Why trust remains crucial

As in previous elections, political programs once more took a backseat to issues of personal character in the current presidential campaign. What has been projected is not how we will solve our problems as a nation, but who we can trust not to abuse political power if elected. Indeed we demand so little of our leaders. We allow them to make the wildest promises with no regard for what it takes to accomplish them. It is as though we were programming ourselves for disenchantment.

This is not how politics is supposed to serve the needs of a nation. It is supposed to help clarify our priorities and formulate the national agenda. Why is our politics stuck at the level of the personal? I think the answer lies precisely in the fact that we still cannot trust our institutions. That is the reason we keep searching for leaders we can trust, on whose shoulders we place the entire burden of governing. We are looking for superheroes; we are not even looking at the parties that should help them govern.

If the institutional system of a society were strong, the personal integrity of leaders would not be as crucial. But if the system is weak, the trustworthiness of leaders not only acquires paramount importance, it becomes the only criterion that matters.

The weakness of our institutional system became very clear—clearer than at any other time—under the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The brazenness with which Ms Arroyo, especially in the last six years, used the authority and prerogatives of her office to override the logic of our institutions has made the quest for trustworthy leaders more urgent than ever.

This has no doubt worked to the advantage of Noynoy Aquino, who entered the presidential race as the legatee of his late mother’s iconic integrity. By the same token, it worked against Manny Villar’s candidacy, not just by downgrading the managerial competence and experience that he ascribes to himself, but by magnifying the ethical lapses of which he has been accused as a public official and businessman.

A good portion of what is called corruption in our society does not take the form of outright stealing of public funds. It comes as demands for special treatment, exemptions and privileges befitting the powerful and the moneyed in a hierarchical society. Thus, when public officials say they have not stolen a single centavo from the public coffers, they may be telling the truth. But that does not mean they are not corrupt.

In traditional societies, the kinds of privileges and exemptions that today qualify as corruption were freely given to those of high status. Their recipients did not have to ask for them. Indeed, in most instances, the mark of a noble person is known when he refuses privileges due him, or avoids being in situations where rules might be suspended for him out of deference. He does so out of duty, consistent with a firm sense of what he represents—good form and virtue. Here, restraint is internal to the person.

As societies progress, the restraint of the few that springs from a concept of duty becomes the norm for everybody. It surfaces as propriety, not as strict as a duty, but as an obligation no less that a person voluntarily assumes. Conformity with this sense of propriety is what is called ethical conduct. A person may not be jailed for unethical conduct. But he suffers the greater penalty of diminished social esteem. Sensitivity to this, however, comes in varying degrees. Some people develop a huge capacity to insulate themselves from shame, often by imagining themselves as answerable only to a higher authority, like God.

As societies become more complex, notions of good form multiply. The single moral code of traditional society gives way to plural moralities that offer a broad range of justifications for deviant conduct. Custom and ethics no longer suffice to bind people to orderly behavior. It is at this point that formal legal systems emerge to supplement the restraining power of traditional values.

In modern society, the control against inappropriate behavior is built into the system itself—in the form of blindness to factors not relevant to its functioning. For example, a student’s status in sports would have no bearing on the assessment of his academic performance. A senator’s authority as a public official would carry no weight in the stock market. A rich businessman would not be able to use his millions to buy religious salvation, or scientific truths, or, for that matter, political authority. This ability to differentiate functional spheres is what it means to be modern.

We are not quite there yet as a nation. We are in transition. Our institutions have not fully ripened, which is why personal restraint remains essential. Still, we are becoming conscious of the perils of conflict-of-interest situations as we play multiple roles in everyday life. We remind our politicians that if they cannot divest themselves of their businesses after they assume public office, they should refrain from representing these businesses. We tell our leaders that political positions are to be individually earned, not transferred to family members like heirloom. We admonish our religious leaders to refrain from overstepping their roles as moral shepherds.

We are getting there. By voting for leaders we can trust, we buy time for our institutions to fully mature. But we cannot be complacent. The long term goal is to develop a society that is formidable enough to withstand betrayal by its chosen leaders.