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Commentary

Bad policies, good politics

The research evidence does not support institutionalizing the death penalty or lowering the age of criminal responsibility. They do not reduce crime. They do more harm than good. So why are policymakers proposing these changes to existing legislation? Why vote in support of capital  punishment or driving down the age of criminal responsibility to 12—and even to 9? Why advocate bad policies despite the overwhelming evidence?

One, because it’s good politics.

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The primary task after getting elected into public office is to get reelected. If we believe that policymakers are in public office for our welfare, then we are being grossly optimistic. And we ignore a fundamental fact about people in positions of power: They are self-interested.

This is why regional hospitals in the country do not have formally appointed chiefs unless one is “preferred” by a local politician. Never mind that the politician has little or no qualification to decide how efficient and effective hospital systems should be run. This is also why many Filipinos do not know their PhilHealth package benefits and subsequently do not use them, because local officials enroll only their family, friends and cronies. This is why budgets are slashed, not because of fiscal necessity but because of power play and manipulation. Power rests on those with the keys to the treasure box. This is also why politicians’ names are on banners, garbage trucks, emergency vehicles, and other public goods and services. These are paid by public money—your taxes. But these create the illusion—and perhaps delusion—that it is the politicians themselves who put up their own money. Politicians then expect us to be grateful for their work. For what, for spending our hard-earned money? Or maybe because it is their way of advertising “getting something done”? So that they can get reelected. The primary motivation of public officials is to benefit their private interests, not our public welfare.

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There are three ways to control their self-interested behaviors. We can closely monitor them. (This does not happen here. Transparency in this country is merely a seal.) Another way is to punish them by voting them out of office. (This does not happen here. Political dynasties rule supreme in the Philippines.) Finally, we can screen them before electing them into office. )This does not happen here. Only recently did we start filtering our drinking water. Filtering out dirty politicians is a tall order.)

Second, when the policies on the death penalty and on the criminal age of responsibility fail—as they will—we will blame the most public of public officials: the President. For policymakers this is to their advantage. They ride the coattails of the President’s undeniable popularity but will readily point the finger when things go wrong. In the very unlikely scenario that either policy succeeds, policymakers will take the credit, highlight it as their “pet project,” and cite that in their reelection campaign. In the almost-guaranteed possibility that both policies will prove asinine, policymakers will cry foul and point the finger at the administration. They will trot out their newfound or reinvigorated righteousness in the context of the extrajudicial killings. They will appeal to some Higher Power who has supposedly—and conveniently—renewed their sense of duty during an election period. Forgiveness, after all, is most convenient in all manners of religion. It covers all manners of sin.

They will not admit their role in pushing for the proposed changes in legislation. They need not: The media will be too busy covering the administration’s defense against these accusations. And we will all be too happy to wash our hands of it and move on to the next teleserye. It is no coincidence that the bills on the death penalty and on the age of criminal responsibility are gliding through the two chambers of Congress with ease and the ample support of appointed officials. We are distracted—and entertained—by the Cirque du De Lima. Admission is free, and the show is always on. You can’t beat that. It’s strategic, it’s good politics.

Finally, policymakers are voting for these bills because they might not be fully aware of the clear evidence. This is understandable. They might be experts in some issues, but not in others. Or they simply might not have the time to study the nuances of complex issues.

Here is where we might ask less—but only a little bit—of the policymakers and instead look to their staff, especially their legislative team. These hardworking and exhausted high achievers are in a particularly unique and critical position to shape the views of their policymakers. So, we must wonder: Did they do their homework? Did they consult the public and private sectors, formulate policy briefs based on hard evidence, and bend the ears of their bosses who can then make an informed decision? Or did they just search Wikipedia and call it a day? If they did not do their homework, why are incompetent staff being paid by public funds?

Of course, it is possible that they did do their homework but their boss chose to ignore the facts. This makes perfect sense. See the first point on self-interest. Institutionalizing the death penalty and lowering the age of criminal responsibility are bad policies. If the intention of policymakers is to reduce crime, they will fail. If their intention is to promote public safety, this is wishful thinking. If their intention is to create robust, cost-effective policies, they will be sorely disappointed—and we will be hardly surprised. If their intention is to gain popularity, they will win. After all, qualifications to hold public office and positions on issues are not what win elections in this country. Here, elections are popularity contests between those with deep pockets and those with their hands in others’ deeper pockets.

The Filipino people are hungry for change but are being fed bullets. As with so many extractive policy decisions throughout our shared history, the Filipino people will be, once again, at the losing end of these two proposed changes.

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Dr. Ronald del Castillo is professor of psychology, public health, and public policy at the University of the Philippines Manila and Diliman. The views here are his own.

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