Wanted: political will
Sometimes we need to take one step backward in order to take two steps forward,” my late dear friend Dr. Cayetano “Dondon” Paderanga Jr. explained to me, after inviting me to help him lead the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) in 1990.
I had initially told him off, even declaring that only over my dead body could he get me to join government. How I eventually ate those words was another story in itself, but my aversion partly came from having seen government take too many steps backward, and I had no desire to be part of any of that. I was later to see, through the years, far too many more backward steps not matched by offsetting steps forward.
There are as many instances when our leaders know the right forward steps to take, but simply won’t do it. This may be because doing so may not be popular, thus harming their popularity or chances for reelection. Often, decision-makers are coopted by vested interests in a political and electoral system wherein the golden rule (“he who holds the gold makes the rules”) prevails.
Another former Neda colleague, Dr. Romeo Reyes, responded to my recent columns on right of way thus: “We already have a law clearly specifying what implementing agencies can and must do if the private property owner disputes the assessed just compensation. All it takes is the will of the agency and all concerned to implement the law. Without it (nothing will) solve the problem.”
He is right. As I wrote earlier, enactment of the Right of Way Act in 2016 has not stopped ROW from being a prominent cause of infrastructure delays to this date. Unfortunately, we cannot legislate political will.
Political will is rooted in the values and preferences of the decision-maker. In the ideal world, these values and preferences are based on the common good — that is, the greatest good of the greatest numbe r— rather than personal welfare. But more often than not, the two do not come together in the decision-maker’s mind and heart. Humans are said to be inherently selfish; our values and preferences are thus motivated first and foremost by our own personal welfare. While what is “right” is what serves the common good, it too often goes against serving the decision-maker’s own personal good.
In the 1980s, I wrote of how a progressive agricultural land tax (i.e., one that gets steeper for larger landholdings) could achieve the aims of agrarian reform with less pain, as it could lead large landowners to voluntarily let go of excess landholdings. An interested lawmaker contacted me to help in drafting legislation for it, but after a while, the calls stopped. I later learned that she found that there were just too many colleagues and campaign funders who would not support the measure — and that spelled the end of her political will to push it.
The same fate would befall any attempt to impose a steep idle land tax now — something I’ve seen wide support for all around the country, but the political will from those who could enact it just isn’t there. Many similar examples abound.
If decision-makers are to muster the political will to make the right decisions and actions for the country, they must see the common good redounding to their own personal good. What would it take to achieve this? Having the right leadership is crucial. Society’s leaders, starting with the President, must clearly embody the ethic for the common good. By the leaders’ example, those who are led are likely to assimilate the same ethic in turn.
Incentive systems must make the common good and private good converge. Much of corporate social responsibility happens because it has also been self-serving on the part of the corporations who practice it, as the firm’s enhanced image improves its business. Strong national pride and patriotism has led people in some countries to set aside personal welfare in favor of the common good; sadly, this still eludes too many of us Filipinos. And I have seen spiritual and moral renewal that transforms people’s values and ethics change hearts toward putting the common good above personal welfare.
Political will for the common good may be a rare commodity, but it need not be a mythical one.