What to do about smuggling?
It’s something that’s been there for as long as the oldest members of this community have been on earth, and it looks nowhere near to being pushed mightily back, let alone eradicated. “We’re talking of an entire ecosystem here,” John Philip Sevilla, the new Customs chief, admits.
The amounts are mind-boggling, as the Washington-based research and advocacy group, Global Financial Integrity (GFI), points out. Between 1960 and 2011, some $410.5 billion flowed in and out of the country, a great deal of it from smuggling. Of course the problem is worldwide, GFI says, but what drew its attention to us was that we had become a near-permanent entry every year in the top 10 countries that were a smuggler’s paradise. In the 51-year period it studied, says GFI, South Korea started out on par with us but showed a steep decline in smuggling over time. We showed the opposite.
It’s not the easiest thing to solve. Certainly, Rodrigo Duterte’s preferred solution, which is to kill rice smugglers, won’t do it. Defying Etta Rosales’ and sane society’s remonstrations over his noises to that effect, he recently vowed to kill Davidson Bangayan if he should find him smuggling rice in Davao City. It’s not just that that solution will put people like Duterte in charge of this country, it’s also that it will only get rid of one group of rice smugglers in favor of others that have patronage or protection. Power does corrupt and absolute power does corrupt absolutely—quite literally, in the sense of becoming a crook, as Marcos showed.
Political will is arguably the key. GFI argues so, saying that though the current administration has shown strength of will in pushing back corruption, it hasn’t seeped deeply into Customs. The reason is not hard to see. Customs is home to an Ali Baba treasure. The temptations are monumental, and this is a country more than any other that ardently believes in Oscar Wilde’s witticism that the best way to deal with temptation is to yield to it. As Ruffy Biazon, Sevilla’s predecessor, points out, echoing Sevilla’s own depiction of corruption inside Customs as an ecosystem, “If you remove one corrupt individual and yet the same environment prevails, the risk for the replacement to go bad remains high.”
What hasn’t been pointed out in all this, however, but which I think is itself the key to political will, is the lack of public censure, or scorn, or condemnation of smuggling and smugglers. Political will also depends on the extent to which it reflects and finds support in public opinion, or more deeply in culture. What has made smuggling more rampant in this country over time is not just that the money is huge but also that the opprobrium is nonexistent. The promise of reward is not outweighed by the risk of punishment, by jail, or social ostracism. You can’t give a better incentive to it than that.
The implicit assumption in the exposés about smuggling, specifically rice smuggling, that have appeared in the media of late is that the public will be outraged by it, particularly where the sums involved are gargantuan. Yet nowhere is there a bigger disconnect than here. Maybe the elite is assailed by it, maybe the upper middle class is assailed by it. But not so the various strata the lower down you go. Unlike rape and murder or such social ills as human trafficking, child pornography and prostitution, smuggling is not seen as a social menace, only as a social inconvenience. The general attitude is that it is a problem of government (it is not getting its taxes), but it is not our problem (taxes have nothing to do with us).
Even Duterte’s popular spin on it, which the shock value of his not-entirely-facetious proposal of killing smugglers is meant to give it, doesn’t draw that kind of outrage. Rice smuggling may be a big deal for Duterte because it is deducting a fortune from the taxes due Davao’s city hall, but it is not so for the ordinary citizen.
In the case of rice smuggling, moreover, the attitude may be worse. That attitude may be: Who cares if city hall loses money so long as we get to benefit from cheap rice? Who cares if the government loses billions upon billions of taxes so long as the consumers gain a few pesos, which is worth a fortune if you can barely make both ends meet, from a deluge of rice?
The same affliction that attends corruption is the same affliction that attends smuggling: We have no natural instinct or reflex to equate taxes with our money, we have no natural instinct or reflex to translate “depriving government of taxes” with “stealing from us.” The only way to invest smuggling with opprobrium, with toxicity, with reprehensibility, is to make us see that smuggling, even when it makes some things cheaper, actually carts away our belongings like an Akyat Bahay gang does, and the only way to make us see that is to mount a campaign to drive home the point that taxes are our money, what’s lost in taxes is lost to us.
That is not the easiest thing in the world to do. But it needs to be done. Otherwise, we can continue to expose all sorts of smugglers and smuggling activities and we will be nowhere to stopping them than when the GFI did its study 51 years ago.
Otherwise, the business community may continue to rate Customs as the most corrupt office in the government, and Customs will be nowhere near to following the trajectory of its counterpart in South Korea. Political will is only as good as it is backed by popular will. Government resolve is only as good as it is backed by public scorn for those it means to go after. Customs is only as good as it is the custom of a particular community or society to hold taxes sacred.
Otherwise, we might as well just get accustomed to smuggling.
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