No Free Lunch

It’s all about enforcement

Filipinos are actually law-abiding citizens in other countries or areas,” a reader once wrote me, in reaction to a piece I wrote on Metro Manila’s chaotic road traffic. “In Puerto Princesa, Clark and Subic, everyone follows the law. If we go outside the country, we observe that OFWs follow the law. But when they come back, they follow the old law—(law)ko-loko.” Another reader from Toronto, Canada, wrote: “Newly arrived settlers here (Europeans and Asians alike) bring their bad driving habits/practices from their former home countries to their newly adopted country. However, strict enforcement of traffic laws, and the potential additional criminal charge for offering a bribe to a police officer by any driver hoping to beat the issuance of a traffic ticket, put such bad driving practices in check in no time.”

From simple traffic violations to capital offenses like plunder, drug dealing and murder, offenders here at home simply manage to get away with it, often with impunity. One often gets the feeling that our system actually reinforces, rather than deters, violations of the law, to the point that it is the obedient and compliant who are the ones that lose out. Drivers who stay on their proper place on the road are the last ones to get through. Too many upright officials appointed into known corrupt agencies have ended up being pushed out when they refuse to “play along,” often even unfairly discredited. Tax evaders consistently get away with not paying what is due, such that whenever the government needs to boost revenues, it’s the honest taxpayers who get penalized with even higher taxes. There are just too many “open secrets” of flagrant graft, tax evasion, and even murder, that have gone unpunished, and worse, practically ignored by those tasked to enforce the law. And we seem to take it all so lightly that we even like to joke how in our country, laws and rules are mere suggestions. When a government car is marked “for official use only,” we joke that it really means it is “for official use also.”


Law enforcement failures are particularly common in (but certainly not limited to) environmental laws. An example is the persistent incursion of commercial fishing vessels within the 15-kilometer zone reserved by the Fisheries Code to small artisanal municipal fishers. Illegal loggers have managed to denude our forests through the years, that from the estimated 20 million hectares of virgin forests we had about a century ago, we now have less than a million left. Too many of our waterways have been badly poisoned by toxic mine residues from lax or nonexistent enforcement of otherwise good regulations on mining. The problem in many cases is that powerful political interests are either behind or directly responsible for the violations.

And now that we have an environment secretary who is determined to change all that—granting that she may be doing it a bit too zealously—she is pilloried and demonized like she were Public Enemy No. 1.


The same reader who lamented the lax enforcement of traffic rules believes it is self-reinforcing behavior. He wrote: “Traffic violations are tolerated since it is a means of developing the attitude of law breaking so that once the attitude is there, and people get used to it, corrupt law enforcers will now have good reason to make arrests then ask for bribes.” If laxity and inconsistency in enforcing laws are indeed self-reinforcing at the level of those directly tasked to do so, the determination to change these and the example of obedience to laws will have to come from the top. The full force of the law must be brought down on everyone who flouts it. Violations must not simply be corrected; they must be penalized accordingly. The use of fake tax stamps to defraud the government of billions of pesos, for example, is not a mere indemnity that could be settled; it is a crime that must be punished.

In the debate on the death penalty, opponents make the compelling argument that it is not so much the severity of punishment that deters a crime as the certainty of being punished. And it all starts with not looking the other way when laws are violated.

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TAGS: certainty of punishment, Cielito F. Habito, enforcement, Inquirer Opinion, No Free Lunch, severity of punishment
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