Can I trust this person?

Tomorrow, May 10, we vote for people who, we hope, will lead our nation to a better future.  Many remain undecided because while their instincts incline them toward certain candidates, their conscience and/or intellect compel them to override their intuitions.

There is nothing extraordinary in this.  We often start with a basic attraction or dislike for persons. This is usually rooted in some past experience of which we may be largely unconscious.  Intuitions have their own history. We feel good when our conscience and intellect agree with our instincts.  We feel miserable when they clash.

Some prefer that conscience be the final arbiter of how we should act, forgetting that even the voice of conscience itself can be subjected to a test of validity. Others choose the rational way, unaware that rationality itself is premised on certain values. In both instances, the thinking process is served well when we are clear about our values.

In considering the life of nations, I have personally found useful as a tool for validating political intuitions a framework that revolves around the idea of growth as a value. Thus I am convinced that the leaders we are looking for particularly in these elections are those who can rescue our nation from the stagnation in which it has been mired in the last 20 years.

The lack of growth is most obvious in our economic life. Any independent observer will tell us that we’ve been living way beyond our means.  Our large external and budget deficits, especially in the last three years, and our ballooning foreign debt attest to this.  The degrading poverty of about 70% of Filipino households, most of whom live on less than $2 a day, shows the extent of this economic stagnation. The high unemployment rate at home and the desperate rush of many of our people for menial jobs abroad testify to the fundamental weakness of our economy.  We are not producing enough wealth to take care of even the most minimal needs of our rapidly expanding population.

Our political life is equally stunted.  Our capacity to govern ourselves, to set goals for the nation, solve its recurrent problems, and engage the energy of every citizen in the attainment of collective goals is very much in doubt.  We continue to look to America for help and guidance in solving our basic problems.  Eighteen years after overthrowing the Marcos dictatorship, we have not moved beyond the restoration of the dysfunctional democracy that Martial Law dismantled in 1972. Political dynasties maintain a virtual grip on political power at the local level. The rule of law is trumped at every step by the powerful levers of a personalistic system run by patronage.  Our electoral system is one of the most chaotic and unreliable in this part of the world. Our formal institutions, borrowed wholesale from the West, are not animated by the moral intuitions of our people.

Our cultural life, or what passes for it, is an infantile copy of American pop culture.  The models and sources of identity of young Filipinos come almost entirely from American showbiz.  Our people’s selfunderstanding bears little relationship, if any, to the nation’s heroic past or to an imagined moral destiny.  Our traditions have become less and less a source of meaning in everyday life.  Our educational system does not produce courageous Filipinos raring to build their country but only trained personnel destined for a global market.

Growth does not come naturally to nations.  The first impediment to growth has always been lack of unity. That is why the great leaders in history are those who are remembered as the unifiers of their people. They gathered the strength of their people and gave it a focus.  Such leaders were themselves exemplary human beings who acted out of a consciousness of national purpose. They demanded no less from their people.

None of the late-developing nations, whose economic achievements we admire and envy – Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, China – succeeded without harnessing the power of a strong interventionist state.  Far from subsuming national planning to the blind will of the market, the willful leaders of these nations used every power of the state to build capability, maximize opportunity, and democratize access to the basic necessities of life.

Economic growth is paramount because it is the key to solving the problem of poverty that lies at the root of the internal conflicts that divide nations.  The conventional wisdom up to this time is that latedeveloping countries cannot achieve growth without becoming authoritarian.  We are surrounded by nations that seem to support this view.  Yet our experience with the Marcos dictatorship tells us a different story.  It is difficult to imagine, given our experience, that we will ever again allow a dictator to tyrannize the whole nation.

Perhaps what we are looking for are not leaders we can fear but leaders we can trust – leaders who can unify the country by their wisdom, integrity, and deep sense of duty.  I don’t think we should be looking for messiahs.  In these complex times, in a society as big as ours, no leader can govern without the trust and uncoerced support of a unified people.  As I said at the beginning, it is always a good habit to search for a rational basis for our intuitions, but in the end, when we choose leaders, the bottom line is unavoidably intuitive: Can I trust this person?


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