Dealing with state failure

Next to banks, telecommunication companies, and shopping malls, the most profitable business in the country today is the private security agency.  No other country in the world, except maybe unstable Iraq, hires so many private security personnel.

“Blue guards,” as we call them, are everywhere, providing countless homes and neighborhoods, firms and offices that singular service that is supposedly the state’s primordial function – personal security. Their number is twice the size of the country’s standing army and police. Their existence, and the rising demand for their services, is the clearest proof of a failed state.

The privatization of security, alongside the privatization of basic education and basic health services, in a society sharply divided by extremes in wealth and poverty, poses the question – what for do we need a state? It is a question that has acquired even more saliency in the context of the government’s worsening fiscal and debt situation.

Should the public, that theoretically owns the state, do something to save it from its present woes?  Should citizens dig into their private savings, offer their jewelry, or give up their incomes so that the state would be able to pay its debts?  Or, feeling so alienated from the state and having no care for what happens to it, should it allow it to sink in its present problems and prepare the way for its reconstitution.

The answer depends on our individual and collective experience with the state.  I think a lot of Filipinos today would be inclined to think that the present state has either betrayed or abandoned them.  They see it not as the agent of their collective will, the protector of their interests or guarantor of their children’s future, but merely the milking cow of a privileged few.

The poor think the state has not done enough to secure their basic needs and redress the basic inequalities of our society.  The middle class and the rich think that, because of corruption and incompetence, the state is not doing enough to protect their homes and property.  No matter how one looks at it, this state of affairs is not conducive to the discharge of the obligations of citizenship.

The informed among us may see the urgency for a collective approach to the nation’s financial problems. But, aware that these problems will not go away unless they are attacked at their roots, they are also wary of trusting the present officials of the state to do the right thing.  This is ironic because we have just been through a national election.

It is not to say we are not already paying for the state’s incompetence and corruption in the form of a devalued currency and scant public services.  But no thoughtful citizen, not even one who loves the country deeply, would offer to pay the government’s debts without a corresponding resolve on the state’s part to address the main sources of the problem. The first is the government’s failure to collect the right taxes from those who must pay taxes.  The second is the mindless absorption by government of obligations incurred by unaccountable government financial institutions and public corporations.  Almost forty percent of the national government debt today, says the UP School of Economics report, consists of these assumed liabilities and loans to state corporations.

When we consider how these liabilities were incurred, who profited from them, and which interest groups evaded payment of the appropriate taxes, it is not easy to summon love of country. When we see government officials speeding through the city traffic in their large tinted vehicles with blaring sirens and motorcycle escorts, or when we learn that the President has brought almost her entire clan on her state visit to China, we start to wonder if state officials are there to serve or to be served.

State formation is an experimental process says John Dewey. There is no sure-fire formula for creating a good state.  “The only statement which can be made is a purely formal one:  the state is the organization of the public effected through officials for the protection of the interests shared by its members.  But what the public may be, what the officials are, how adequately they perform their function, are things we have to go to history to discover.”  In theory, we know what a good state is, Dewey says.  We know it by the degree to which the public is organized, and by the extent to which public officials “are so constituted as to perform their function of caring for public interests.”

When we speak of the deficiencies of governance, we refer to the flaws in our institutions and the shortcomings of public officials.  But that is only half the picture.  The other half is us, the public – to the extent we can imagine ourselves as a collectivity capable of deliberate and conscious action.  If we are organized, we should be able to invent and re-invent the state in accordance with the demands of our time, guided by the tools of knowledge available to us.

It may be inspiring to see the public move as one, bayanihan-style, to patch up those problems that are not being attended to by the state. But the value of an organized public does not lie in an auxiliary function like this, but in its capacity to reform the state and hold it accountable for its performance.  A fragmented public will find itself saddled by an incompetent or irresponsible state.  But a unified and intelligent public will know how to deal with a wayward state – it will tame its excesses and re-orient its policies.  It will not blindly come to its rescue in a moment of fear or sentimentality, or offer to bankroll its vices.


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