Connecting past and future

is the article I wrote as part of Ateneo Law School’s 75th anniversary:

“What’s past is prologue.” So wrote William Shakespeare in – which is most appropriate for this piece – his play The Tempest. For the Philippines is certainly, whether its people realize it or not, in the middle of a tempest. Socially, culturally, politically, economically, the country is caught in an intense debate about itself and its future. But as nothing exists in a vacuum, then our choices moving forward would always be bound within the context of our history. Again, whether or not our people realizes that. Or accepts it.

Ateneo, of course, is very much intertwined with our history and Ateneo Law’s contribution to it could very much be the subject of its own, quite lengthy, article. However, I would like to focus on one individual in particular: Fr. Horacio De La Costa, the Jesuit priest-scholar, the first Filipino Provincial of the Philippines, and special counselor in Rome to Fr. General Pedro Arrupe.

In my particular field of international trade law and policy there are certainly lot’s of people to look up to: John Jackson, Robert Hudec, Jagdish Bhagwati, Amartya Sen. There is, sadly, a dearth of Filipinos among that list. Clearly there is Florentino Feliciano and Lilia Bautista. But among them all, Fr. Dela Costa for me stands out for his clear eyed and Christian vision of what a proper trade and developmental policy should be for a developing country. As such, he is for me a sort of mentor despite him not actually being a lawyer or economist, despite the fact that he has not even heard of the World Trade Organization, and despite him having died more than thirty years ago.

For somebody like me who has long been advocating for caution of Philippine entry into free trade agreements, Fr. Dela Costa had this to say: “Free trade between an industrial country and an agricultural country is to the detriment of the agricultural country … Our negotiating position … cannot be other than based on our national interest … and at the same time, on social justice.” (Trade between the unequal, lecture 30 August 1968). It must be emphasized that recent studies from international organizations would recently confirm the correctness of his assertions.

In the current discussions regarding poverty and inequality in the Philippines, Fr. Dela Costa’s words (from his paper Philippine economic development, 27 January 1966) ring fresh and relevant:

“We must now make our own decisions and must take the full consequences of the decisions we wrongly make, or weakly make, or cravenly fail to make. We no longer have a mother country or a colonial master to blame for our shortcomings; we only have ourselves.”

“But this is not all. We must also find some workable integration of the twin objectives of productivity and equity. Simple justice demands that labor, agricultural as well as industrial, receive as much of a share of what it helps to produce as will bring it at least within hailing distance of a human level of living. While doing this, we must bend every effort to produce more, for unless we do, unless we produce a great deal more, a redistribution of the product, no matter how equitable, cannot substantially raise levels of living across the board.”

“The people, then, all the people, must contribute to development … If we want economic development, this is the price that we must pay. And so, one question remains. Do we want it?”

Fr. Dela Costa had also hit on something forty years ago that I am only now am pitifully discovering on my own: that most of the country’s problems are self-inflicted, stemming from a lack of confidence in ourselves and each other. This was a theme he tackled in March of 1971, in his lecture The Filipino national tradition: “Would it be thought discourteous on our part if we were to recall that it was once said of England that patriotism was the religion of the English? And that it was not so long ago that American school texts prescribed formuse in the Philippines quoted with reverence the dictum of an American naval officer, ‘My country, may she always be right, but right or wrong, my country’?”

Furthermore, with words that are highly applicable to our political leaders today, Fr. Dela Costa wrote: “the quality of a society depends, in large measure, on the quality of its leaders. A democratic society, to be viable, needs a special kind of leaders – leaders who look on leadership not as dominance but as service.” (Philipine problems in historical perspective, paper, 20 March 1970)

Fr. Horacio Dela Costa, who once wrote that “those who know their history are encouraged to surpass it” and advises those undergoing tribulations that Jesus Christ on the cross is him “showing us how to take it like a man”, is therefore both an inspiration and a hurdle. For our problems and solutions cannot be same thing decades in and out. By now we should have taken his counsel and rendered him irrelevant. The fact that we haven’t displays the tragedy of his genius and of our ignorance.

Teaching has always been an act of faith and optimism, that our words would find resonance with our students, not really for the legal knowledge imparted to them but more for the responsibilities we hope they respect and carry forward to make a better country for us all. Fr. Dela Costa was definitely a teacher: “Permit me to propose the following, purely as a speculation: that the Filipino, given half a chance, given a situation even slightly competitive, has quite consistently been willing, ready and able to compete; and that if he has so seldom actually done so, this may only be because the conditions have so seldom been verified.” His optimism is well placed, our inability to learn is our irresponsibility that we need to correct.

To be with Ateneo Law School for me is therefore also to continually be in touch with Fr. Dela Costa: both mentoring about our past while leading towards our future. To teach in Ateneo enables me to learn from our failures, to live on our promises, and to look towards hope.