State of the nation

If the nation were a family, it would clearly be wrong to describe its state solely in terms of how sufficient its earnings are relative to its needs, or how strong the house is in which it dwells.  To properly assess the state of a family, it would be necessary to inquire into the authority that family decisions carry in the life of its members, and the degree to which shared values and rules of fairness shape the family’s everyday actions.  Where the members cannot agree on anything, where bickering rather than mutual support is the norm, where alienation rather than intimacy reigns — such a family is in all likelihood a broken one.

Yet, in discussing the state of the nation, there is a tendency to equate it almost entirely with its economic situation.  And even here the focus is on the sheer growth of the gross domestic product, rather than on the jobs and livelihood opportunities that are created in the process.  Little attention, if any, is given to the sources of this growth, or to the various costs entailed to produce it.

In the past few days, the Inquirer has offered its readers different accounts of the state of the economy under the Arroyo government, showing the larger context in which recent economic data must be viewed.  They portray an economy almost exclusively sustained by remittances from overseas Filipino workers, and driven mostly by a corresponding expansion in consumer spending and services.  They depict a pattern of declining tax effort, borne mainly by the middle class and fixed wage earners, and yearly economic growth rates accompanied by worsening human development indicators.  They show an economy that, for all its achievements, is unable to free onethird of its population from the poverty trap.

In light of this problematic economic picture, it seems unnecessary to even begin considering the other dimensions of the nation’s current state.  But it is important to complete the picture, if only to demonstrate the enormity of the challenges we face.

To many thoughtful Filipinos, the governance problem appears to be at the root of our national predicament.  They blame the system of corruption that permeates every level of government for all our misfortunes as a people.  But I would argue that corruption itself is only an outcome of the more basic problem of a dysfunctional political system.  A functioning political system provides society with public officials who command enough respect and legitimacy to be able to enforce collectively-binding decisions.  Elections in such a system promote stability and legitimacy.  In contrast, a dysfunctional political system produces the opposite.  Instead of stability, it creates uncertainty.  Instead of legitimate leaders, it produces insecure power-wielders who do not hesitate to use patronage, corruption, and coercion to keep themselves in power.   Elections under such circumstances rarely become contests of alternative visions.  They remain nothing more than naked power struggles among the moneyed and powerful.

The persistence of political dysfunction in our nation’s life has been very costly.  It has severely weakened the integrative institutions that regulate our relationships to society and to one another.  When courts cannot be trusted to deliver fair judgments because they have been either politicized or bought, or when the police and the military are no longer seen as defenders of the Constitution but as protectors of regimes, then the regulatory fabric cannot hold the nation together. I think this is where the nation is politically and legally.

Instead of being contained and resolved within the bounded spheres of the law and politics, our recurrent national crises have tended to spill over to the other institutions of society.  Thus religious and business leaders are routinely recruited as partisans in ongoing conflicts.  The personal loyalty of soldiers and policemen is assiduously courted by politicians to the detriment of their professional commitments.  And the mass media are prompted to weigh in with their own political agenda, thus blurring the line between information and propaganda.  Through all these, a young generation of Filipinos grows up internalizing a predisposition to resentfulness and distrust for the nation and its leaders.

The last eight years under Ms Arroyo’s presidency have only reinforced these tendencies.  Her legitimacy as the nation’s highest official had been suspect since day one of her assumption of the presidency.  Had she kept her promise not to seek another term, and had she bothered to cleanse the electoral system in time for the 2004 election, she would have laid many of the nation’s crises to rest. Instead, she chose to keep them alive by running in 2004, and worse, she compounded them by using people in the military and the Commission on Elections itself to cheat for her.

There is no simple one-shot formula to reverse the current state of our nation.  The election of a new president will not revitalize our institutions overnight. Ms Arroyo’s long-awaited departure from the presidency by noon of June 30, 2010 may, however, jumpstart the process of renewal.  But many things can still happen between now and 2010.  One wishes change were as simple as Cromwell telling the English Rump Parliament of his time: “It is not fit that you should sit here any longer! You have been sat too long for any good you have been doing lately…. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you.  In the name of God, go!”

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