The politics of excuses

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

Thoughts were triggered by remarks recently given by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on what he believes is a fundamental problem faced by the US: “We are turning into a paternalistic, entitlement society. That will not only bankrupt us financially, it will bankrupt us morally. Because when the American people believe this is no longer a place where only their willingness to work hard, to act with honor, integrity and ingenuity determines their success in life, then we’ll have a bunch of people sitting on a couch waiting for a government check.”

This creeping attitude of self-entitlement comes from what Christie calls a “paternalistic” society, whereby the government tells people to “stop dreaming, stop striving, we’ll take care of you.” Unfortunately, as Christie notes, rather than feeling secure about their future, it has resulted in lesser optimism among people. For the Philippines, rather than corruption or foreign intervention, this concept of a paternalistic culture is the clue to the nation’s fundamental problems.

We’ve long had a paternalistic political culture (some say “maternalistic” but let’s not get into that right now), where people willingly abandon their right to think in favor of a government that will “take care of them.” It’s a culture that gave rise to a strongman like Marcos. It also, however, is the reason why we have a succession of presidents after him that essentially were from bad to worse.

As Forbes magazine noted in 2010, “the easiest route to the top is to be born into the clique of families that have controlled the country for generations, including under a half-century of US colonialism... Decades of mismanagement and dynastic rule have left the Philippines, once ranked second to Japan in postwar Asia, lagging far behind neighbors like Thailand and Indonesia. Foreign investors chasing growth gave a wide berth to the Sick Man of Asia, as the country became known.”

But why do we insanely insist in having these same insane families rule over the country? Part of the answer was given by UP professor of public administration Prospero De Vera: “In the Philippines it appears that is a crime and it is a sin to become rich.” He was referring contextually to Manny Villar vis-à-vis the other politicians who have run for president. But that begs the question why to people it’s a “crime” for someone like Villar to be rich when the families that ruled this country are rich and for far longer than he has?

The usual response is because of corruption, a cheap political attack that opponents could be readying against another probable presidential contender that doesn’t also belong to the elite: Jojo Binay. But that again leads to a further question: Why would people believe so easily that a Villar or a Binay could be corrupt but ridiculously swallow the improbable notion that politicians from the old rich families are immune to corruption? But as I said, that’s ridiculous because historically the worse cases of corruption we’ve had were instigated by the elite, the purported “de buena familias”: the reported embezzlement of the Katipunan’s funds, war profiteering during the Japanese occupation, corruption over the US Army surplus, the selling out of the country through treaties and agreements with foreigners, currency manipulation and corrupting the import licensing scheme, behest loans, and government coddling of favored companies or “kamaganaks.” And remember all the scandals of the past few years? Those weren’t corruption done by, of, or from the poor.

So, again, why do our people insanely (there is simply no other word for it) insist in installing the same people and families in power despite the fact they had screwed the country again and again. One answer I suggest is what I call the “politics of excuses.” You see, when you have somebody from the old rich who succeeds, many of our countrymen could always tell themselves and everybody around them: well, “galing kasi sa mayaman na pamilya.” The implication is that he could have done more had he been born into the elite as well. But the statement is more a cop-out than anything else. A business success? Chinese kasi. Sports or celebrity success? Mestizo kasi.

The thing is, Villar’s (or Binay’s) mortal sin is that they represent to people the absence of an excuse for not succeeding. Because if these two pulled themselves out of poverty by hard work and sheer will, not by their family connections or foreign origins, what are the others’ excuse? Even Pacquiao is a victim of this mentality: people belittle his intelligence when he clearly has more sense than those in power now. Had these three been born in a country where proper ambition, hard work, and self-confidence are valued they would have been presidents or national leaders long, long ago.

Unfortunately, they have to deal with a people that refuses to take responsibility for their own lives and would rather content themselves with finding excuses.