The scourge of discrepant governance

The pork barrel scam—whose intricate web of ghost projects, fictitious beneficiaries, and fake nongovernment organizations is unraveling before the nation’s eyes—is a good example of a “discrepant event.” This is a term used in science education to refer to something that happens contrary to expectation, a phenomenon without a visible cause, begging for explanation. I think we may use the concept to describe the kind of governance we have—a way of doing things for which no one takes responsibility.

One example of discrepant governance is precisely where huge amounts of public funds are regularly allocated, withdrawn from the coffers, and made to disappear through a series of little routine acts that no one in particular will take responsibility for, or can be made answerable for. The entire thing works like a trick, its mechanism safely hidden from the casual observer, giving the illusion of a consequence without a cause. It takes only a little science to figure out how it works.

In the case of the pork barrel trick, one has to replay the procedure in slow motion, allowing the observer to keep track of the process as it engages the smallest offices of government.  No one who has been involved in the seamy side of the process can credibly plead innocence, the way everybody now seems to take cover behind the convenient excuse of “presumption of regularity.” They must be willfully blind for them not to “see” what is happening.

If this is the case—if supposedly responsible people knew and yet allowed it—then it takes more than merely exposing the pork barrel racket and jailing Janet Lim-Napoles and her corrupt clients in Congress, or stopping it altogether, to end the scourge of discrepant governance. We need to understand how a system like this is able to maintain itself over time, and what functions it plays in the larger political system, if we are to seriously tackle the challenge of societal reform.

I think we have to begin from the recognition that Philippine society today not only has a very high proportion of its people living below the poverty line. It is also probably the most highly unequal society in this part of the world. The poor in our country barely have anything to eat; they scour garbage dumps looking for usable trash, live in makeshift shanties along dangerous waterways, beg in the streets—in the shadow of the most expensive condominium buildings and exclusive housing communities. A social order that imagines this to be normal, and coasts along as if government belonged to its elected officials, is ripe for revolution.

In simple societies, the governing classes respond to mass poverty and inequality through steady acts of patronage and generosity. Strong ties of personal dependence and loyalty stretching over generations are built between rulers and their subjects in this manner. Patron-client rule, however, has limited value, and is no longer viable in the long term, in large complex societies like ours. It becomes very costly to maintain. Dynasties with networks of personal dependents have to give way sooner or later to political parties with clear programs of government. Public institutions and social services accessible to every citizen must replace systems of patronage based on personal loyalty.

It does not take much intelligence nowadays to become an elected public official in our country. But one certainly needs a lot of money not only to get elected but also to hold on to an office, especially if one has nothing else to offer. That is why access to public funds is crucial to the Filipino politician. The wide latitude of discretion that is built into the pork barrel system is a tacit acknowledgment of this reality.

From being a mere instrument of patronage, the pork barrel and its associated perks soon become the primary reason for seeking public office, transforming  politics into a lucrative enterprise. This attracts the wrong kind of persons into public service, and makes elections the costly affairs they are today.

I believe we have reached that stage when our society must free itself from this obsolete system if it is to survive. People are angry and are communicating with one another in ways never thought possible. Stealing from the public coffers has become too brazen for the ordinary citizen to ignore. Who can feel good paying taxes to a government that blindly dispenses hard-earned money to cynical, incompetent, and corrupt officials?

The government seems to think the rage over the pork barrel will eventually subside. It will not—until the legislature and the executive branch can offer a credible account of how the Priority Development Assistance Fund has been spent, and take decisive action against those who misused or stole from the fund.

But, if it is to offer any enduring lessons, this sordid episode in our political life must prompt all of us, including our institutions, to take a look at our own complicity in the perpetuation of the system. How often have we looked the other way in the face of something irregular just because we happen to be among the beneficiaries of a politician’s largesse? How many times have we tapped our personal links to public officials in order to obtain a favor for ourselves, a relative, or a friend?

It is this weakness in our political culture that Janet Lim-Napoles saw for herself in her various dealings with public officials. But, rather than merely wink at it the way everybody does, she has designed a simple business model that allows politicians to maximize the extraction of the resource. As it is now turning out, this is what will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

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