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No Free Lunch

Yes, there is hope

I ended my last column on a seemingly pessimistic note with the rhetorical question “Is there hope for the Philippines?” I did not mean to imply, much less conclude, that there isn’t. Indeed, if there’s one thing that we Filipinos can collectively take pride in, it is our people’s undying hope, even in the face of misfortunes, that things will get better, and a seemingly unshakeable faith that God has something good in store for us as a nation.

It was three decades ago when writer James Fallows stirred much debate when he wrote that we Filipinos might trace the root of our persistent woes to “a damaged culture,” in a controversial article of the same title in The Atlantic magazine. “It seems to me that the prospects for the Philippines are as dismal as those for, say, South Korea are bright,” he wrote then. “In each case the basic explanation seems to be culture: in the one case a culture that brings out the productive best in the Koreans (or the Japanese, or now even the Thais), and in the other a culture that pulls many Filipinos toward their most self-destructive, self-defeating worst.”

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Many were led to either dispute or defend his thesis. Its adherents are the same people who would say “only in the Philippines” in describing the bad and ugly things around us that we see and do. A passage that stuck with me through the years was: “I felt I had a glimpse into the failures of the Philippines when I saw prosperous-looking matrons buying cakes and donuts in a bakery, eating them in a department store, and dropping the box and wrappers around them as they shopped.” While surely not something to be seen only in the Philippines, it does reflect the lack of concern for the common good that Fallows saw to be our fundamental problem: “a feeble sense of nationalism and a contempt for the public good.” He noted that “practically everything that is public in the Philippines seems neglected or abused,” and “because of this fragmentation—this lack of nationalism—people treat each other worse in the Philippines than in any other Asian country I have seen.”

Dissenters to the Fallows view deny that there is something inherently different, and inherently wrong, with the Filipino. This view now takes support from the 2012 bestseller “Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, who asserted that economic prosperity depends above all on the inclusiveness of economic and political institutions. The authors point to the contrast between North and South Korea as a prime example of nations composed of peoples of the same ethnic background that took widely divergent paths. Other examples include the bordering cities of Nogales in Sonora, Mexico, and Nogales in Arizona, USA, cities of largely similar people with contrasting situations now, owing to widely different political and economic institutions after political borders historically set them apart.

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The debate around the Fallows article stemmed not so much from whether his observations were accurate (they were) as more from an unclear notion of what the word “culture” actually refers to. Of the various definitions of the word I have seen, I find that of the Cambridge English Dictionary most relevant here, defining it as “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time ” (emphasis mine). The last part is crucial, as it implies that culture is neither inherent nor permanent, and is not tied to ethnicity or race. Those who objected to the Fallows piece may have done so on the premise that the damaged culture he alluded to supposedly runs in our blood, thus will never change. It does not. There is no contradiction between Acemoglu-Robinson and Fallows. The “damaged culture” the latter described, and persists to this day, is itself a product of flawed institutions, historical and present.

We may have a damaged culture, but it is not beyond repair. But we need our leaders, not just in the political realm, to nurture and strengthen, not weaken, our most critical institutions—not with strength through brute force or the barrel of a gun, but through the rule of law.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, damaged culture, Inquirer column, Inquirer columnist, Inquirer Opinion, James Fallows, No Free Lunch, Philippine society
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