Scams and the freedom to err

Reading recent reports of thousands of people being victimized by another pyramiding scam—this time operating out of the cities of Cebu, Pagadian, and Pasay—I found myself entertaining two different reactions. “Serves them right,” I thought, “for not using their commonsense and being blinded by greed.”  But then I wondered, “Shouldn’t the government have known about this and stepped in before more small investors were robbed by this pack of swindlers?”

Beneath these two reactions are two concepts of government that are not always congenial to one another.

The first is the idea of the government as a guarantor of individual freedom. According to this view, the government exists to protect our liberties—our right to earn a living, to form a family, to get an education, to travel, to vote, and so on. The other is the idea of the government as a regulator of human activity. In the name of protecting the common good, the government assumes the duty to protect citizens from harm, including that which may stem from their own folly.

If you entrust your money to somebody who promises you a 70-percent monthly return on your investment, you have every right to be dazzled by this prospect. But, as the saying goes, “caveat emptor” (buyer beware). You will not be forgiven for believing there are such businesses that earn so much as to be able to pay that kind of interest on short-term investments. But, fools are born every day, waiting to be gypped by scammers using schemes so closely copied from previous tricks one would think everyone would know by now what they are.

As my fellow Inquirer columnist, Michael Tan, noted the other day in his discussion of the expanding range of healthcare products and remedies in the market that have no therapeutic value, our brains sometimes seem hardwired for gullibility. Indeed, there is a growing interest in the neurosciences that focuses on the contingencies of decision-making. Recent studies of how the mind works show the astounding irrationality of so many of the choices we make in daily life. In our own cultural context, as Mike observes, we find that testimonials from relatives, friends, and acquaintances play an insidious role in these decisions that is resistant to critical scrutiny.

Interestingly enough, while we equate gullibility with ignorance, the ranks of the gullible include individuals with so much experience, social power, and education that we expect them to be the last to fall victim to scams. Yet, if we carefully examine the modus operandi of big fraudsters and swindlers, we would find that the wealthy, the well-informed, and the respectable are precisely their main targets. By luring them into these schemes with generous returns and rewards, scammers transform them into unwitting endorsers. As soon as they partake of the initial fruit of the scam, the latter effectively place their whole social networks at the disposal of the con artists.

Thus it is not at all surprising that, apart from the families of overseas workers and ordinary vendors, the victims of the Aman Futures Group that ran the P12-billion pyramiding scam in Visayas and Mindanao included local politicians, businessmen, professionals, soldiers, and policemen. You would think they would be crazy to invest so much money in a new company founded by a former janitor and driver with no business credentials. But, enticed by the huge and easy returns, they even brought in the savings of their relatives, neighbors, and friends.

When the principal operators disappeared, shortly after the postdated checks they issued began to bounce, Mayor Samuel Co of Pagadian City apparently still could not believe they had all been taken for a ride. It was he who had issued a temporary business permit to the company. Claiming he had nothing to do with the business, the mayor reportedly assured the people in his community that they would get their investments back. Later, he distributed checks to some investors, saying, “The checks we gave out were recovered from the Aman office here. I did not issue these checks. We just distributed.”

Whether or not the mayor was part of the scam, it is clear there was a failure of government here. Windfall profits such as those paid by Aman Futures to its first investors should have alerted the concerned government agencies—the regional office of the Securities and Exchange Commission, for one.  While there is nothing illegal about paying out unusually high monthly returns on short-term investments, the act itself is a tell-tale sign of a scam in the making. The state has a duty to check without waiting for a complaint, and, if warranted, to warn investors of the risks they are taking. It is not the first time the government has failed to perform this obligation, and it will not be the last. Scams like these happen because, apart from preying on people’s greed, they also tend to ride on the existing power structure and tap into vast networks of social connections.

Compared to the regulatory role of the state, it always seems easier to appreciate the state’s function as a guarantor of freedom of choice.  This is consistent with the market view of society: Let the voter freely decide, for instance, if he wants members of the same family to monopolize public office, instead of limiting his choice through a law banning political dynasties.

My view is there is nothing in society that is exempted from regulation. Regulation is what the law does.  Rather than rest on the illusion that every individual knows best, we owe it to ourselves to ask what kind of society we are becoming and what kind we want to be, and to regulate our affairs as a nation accordingly.