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Positive and negative democracy

By Christopher Ryan Maboloc
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:12:00 11/24/2008

Filed Under: Government, Politics

MANILA, Philippines - The power of democracy to effect change in the wellbeing of people depends on what people do in their lives.

Democracy can be theoretically construed and empirically practiced as ?positive? or ?negative.? The emphasis on people?s positive capabilities, for instance ?the role of freedom concerning the ... different kinds of rights, opportunities, and entitlements,? can be seen as instrumental to national development. The above includes economic opportunities, education, health, transparency in government and protective security in terms of safety nets (i.e., farm subsidies during food or economic crises) as necessary to make democracy work. These rights can be considered as ?positive entitlements? which empower people.

In arguing for people?s democratic rights, Amrtya Sen emphasizes the argument that no famine has ever occurred under a democratic regime. The reason for this is that any famine is unthinkable if the government provides enough provisions to farmers in terms of farm inputs. A government that is in solidarity with the farmers can immediately address any need for food basically because open discussion, transparency and participation will ensure food stability. People, if free, will be morally empowered to voice their concerns and press their government for action. This requires, however, the ?capability? to ?speak out,? and the ?positive empowerment? to argue for one?s rights. Sen notes that ?the people have to be seen, in this perspective, as being actively involved?given the opportunity?in shaping their own destiny, and not just as passive recipients of the fruits of cunning development programs.? Positive democracy means people are real contributors to human wellbeing and not ?passive recipients? of doles and grants. For example, Sen argues, famines are not natural calamities but human disasters, and he theorizes that ?famines are policy failures,? and not a real shortage of food. The same holds true for the country?s rice crisis. Neglect of agriculture is simply a failure of governance. The exercise of our negative rights, in this regard, is crucial. However, it does not guarantee the protection from nor does it prevent the real possibility of such a crisis never happening again.

Transparency laws, from the point of view of positive democracy, are useless if people are not knowledgeable about the mechanisms which ensure transparent government transactions. Any government can easily abuse its people if people are bereft of the tools or knowledge which will secure their welfare. A hungry man, for example, will simply say that he has no time to think about corruption in government nor will he reflect about the ?character? and ?qualifications? of the person he will vote for during elections. It can also be said that ?anti-corruption drives? and the ?right of suffrage? are only seen in a negative way as an exercise of one?s negative freedom, and not as positive opportunities to really empower one?s self in public. Positive democracy, in this sense, entails the active participation of people, of ?people power? in a very positive way because it results in real change.

On the other hand, people also show their ?critical? and ?reactive? attitude against a regime. It can also be argued that the importance of democracy lies in the fact that it secures and protects the political freedoms of people. Negative freedom implies freedom from oppression. Simply put, it is the ?right to protest.? We can explain this by pointing out that democracy puts ?pressure? on government leaders to be responsive to the needs of the people because the people hold them accountable for their welfare.

The Philippines is a flawed democracy. It is flawed because it does not have a functioning government. The reason for this is that its political culture is weak. This weakness is something that I see in the inconsistent image of a corrupt politician who endorses an anti-corruption book. Protests can effect some changes in the public lives of people, but unless people become real contributors to their wellbeing, change is but a dream, ?difficult? and ?impossible.?

For instance, libraries are almost non-existent in many public schools. This should not mean that a student mustn?t read books. For a student to really learn, he or she has to find these books somewhere. It will not be enough to wait for the results of mass actions denouncing the government?s neglect of education. A student needs to realize that the life he or she has to live is something that is ?fully? and ?truly? his or her own responsibility. Opportunities don?t just come. These are things that we create.

In conclusion, my analysis is that responsible citizens, guided by their ?duty of civility,? will work to ensure that development becomes the priority of their national and local leaders. The streets can be the battleground. But beyond such and in a very positive way, the academe, research institutions and private corporations can contribute to advance the welfare of people more than the parliament of the streets. People Power 1986 is a classic case of negative democracy. After two decades, it has become apparent that the event has not translated into a ?highly industrialized? Philippines. Of course, negative democracy makes people vigilant even in intense economic situations. People value their political freedoms. But people can also resign themselves to the fact that their kind of government is perpetually corrupt. Negative democracy does not necessarily empower them to seek real wellbeing, and thus, negative democracy may not place us on the road to human development.

People should realize, as Mahbub Ul Haq suggested, that they are the ?real wealth of the nation.? This means that development is not the mere ?by-product? but is in itself the reflection of the ?kind of people? a country has. People have to be truly responsible for and take part in the commitment to achieve human development. Of course, we deserve a better government. But on the other hand, to demand such from our leaders, right now, may not be enough.

Christopher Ryan Maboloc is chair of the Philosophy Division at the Ateneo de Davao University.

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