Civics 101

my Trade Tripper column in the 15-16 October 2015 issue of BusinessWorld:

First off, we don’t do kings.

It says so right in the Constitution.

There’s no tribal elder or wise old man. There is no “father of the nation” benignly looking over us helpless children. We are a government of self-rule, embodying our will in a specific constitutional system.

This is what it means when we declare that we are a government of, by, and for the people. The people made government and government exists for the people (not the other way around).

The public servants we appointed (or elected) are servants in a peculiar way: their service is to make or implement rules over us. Their ability to “rule,” however, is not unrestrained, kinglike, or godlike. It is very narrow, timebound and limited.

The last means that public servants cannot exercise powers they do not have. Their powers are restricted to that stated in the Constitution or legislative enactments. That’s also why we broke up the major functions of government to three (and this is the important part) “equal” branches.

We did this so that not one person has greater power over the people. Final say and responsibility is always with the people.

What’s the measure by which pubic servants must comply? Aside from the expressed functions in the Constitution and laws, there’s also the overall standard of the “common good.”

The “common good” is that peculiar phrase found in the Constitution’s preamble. It means the flourishing of each and every human being towards a purpose and within an environment that the members of the society laid out or created by themselves.

How do we know this? Because we recognized each human being as a rational creature; i.e., blessed with an intellect. Also, because we recognize that all human beings are created equal, and imbued with dignity and rights. These are in the Constitution. Being so, a citizen must not be dictated upon and should be trusted to figure out for himself/herself what is good for him/her personally.

There is a further limit to the powers of government and that’s the concept of “subsidiarity.” This simply means that issues and problems that can be handled by the smallest political unit (i.e., the individual) should be handled by that individual; if unable, then the family, then the neighborhood, then the town, then the province; and only if such is unable, should the national government step in.

How do we know this? Because the dignity and rights of every single human being are to be respected in our Constitution; that our Constitution recognizes the family as a “basic autonomous social institution,” and that our Constitution encourages local governments towards “local autonomy.”

In practice, this means that with regard to education, formation of beliefs (including religion and values), health, welfare, employment, housing, commerce, and so on, the main responsibility lies with the parents and the family (specially), then the neighborhood parish, civic organizations, the businessman down the street.

The actual main job of government is to serve and protect the people, which include maintaining peace and order, and securing life, liberty, and property. All others are secondary and only as assistant to the people. This is in the Constitution.

The rationale behind it is that if the people abdicate their responsibilities and prefer government stepping in, the latter’s tendency is to want more power: soon, it will be telling people what to eat, work, buy, believe, travel, who to be with. Which requires more government personnel/resources, which demands a bigger budget, hence more taxes. Hence, lesser autonomy for the people: less money in the wallet, less choices, less exercise of free will. Thus, more dependency. And on and on.

People complain about democracy (and the rule of law) because it’s messy and slow. Here’s a shocker: it’s supposed to be messy and slow! The system is designed to protect us from our passing passions and the temptation of quick fixes.

It encourages people to study, debate, and ponder, and eventually come up with a deliberate solution for the common good because of the (wise) assumption that the government does not and cannot know and solve everything.

Our dignity and self-respect demand that we govern and rule ourselves.

When we say Philippines and common good, we’re not only talking of the 100 million living in our country right now. We also mean those that died before us, that fought and built this country they believed in (and its values and culture). We the living have a responsibility that they not die in vain.

The Philippines includes also those yet to be born, deserving to flourish as human beings, and thus our responsibility to bequeath to them a decent country they’d be proud of, to work for (and die for, if necessary) because they know that it stands for something bigger than the merely passing.

This is the Philippines embodied in our Constitution. It was a great idea. Too bad, it hasn’t been implemented.