Technocrats in government

Unable to hear anything substantial from him about his plans and priorities during the campaign, the nation couldn’t quite tell what kind of leader Ferdinand Marcos Jr. intended to be if he became president. One hundred days after he assumed the presidency, the public now knows a little, still not enough, about the man 31 million Filipino voters had chosen to lead the country in these turbulent times.

First of all, President Bongbong Marcos (or “PBBM”) seems to take enormous pride in being able to put key positions in government under the rational administration of technocrats — “the best and the brightest,” as he put it in his recent speech before the Manila Overseas Press Club.

In reply to a question during the open forum on what he regarded as his most significant achievement in the first 100 days of his presidency, he said: “I think what we have managed to do in the first 100 days is put together a government, which is functional and which has a very, very good idea of what we are targeting in terms of strict economic targets, for example, in terms of the number of growths, the numbers of the different measures, the different metrics that we are using for the economy.”

As reassuring as that statement might sound to investors, the business community, and credit rating agencies, it offers no clue on the kinds of value priorities that will inform his political leadership. He flashes technocracy as though it were a magic cure for the nation’s economic and social ills — the basic weakness of its economic foundation and the deep inequalities that have kept a large number of Filipinos in absolute poverty.

He seems to confuse the “metrics” and “measures” of rational administration proposed by technocrats with the goals of government that are principally the responsibility of political leadership. He seems to believe that most, if not all, of our social and economic problems can be treated as technical issues, removed from the realm of political decision-making that, in practice, involves choosing one value over another.

Right now, perhaps the kindest thing we can say of PBBM is that he has yet to make clear where he stands on a number of critical issues. For example: How does he intend to ease the burden of rising prices, particularly of food and fuel, on the poorest of the poor? What concrete plans does he have to solve the problem of mounting joblessness? Where does he stand on the question of taxing wealth itself, rather than just income and consumption? Does he have any long-term program to solve the chronic homelessness that afflicts the bottom 30 percent of our people?

We have no idea where this president intends to take the country in the next six years. The news about Marcos and his family flying to Singapore in a special jet on a weekend just to watch the F1 Grand Prix certainly reeked of insensitivity, coming as it did in the wake of a devastating typhoon. Juxtaposed with a report on government having to borrow an additional $2 billion from the international bond market to support its budget, the President’s use of his “private time” at public expense to see a car racing event projected the deplorable image of an impoverished government run by a privileged and shameless elite.

A trip to Singapore would have been “productive” (a term he used) or instructive for the young Marcos and his entourage in many other ways. For this modern city-state has deservedly made a name for itself as the most successful model of technocratic governance. There, rational administration by a technocracy is for real, not for show. The political leadership, argues the prominent Singaporean sociologist Chua Beng Huat, is guided by a communitarian ideology that makes full use of technocratic expertise to solve collective problems.

Perhaps the best example of this ideology at work is the People’s Action Party (PAP) government’s public housing program. In his book “Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore,” (NUS Press, 2017), Chua Beng Huat explains the approach Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew took shortly after his party, the PAP, took control of parliament.

“Nearly universal state-subsidized housing was only possible partly because the government radically nationalized land through a draconian compulsory acquisition of private landholdings, in complete disregard of the sacred liberal right of private property. With the acquisition and extensive reclamation, the government ultimately owned about 90 percent of the total land in the nation, a portion of which has been used for public housing. The promise of affordable homeownership for up to 90 percent of the population remains the most concrete social democratic ‘welfare’ program of the PAP government. It is fundamental to the PAP’s political legitimacy to govern.”

Here at home, we have allowed homelessness to fester as a social wound, mainly because previous governments have lacked the political will to defy the logic of the market and the entrenched interests of private property developers in order to build affordable public housing for the poor in the heart of the city itself.

Without a political leadership that is guided by a clear vision of what it wants to accomplish, the German theorist Jürgen Habermas has warned, “a technocratic administration of industrial society would deprive any democratic decision-making process of its object.”

Technocrats who join government without bothering to ask what the vision of the political leadership is risk being used as deodorants for a corrupt government, or, worse, as scapegoats for its failures.