No Free Lunch

Thin is better than fat

/ 05:08 AM February 27, 2018

Political dynasties came into the spotlight again recently after the Senate committee on electoral reforms heard evidence that links poverty with dynasties, from a study led by Dean Ronald Mendoza of the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government. Done with colleagues Victor Venida, Edsel Beja and David Yap from the Ateneo Department of Economics, the study analyzed and documented evidence from the past decade, and distinguishes between “fat” and “thin” dynasties. The former refers to family members holding simultaneous government positions (“sabay-sabay”), while the latter refers to succession by family members for the same position (“sunod-sunod”).

Cross-country comparisons suggest that the Philippines has been unusually more prone to political dynasties than other countries. Looking at legislators alone, the authors noted the unusually high incidence of dynasties in the Philippine Congress, with 75 percent of lawmakers belonging to dynasties as of 2013. In the United States, the figure was 6 percent, while it was 10 percent in Argentina and Greece, 22 percent in Ireland, 24 percent in India, 33 percent in Japan, 40 percent in Mexico, and 42 percent in Thailand.


But there’s more to it than high incidence alone. The concentration of dynasties in the Philippine Congress has actually been on the rise, quite unlike the experience elsewhere, with dynasties showing a decline through time. For example, the proportion of dynastic legislators in the United States has declined through the years. A 2009 study led by Ernesto Dal Bo found that 11 percent of US legislators
between 1789 and 1858 were dynastic, but the proportion had gone down to only 7 percent after 1966, and more recently, to 6 percent. A 2011 study by Brian Feinstein also noted improvements in various countries that had introduced political
reforms to curb dynasties, notably in Latin America.

The Philippines, however, has gone in the other direction in the past three decades. In the 8th Congress (1987-1992), 62 percent of legislators had relatives in elective positions. This had risen to 66 percent by the 12th Congress (1998-2001), not counting party-list representatives that started with the 11th Congress. That proportion went up to 75 percent in the 14th Congress, described tongue-in-cheek at that time as a “Montessori Congress” for the unusually large number of legislators who were offspring of their predecessors. Interestingly, one in every four sectoral representatives (14 of 56) was also dynastic, quite contrary to the supposed objective of party-list representation as a means to broaden representation in Congress and make it more inclusive.


The findings of Dean Mendoza and his colleagues show that high poverty in our provinces is critically linked to the prevalence of political dynasties, particularly of the fat kind. While their analysis has established that high levels of poverty foster dynasties and tend to further fatten them, there is less conclusive evidence of causality in the opposite direction—i.e., that political dynasties lead to high poverty incidence. What can be said with confidence given their evidence is that high levels of poverty help bring about political dynasties, and once in place, political dynasties fail to reduce or could even worsen poverty. The researchers also found a weak link between educational level and prevalence of dynasties, contrary to what one might believe that a more educated electorate could reduce dynasties.

Would a more informed public due to wider availability of mass media reduce dynasties? The study found that the media (indicated in the analysis by presence of more AM radio stations) actually increase the share of dynasties in total positions, but reduce fat dynasties. One can interpret this to mean that the media help level the playing field, but their use is still dominated by dynasties or would-be dynasties.

Hardly anyone would dispute that political dynasties are not all bad, hence need not be banned altogether. What Mendoza and colleagues found is that fat dynasties tend to be the more objectionable kind (hence our title). If we must have dynasties, then let them just be of the thin kind.

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