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I was fortunate enough to spend the past month shadowing one of Pakistan’s leading constitutional lawyers (For privacy’s sake, I will omit his name). A talented jurist, he would roll into court with reams of case law, a thick folder – containing the petition, affidavits, counter-affidavits, rejoinders, what have you – and an excellent memory. He would dazzle some judges and piss off others with his often novel theories about why such and such law was ultra vires or unconstitutional. As I sat there in the hot and stuffy court rooms of the High Court, I noticed that the majority of his cases and those of other prominent lawyers were about taxes. The clients had been taxed too much, or the clients simply didn’t want to pay some taxes, so they went to lawyers to figure out ways to avoid paying them. Given the poor drafting, implementation and execution of laws, it goes without saying that the lawyers didn’t have too much trouble striking down seemingly valid taxes.

What’s happening in the courts is just the tip of the iceberg. These are some of the bigger players in the Pakistani economy, and they can’t easily escape the scrutiny of the Federal Board of Revenue, the national tax collector. They, at the least, are seeking a legal way of avoiding taxes. While there are about three million registered taxpayers in Pakistan, only about two million – about 1.1 percent of the entire population – file tax returns. That number excludes the fact that most of those taxpayers do not declare significant parts of their income by way of complex legal maneuvering, tax code loopholes, or simple misrepresentation. If a tax investigator starts asking questions, a bribe can usually make him look the other way.

Nobody anywhere likes paying taxes. There’s a saying, attributed to American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, that encapsulates this universal antipathy: Nothing is certain but death and taxes. But in Pakistan, the former is almost always assured and the latter is rarely certain.

The scope of the Pakistani tax problem has recently amplified, as the country experiences historically high inflation (14.5%, according to official figures. The true figure is perhaps a few percentage points higher). Pakistan relies on foreign aid for a large chunk of its budget at a time when it’s struggling to reassert its sovereignty and to forge an independent foreign policy. And as long as it continues to rely on American aid to prop up its institutions, the Pakistani government cannot reasonably assert any sovereignty. This has lead members of the Pakistani media to demand the political leadership to increase the tax base. Almost daily now, a news talkshow host will decry the the woeful neglect of the taxation system. The problem, however, isn’t a lack of a well developed taxation bureaucracy. Pakistan’s FBR is descended from the British Empire’s Indian Civil Service’s efficient structure, and today is a modern, functioning organization. The problem, as Emma Duncan identified in her book Breaking the Curfew, published in 1989, is that Pakistanis simply don’t want to pay taxes. She noted that a study of the country’s tax system found no shortcomings in the bureaucracy’s management or its structure. So then we’re left to ask: why don’t Pakistanis want to pay taxes?

During a major tax case involving billions of rupees and hundreds of businesses in the province of Sindh, the judge interrupted the businesses’ lawyers as they presented their initial oral arguments. He went on a tirade about how prominent lawyers come into his court room everyday to challenge the validity of tax laws. He then pointed out the stark contrast between Pakistan and India’s tax revenue to GDP ratio. India’s is a modest 18%, but Pakistan’s lags at an inadequate 9%, he said. The two countries inherited the same tax bureaucracy structure, and yet the difference is significant.

Mosharraf Zaidi, of The News, has authored an insightful op-ed, offering an explanation for the high rate of tax avoidance in Pakistan. He argues that the disconnect stems from the lack of a social contract:

Pakistan is a state and society operating without a modern social contract. The state exists and persists without a linear fiscal relationship with the people. In plain English, the state is unaccountable to the people of Pakistan because the people of Pakistan do not pay taxes. The state doesn’t “owe” the people any services, or answers, and the people don’t feel that they owe the state any money.

It’s the chicken and the egg conundrum. Pakistanis do not pay taxes because the state is not accountable. And the state does not feel accountable to the citizenry because they do not foot its bill. There is no social contract to bind the two. It’s a compelling argument, and anecdotally, it’s constantly affirmed when you ask Pakistanis why they don’t pay taxes. The common response invokes corruption: if we pay, then it goes to the pockets of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, so why bother. But I’m not entirely convinced that corruption alone is the problem. Take, for example, India, a state that’s equally corrupt. Yet, India manages to recuperate almost twice the percentage of tax in relation to GDP.

Above, I mapped out the tax revenue to GDP ratio figures (courtesy: Heritage Foundation) of about 167 countries against Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. I found a Pearson correlation coefficient of around 0.497, indicating a positive correlation between tax revenue to GDP and corruption. This reflects a medium strength of association. Of course, this test should be taken with a grain of salt. It doesn’t, for instance, account for the real figure we should be measuring: the tax gap, that is, the estimated difference between the tax owed and the tax paid per jurisdiction. Tax revenue to GDP is but a rough measure of the tax gap; it assumes that there is a general positive relationship between tax owed and tax paid, and that this gap is universal. And it isn’t. But what this graph does show us is that there is some relation between the perceived corruption in a country and its citizens’ willingness to pay tax.

And this supports Mosharraf’s original contention. The social contract is not just about corruption, however. It creates that abstract link of faith between the government and its citizens that if the citizens pay taxes, then the government will deliver. I concur that Pakistanis lack that abstract faith in government. Despite the roaring popular nationalism that floods airwaves and television screens, Pakistanis, like anyone group of people, ultimately vote with their wallets. And this aversion to paying taxes is about more than corruption. It’s reflective of a state in taters and a people with no confidence their leaders. We are then to conclude with a twist on an old adage: without taxation, there can be no representation.

Michael Cohen thinks journalists are bad foreign policy analysts, taking aim at one particularly pathetic example of journalism — Tom Friedman. He accuses Friedman and other journalists of over-dramatizing.

I feel like it’s endemic in the profession – a propensity to make grand simplistic pronouncements based on anecdotal experiences rather than rigorous analysis. Granted this is a problem in not just foreign policy, but it seems particularly bad in this field. Maybe its because foreign correspondents are seen to have some sort of unique insight; when in fact the opposite is quite likely true because they are basing their analysis on immediate experience rather than actual historical or cultural study. Or maybe it’s the difficulty that journalists face in getting to the heart of a story – a point bravely raised here by Jerome Starkey in regard to Western coverage of NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan.

Cohen’s main argument is that journalists gain an exaggerated picture of reality by relying on anecdote — which their jobs often requires — over academic study. I don’t think I’d make as sweeping a statement as he does. Robert Fisk is a prime example of a journalist who both tells good stories and understands cultural and historical nuance. Even academics fall victim to the Manicheanism Cohen blames on journalists. Case in point: neoconservatives.

My dear friend and confidante Allison McNeely wades into a sticky debate with her latest post, “Let’s avoid ethnocentric solutions to women’s issues.” Commenting on The Daily Beast founder Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit, Allison asks, “Do we really know how to improve the lives of women in Saudi Arabia or India?” She raises an important question: is the liberal democratic framework a) ethnocentric, and b) can it apply to all. Essentially, do we consider liberal democracy truly universal or is it particular to Western societies.

This is the debate Francis Fukuyama ignited in writing his treatise, The End of History and the Last Man. Does modernity necessarily mean an inevitable progression towards Western-style liberal democracy? Or can we have separate modernities, shaped by the peoples of the developing world themselves?

Allison would rather have women from the developing world organize such conferences, instead of the seemingly patronizing efforts of Western feminists, who she sees as ethnocentrists imposing their ideas on the rest. While I see the merit in the separate paths thesis, I do think that historical progress in developing societies will require engagement with the West. Liberal democracy to me isn’t simply an cultural order or political tradition particular to the West, but a universal ideal. I say this because liberal democracy as we understand it is not rooted in Christendom or the history of Western civilization alone; it is the product of the Enlightenment.

It signifies the triumph of human reason and scientific principles over mysticism and the Church, a sort of scientific revolution for government. In other words, liberal democracy is a technological innovation–albeit a political technology–that allows societies to better organize themselves and to arrive at rational, peaceful government. Just as the scientific inventions of the Enlightenment have been adopted by developing societies, so too must the governmental inventions of the Enlightenment–if developing societies hope to mimic the progress of the West.

There’s a lot of nostalgia for the Musharraf years in Pakistan these days. With a blithering idiot for a president, Pakistanis are questioning if democracy can ever be viable in their long forsaken country. For most political scientists, the debate over democracy versus dictatorship is a theoretical one; for Pakistanis, and many in the developing world, the debate is palpable, even material. Enter Ghazia Aslam and Wasim Q. Malik, two academics, who try to flesh out the debate–and complicate it a little more.

They argue that the literature review on the debate is inconclusive. In fact, they think it’s largely irrelevant. What matters are institutions:

We can therefore conclude that it is the presence of specific institutions, and not the form of government, that affects economic development and access to basic facilities. These institutions can be established in both democratic and non-democratic regimes and there is no reason to believe that all the democracies would establish these institutions.

As a liberal democrat, I firmly believe that democracies are best capable of providing the institutional infrastructure to promote individual and social well-being, but I’m willing to concede that matters aren’t always so black-and-white as I hope they are.

Randall Schweller of Ohio State has an ambitious and compelling essay in the latest National Interest. I’m far too tired to dissect it, but the basic idea goes: the international system is in a state of entropy–that is, chaos upon which no order can be imposed–and that the consequence of this increasingly chaotic world is the individualization of politics–meaning that as states lose power, individuals become the centre of politics, and they are radicalized. The essay is ambitious because, in explaining the coming ennui and individualization of politics, it covers the rise of Islamic extremism, our youtube-social media age, the preference for cable opinion over cable news, the decline of the unipolar world, and the economic competition between the rising powers. It definitely has the seeds of a bestseller.

Of course, it has its flaws, the most apparent being the failure to adequately explain why we’re at “the end of history,” so to speak–why we’re at the ultimate point of chaos? Aren’t international systems always anarchic and in flux? He argues that we’re now in a “closed system,” in which we’ve reached the limits of knowledge and expanse. Globalization over the past hundred years created “a closed system susceptible to increasing entropy when it subsumed the entire earth, such that nothing remained outside of it.” Maybe.

It’s Christmas eve, and like (almost) every year I decided to watch a Christmas classic. I settled on the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street. The movie is as endearing and cheery as I remember it. What struck me most this time, however, was the overtly Straussian theme. Straussianism is the school of political philosophy based on the ideas of the late Leo Strauss, a University of Chicago professor and philosophical guide to many future neoconservatives.

In the interest of full disclosure, my understanding of Straussian thought comes from secondary sources. But it has two clear propositions: firstly, that liberalism–and its single-minded pursuit of individual liberty–leads to relativism, which then inevitably leads to tyranny; secondly, that polities require what Plato called “noble lies”–that is, binding mythologies, irrespective of fact or truth, to keep societies cohesive.

Miracle on 34th Street indicts the godless, secular, materialistic elite for their obsession with truth and their acrimonious disregard for society and the family. The movie centres on a court case before Judge Henry Harper, who must decide whether or not a man claiming to be Santa Claus is indeed Kris Kringle, and whether Santa Claus actually exists. The judge is at first swayed by a bribe from a cynical state prosecutor and his wealthy backer, the CEO of a large, corporate department store chain. Henry Harper is also unconvinced that he can support the existence of a fictitious being before a court of law, where evidence and fact reign supreme. But–spoiler alert!–in the end the judge rules in favour of Santa. He does so because a little girl, Susan Walker, presents him a Christmas card in which she placed a one dollar bill. She circled the phrase “In God We Trust.” The old judge tears up his previous judgment and announces that yes, indeed, there is a Santa Claus and that the man before him is Santa. He reasons that if the collective majority of the American people can permit their government to place its trust in God, for whom there is no evidence, then the state of New York can surely place its trust in the existence of Santa Claus. Judge Harper knew that believing in Santa Claus–even if he did not exist–was important to keep the children happy.

How very Straussian of him. The children, who represent the masses, must be fed noble lies to preserve the polity. God too is a noble lie that preserves faith in the polity and provides the moral constraint to allow for social stability.

Another thread in the plot–that of the marriage of Bryan Bedford and Dorey Walker, Susie’s mom–further unveils the Straussian ideals behind the movie. At the beginning, Dorey Walker is a jaded, successful, and single mother, who teaches her child not to believe in Santa Claus and rarely, if ever, attends church. But Bryan changes all that. When he is invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the Walker’s apartment, he insists on saying grace. He convinces Susie to believe in Santa again. And he proposes to Dorey and marries her in the end. Bryan represents the man who is comfortable living the noble lie, because he understands that true happiness rests on the bedrock of myth and family. It is the noble lie of the nuclear family and its faith in God and the myths of Protestant, Anglo-Saxon America that preserve it and ensure its survival.

Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues in FP’s Nov/Dev 2009 issue that the American empire should adopt the milder grand strategy of the Byzantines. (I have immediate doubts about the historical validity of such a thing as Byzantine grand strategy. For one, how does an empire that spans eight centuries maintain a somewhat cohesive strategy? No mad Caligulas in Constantinople? Just who gets to decide such a thing anyway? And the bigger question: to what extent is the behaviour of empires conditioned by their particularities in time and space? In other words, couldn’t the Byzantines’ grand strategy be understood more in terms of where they were, when they were?)

On the whole, the advice given is typical realist (Stephen Walt) talk–don’t fight wars you don’t need to; the fewer military engagements, the greater your power; and intelligence and diplomacy do have a considerable effect on power relations.

If you’re going to heed his advice, I’d caution you: do we really want to be associated with an empire that is today synonymous with the word devious and lived a largely inglorious existence?

As I was doing my morning rounds of checking the front pages of the seven newspapers that I find interesting, looking for a blog topic, one to get me all riled up: Dawn did not disappoint. Jawed Naqvi’s article entitled ‘Is Nationalism a Challenge for India?’ meanders through several topics, including nationalism, religion and violence. But what really got me going was the fact that he was equating Indian nationalism with Hindu nationalism and how people of minority religions (Muslims in particular) in India can never truly belong.

Okay, so I identify as an Indian but I study nationalism as an academic interest and think of myself as quite the internationalist, which was why I was so surprised to realize that I was having quite the visceral reaction to this (supposed) affront to the India, which I was reading as a personal attack on me and people like me. Nationalism has far too many times come to be equated with extremism and loyalty to a group in which all members have the same inborn characteristics. I believe Indian nationalism is of a different breed. Indian nationalism is the direct result of the Indian freedom struggle, starting from the beginning of the late nineteenth century, based on a narrative of self-determination against the colonial power. Hindu nationalism on the other hand is a form of ethnonationalism that relies on religion to define the ingroup-outgroup distinctions. I see Hindu nationalism as having picked up more mainstream support over the last few decades, with the organisation of political parties and movements based on the religious identity. Given the extremely different origins and motivations of these two examples of nationalism, I find it not only offensive but also blatantly incorrect to bandy it about as the same thing.

Trust me, I don’t think that India is nearly as secular as it thinks it is. Its like Christianity in the United States: Come election time, every Presidential candidate has to prove that they are not faithless pagans (like TIME running Belief-O-Meter readings for all the primary candidates of both parties). In India, non-Hindu candidates have to show the many ways that they are tolerant and some even adhere to Hindu customs to seem more accessible to the Hindu majority. There is religious persecution in some areas but for the most part India does follow the ideal of secularism. For one, the right to practice any religion is guaranteed by the Constitution and is protected by the courts. Secularism is one of the founding ideals of India as a modern political entity, championed by Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the founding fathers as well as a guiding force behind moving India from a disjointed set of peoples to a regional power. India may not be perfect, but I still believe it stands as an anomaly of a successful democracy though every pre-condition for democracies seems to be missing. And as vital to Indian democracy is Indian secularism, enshrining the rights of the individual in the fundamental area of expression, personal choice and practice especially as Western democracies are becoming more and more intolerant of religious expression.

Now, that’s Indian nationalism.

Robert Kaplan proffers a deceptively appealing argument that is a basic summary of Samuel Huntington’s thesis in Political Order in Changing Societies. He argues against the American (or broadly, Western) “[belief] that the way to develop [legitimate national] institutions is by holding elections and establishing democracy.” Instead, Kaplan thinks the authoritarian approach, as exemplified in Taiwan, South Korea and Chile, is the better way. It calls for, first, establishing institutions and government writ and then building responsive, democratic institutions. This is a soothing and easy solution to the problems of developing countries: why not just support authoritarian regimes and expect democracies to flow out of them later?

Alas, what Kaplan discounts are the numerous examples of authoritarian governments that have failed to develop stable societies and advance global security despite Hobbesian authority. If you consider the cases of Myanmmar, North Korea and Iran, where brutal regimes show little signs of budging–whilst also posing international security concerns (nukes, etc.)–you become skeptical of the idea that authoritarian rule is a panacea for fragile societies. Developing countries in Africa and Central Asia do need stronger institutions but supporting dictatorships will yield little in the way of a safer world or more stable societies. The better bet is to continue pushing for democratic reform and yet recognize that the world is indeed an ugly place.

An apt metaphor that underlines the flawed approach of not allowing democracy its course to take place: If you rip out a planted tree from its roots every so often to check if it’s grown, then it’ll never grow. That is, if you disrupt the course of democracy, don’t expect it to grow.