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Development, democracy, dictatorship and RevGov

Enrique Razon Jr., president-CEO of International Container Terminal Services Inc., may have reason to complain. The headline of the story that covered his comments at the Asean Business Investment Summit ran: “Exec says infra dev’t, democracy can’t mix.” Direct and indirect quotes in the story cannot establish that he made such a categorical and incorrect conclusion.

The print report began with an accurate statement: “[Some] countries with the best infrastructure in the world are dictatorships.” This was also the basis for the online version’s headline: “Countries with best infrastructure are dictatorships—Razon.” But the online version also attributed to him the view that infrastructure development and democracy cannot go hand in hand, “hinting that there might be a benefit in being [run] by a dictator.”

The “hint” picked came from Mr. Razon’s suggestion that dictatorships did better than democracies in delivering infrastructure development. He offered, as the exception that proves the rule, the example of the United States: the only country “that advocated for democracy and achieved development but only because it was ‘so vast and has so much resources.’” But Canada and Australia also achieved development and democracy. Admittedly, both nations are also vast and well-endowed with natural resources. What about Japan?

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Or the Netherlands? Mr. Razon conceded that Europe was “well-advanced,” asserting that “its infrastructure was built over a hundred years ago and they weren’t a democracy yet.” But the most advanced European nations, even a hundred years ago, were already working democracies, whose World War I victory in 1917 was prematurely hailed as the triumph of democracy. Europe, however, was not then and is not now one country.

The conceptual problem that confounds sweeping conclusions about democracy, dictatorship, and development often arises from the attempt to reduce these complex terms to a single definition. The democracies of 20th-century Europe differed in their approximation of democracy, as they do today. Democracy will always remain a work-in-progress. In an ever-changing environment, maintaining a consensus among free individuals requires continuing effort.

Ultimately dependent on coercion, a small cabal of ruthless leaders can more easily maintain, for a time, a dictatorial regime. Technology facilitated efforts by despots in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Red China to aim for totalitarian control. But dictatorships also vary in their aspiration, ability and willingness to concentrate and deploy power. Critics may dismiss Cuba and Zimbabwe as infrastructure-deficient dictatorships but acknowledge that they achieved different levels of human development. China and Singapore both have excellent infrastructure, but cannot be described as equally “dictatorial.”

Some countries with the worst infrastructure in the world are dictatorships, something Mr. Razon might have acknowledged. That both democracies and dictatorships display good and bad infrastructure suggests that the system of government does not by itself guarantee infrastructure excellence. Not a particularly stunning insight worthy of headlines, but it would have left Mr. Razon unscathed by doubts as to his political preferences.

Having lived through the martial law years and with his international business experience, Mr. Razon knows more than most the difference between democracies and dictatorships. Retreating from the slippery slope to which his comments on political economy had led, he declared that he was not “‘endorsing’ one form of political system over another.”

This disclaimer only distinguished himself from most Filipinos, who continue to believe that they have better chances under a democracy, even when it has yet to deliver a better life to many of them. Unlike Mr. Razon, who has prospered even within the country’s flawed democracy. He did not need a dictatorship to expand the family fortunes.

It also fed fuel to the controversy over the proposed revolutionary government. His unqualified profession of indifference to the choice between democracy and dictatorship for the Philippines, at a time when the country may be compelled to choose, is disappointing and sad.

If democracy again dies in the Philippines, critics will likely blame the ignorant masses for failing either to elect leaders of proven competence and unquestioned integrity or to hold them accountable when they betray public trust. But the leadership elite—in politics and the professions, in the church and civil society, in the bureaucracy and business—will bear the heavier burden for its death.

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Edilberto C. de Jesus (edcdejesus@ gmail.com) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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TAGS: Business Matters, democracy, development, dictatorship, Edilberto C. de Jesus, Enrique Razon Jr., RevGov
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