The Constitution and its context

One cannot fail to be impressed by the swiftness with which the leaders of the two chambers of Congress have agreed to convene the legislature as a constituent assembly and begin the process of amending the Constitution. What a difference a disinterested presidency makes!

Previous attempts to amend the Constitution, from Ramos down to Arroyo, had been weighed down by suspicion that the whole process was meant to lift term limits and prolong the incumbent’s stay in office. At every instance, the moves were being orchestrated from Malacañang itself. Today, we have a president who has made it clear that changing the Constitution is not among his priorities. Ironically, some people now insist he should actively support the effort if it is to have any chance of succeeding.

But, I think it is good for President Aquino to distance himself from constitutional change and stay focused on repairing and strengthening the legitimacy of governmental institutions. These institutions were severely battered during the extended administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to a point where they lost all their moral scaffolding.

“Legitimacy precedes the law,” says social theorist Chris Thornhill. Without it, the rule of law is hollow, and even electoral outcomes are suspect. Those who are merely voted into office cannot always presume to be legitimate. Political legitimacy means, above all, that a government is able to present itself to the people with a credible account of why things are the way they are, and what kind of policies are needed so the nation may move forward.

The less Congress, acting as a constituent assembly, is able to draw upon P-Noy’s reservoir of public trust, the more, I think, it will be compelled to do its homework and to back up its constitutional proposals with rational arguments. It is good to know that the proposed review of the Constitution will be confined to the economic provisions. This removes the cloud of doubt that has needlessly darkened past efforts to bring the Constitution up to date. Forging a consensus on economic reforms will however not be any easier particularly at a time when the world economy is gripped by uncertainty.

In the nearly quarter of a century that has passed since the ratification of the 1987 Constitution, the world has gone through some of the most wrenching and unexpected shifts in human history. Revolutionary changes in communications technology have contributed in no small measure to the consolidation of the global economy under finance capitalism. New Internet-based technologies have rendered national control mechanisms in various spheres obsolete and irrelevant. In the face of an economic system that operates on a truly world scale, governments are realizing that they can no longer steer their economies in any meaningful way. And that the most they can hope to do is shield their people from the crippling consequences of economic catastrophes occurring in other parts of the world.

Constitutional adjustments, in a sense, represent the frantic attempt of countries to align their political and economic systems to the imperatives of a world economy they can ignore only at their own peril. Their typical goal is to immunize the country against debilitating crises by subjecting it to the discipline of highly competitive markets. Yet, the desired outcomes can never be guaranteed. Nor is there any assurance that the promised benefits will outweigh the long-term social and environmental costs. We cannot be certain, for example, that lifting current restrictions on the entry of foreign capital into sectors like public utilities, communications and education, or on foreign ownership of agricultural land, will stimulate economic growth. At the same time, we need to ask if we have the capacity to enforce our laws so that the negative effects are kept in check.

The point is that it is dangerous to tinker with crucial economic provisions without considering the various contexts to which they are linked. There has been much pressure, for instance, to open up areas like health care and education to foreign capitalization and ownership. At first glance, it is hard to imagine how the infusion of additional investments into social services can possibly pose any harm to our people. But, picture a situation where a foreign-owned and operated medical facility specializing in organ transplants markets its services abroad and brings in its own patients. Will we have the will and the ability to enforce existing restrictions on the sourcing of organ donors? This is a question that needs to be asked if only because the biggest motivation for locating any such facility here would be the promise of an abundant supply of commercialized human organs.

The 1987 Constitution embodied the political hopes and anxieties of its time. However, the “rampant justicialization” of economic questions that we have seen in the past two decades seems to tell us that the existing Charter may no longer be an adequate map we can turn to for guidance as we seek the common good in these turbulent times. It is thus appropriate that our political leaders are revisiting its text from the perspective of today’s realities. But for this effort to yield any enduring social good, it has to be guided not so much by a fixation with global competitiveness as by an unwavering commitment to end the mass poverty and the sharp inequalities that have ravaged our people.

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