis. Every time one of them looks like he is getting out, the others pull him back in.”

The joke may be lousy but it says much about our national psyche and our national predicament. And this is not just an abstract question of social psychology. This is an aspect of our lives that is deeply problematic.

People often ask why is it that the same Pakistanis who make model citizens in other countries are so unproductive in their own country. While that is a complex issue, one of the reasons, which affects how people respond and perform relates to how they view their environment.

In simple terms, when an average Pakistani in Pakistan looks at a successful person, his first reaction is that the successful person is not too different from himself. His second thought is that the successful person must be a crook of some undefined sort. His third thought is resentment of the “fact” that the crook has stolen the share which rightfully belonged to him. And his fourth reaction is to start plotting how to get “his” share back.

Conversely, when the same Pakistani immigrates to New York or London and sees a successful person (or successful fellow immigrant), his first reaction is still that the successful person is not too different from himself. But crucially, his second thought is that he too can be successful if he works hard.

In game theory terms, our basic mentality within Pakistan is that life is a zero-sum game: if somebody else is winning then I must be losing. If somebody else has money, then I must be worse off.

Conversely, the second approach to life found more often outside Pakistan is nonzero. In other words, the fundamental assumption is that we can all be better off with nobody being made worse off.

Admittedly, my observations are gross oversimplifications and entirely unscientific. But let me ask you a question: how many times have you met or heard of a successful businessman and thought, “If only I work hard, I can be successful like him”? And how many times have you heard somebody tell you that some successful person was actually a fraud, that his family was a bunch of thieves, and that he had accumulated his fortune by bribing all and sundry?

One classic example of the latter approach can be seen in the book penned by the son of the late General Iskander Mirza, “From Plassey to Pakistan”. In that book, the author repeatedly describes Ayub Khan as “the son of a sowar.” Now, say what you like about the late Field Marshal, but he was not only the son of a trumpeter: he was also a graduate of Sandhurst, a well read and educated man, and the President of Pakistan for the better part of a decade.

The reason why these approaches matter is because they fundamentally affect the way people interact in life. If I believe that life is a zero-sum game, I will not help anybody and I will spend a significant portion of time trying to screw over anybody who gets near me or my business.

The only time I will go out of my way to help somebody will be if I believe that I am immune to attack or if I already have so much that I don’t care about making more, both of which are rare events. On the other hand, if I believe that life is a nonzero game, I will be willing to cooperate with others on the assumption that we can all succeed together.

All this is good in theory but can we change social attitudes? At one level, changing social attitudes towards wealth will be difficult unless we change the nature of wealth. For most people in Pakistan, wealth means land. Land is a zero-sum resource. If you have more land, I have less. Fortunately, land is no longer the only form of wealth. But it will take a long time and a lot of social change before people stop thinking about wealth in old ways.

What then can be done in the meantime? Well, there came a time in the late 1970s when the late Deng Xiaoping made the statement “to get rich is glorious”. That statement may stick in the craw of our peculiar brand of limousine liberals who drive from rally to rally in well-cushioned comfort, but I don’t think we have any option but to accept the desire for worldly success as a valid choice.

If we stick to zero-sum politics, elections will always be about getting more for our own group as opposed to getting more for everyone. And until that happens, Pakistanis will continue to be their own worst enemies.


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