Fallacies and the devil's bargain

was my Trade Tripper column in the recent weekend issue of BusinessWorld:

It is in the nature of small men to be petty. And to have the inability to admit mistakes. This whole issue of the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) should have been excised from public consciousness after the Supreme Court made its ruling. After all, there are bigger, more urgent problems to address. But the government’s insistence that it is right and may incorrigibly do something similar sticks out like a bad sore one feels compelled to pay attention to.

The consensus is that the Supreme Court was right to state that the DAP-related acts or measures were illegal. The counterpoint from government apologists, however, is that the illegality was more technical than real, something only lawyers obsess about. Of the morality of the DAP, such is unquestionably right as the government was in “good faith.”

But sadly they mislead. From ad hominem (the Supreme Court is obstructionist), self-righteous (we acted in good faith and hence we are right) and strawmen argumentation (lawyers insist only they can comment on DAP), to tu quoque fallacies (the Court can’t rule on the DAP as it did similar acts as well), all miss the point that the law is there to be followed not merely when things are going well but necessarily so when situations are dire.

And this is precisely one of the underlying principles of our Constitution. That ours is not a government of passions or self-righteous ideologues but of laws. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

This is what the Wall Street Journal was saying when it commented on the DAP: Mr. Aquino “created a bad precedent.” Unfortunately, “taking an unconstitutional shortcut only dilutes accountability, relieves voters and congressmen from the consequences of their choices, and sets the stage for a more corrupt president in 2016 or beyond to channel spending for his own benefit.”

And frankly, the government itself was engaging in another fallacy: that of “either/or.” Either we did the DAP or social justice programs would have collapsed. That is a false dichotomy. As other commentators have pointed out, some of the programs for which the DAP was employed were actually truly needed. But the need for them had been identified long ago. Why then was it not vigorously insisted to be included in previous budgets? This administration had at least starting 2011 to do that.

The administration’s complaint is that our system is slow. That’s no excuse. Our system was precisely designed to be slow. To force each branch of government to confer with others, to ponder deeply, to force officials to move without haste, to plan far ahead.

The fact is, the government has fallen into the trap that many other governments before succumbed to: the belief of the righteousness of its cause and that it could solve everything only if it had the power to do so. Thus, like many other past governments, it comes before the people offering a deal: give us more power and we will achieve more. Give us more power and we will make your life better. We will get rid of corruption. We will be free of inequality. The offer will be about anything and everything. But such is a devil’s bargain.

Because we know this: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We don’t even need refer to Lord Acton for this. Our history has that politician who promised all, including a nation great again -- only if he had more power.

Going back to the argument that the DAP issue is not only for lawyers: of course it isn’t. Matters of national concern involve every citizen’s duty and participation.

Ultimately (and many seem to not understand this), our political system is built on the idea that our country’s destiny lies not with the government but with the people. That’s why our government is one of merely limited powers. As Madison put’s it: government is merely an “auxiliary precaution,” there to assist the people to be able to do things for themselves.

Ours is a government of public servants, with limited functions delegated to them by the people. And the first thing they need to do to be good servants is to humbly set the good example of following the law.