Government and the rule of law

Often we trace the problems of our society to government’s inability to establish the rule of law, forgetting that the functions of government are far broader.  Law is only one of several means at the disposal of government to achieve its ends.  These ends include the production of wealth in sufficient quantity, and the provision of adequate means of subsistence to the population so that it may flourish.

The equation of government with rule of law goes back to a time when the main concern of rulers was to establish their sovereignty over a given territory, protect it, and secure the loyalty of its inhabitants. Machiavelli’s prince exemplified the situation of such rulers. The first lesson they learned was to identify the dangers to their rule.  It helped of course that the ruler was a wise and prudent figure and was accepted by his subjects, but this was not his paramount concern.  Sovereignty rather than the art of government was what preoccupied him.

Modern societies have come a long way from this feudal model of political rule.  The later concept of a constitutional state drew from the notion of a social contract freely entered into by governors and the governed.  In this context, rule of law meant the exercise of political power by rulers in accordance with the constitution. But while it is no longer fixated with sovereignty, this concept however also fails to incorporate the managerial functions that we equate today with the administration of a population and its resources.  The new knowledge that this model of government required, according to Michel Foucault, dealt with “questions that were termed precisely ‘statistics,’ meaning the science of the state.”

This modern state gathers all kinds of information about the population not to perfect its subjugation but to determine the best way to plan and promote its well-being and growth.  The modern state’s orientation is distinctly pragmatic and avoids relying on first principles to justify its policies and programs.  It follows no preordained path based on some transcendental or divine law.  But it is a believer in the value of up-to-date information on the general state of the population.

One finds that in such societies, instruments of surveillance like a national identification system developed not as explicit methods of social control but as by-products of various approaches to national planning and service delivery.  In itself, a national ID system is not a bad idea.  It would greatly facilitate the achievement of the administrative functions of the state.

Its abuse however is greatest in countries like ours where tensions and conflicts arising from great disparities in life chances threaten national security.  Here it is dossiers on “dangerous persons” that are of utmost interest to the state rather than systematic information on the quality of life of the general population.  An insecure government will likely spend more time watching its back and gathering intelligence on its enemies than monitoring the overall state of its population through demographic trends.

All this tends to show that notwithstanding the modernity of our institutional structures and laws, our progress as a nation is still hampered by the feudal mindset of our leaders and people.  The exercise of political power in our society remains trapped in the world of Machiavelli’s prince, where rulers spend their time ensuring their hold on power rather than guiding the ship of state.  The vast masses of our people continue to think of themselves as subjects to be looked after rather than as citizens who must claim a meaningful role in their own government.

It is sad to see our people sometimes being portrayed as an ignorant and recalcitrant mass because they seem unable to follow simple laws.  Sidewalk vendors who block public space are a case in point. While I applaud Metro Manila Development Authority chief Bayani Fernando’s determination to enforce the law, it appalls me that public officials should prioritize the strict enforcement of ordinances over the general uplift of the people’s condition.  Again I go back to my original observation that we seem to fatally equate governance with lawenforcement.

If the poorest of our people behave like that, it can only be because our leaders have kept them that way – they have profited from their political infantilism and economic vulnerability.  Our entire political practice is built around these givens.  Bayani Fernando has captured our imagination because he dared to go against the grain of this practice.  But he is too narrowly focused and lacks the authority to provoke any enduring change in the system.

Our model of governance remains colonial in the sense that the primary concern of our leaders is to secure acquiescence to power rather than to develop the population.  In many ways our government is still engaged in the unfinished task of pacification.  It is not strange that our people have responded by creating an intricate culture of obsequiousness and dependence, punctuated by occasional outbursts of rebelliousness.

What we should work for is the rebirth of citizenship through the cultivation of self-reliance and the recovery of self-esteem.  The last thing we need today is a society of surveillance epitomized by a national ID system.  What we urgently need is a government that takes the collection of population statistics seriously as a basis of national planning.


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