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Commentary

Unprecedented opulence and remarkable deprivation

12:33 AM July 01, 2015

The failure of any nation is sometimes attributed to the inability of its institutions to deliver the ends of development that people expect from their leaders. The system of governance is critical in the equitable distribution of national wealth. But the ultimate question remains: Why should people value their freedom?

Freedom, according to Amartya Sen, is that capacity to achieve something and become what we desire ourselves to be. Development, in this sense, depends on people and the choices that they make. Right now, Sen says that while “we live in a world of unprecedented opulence,” we also “live in a world of remarkable deprivation, destitution and oppression.”

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Why is Philippine democracy weak? Scholars often point to the apparent weakness of Philippine institutions. In “A Theory of Justice,” John Rawls writes that “justice is the first virtue of the institution, as truth is in systems of thought.” But when is a society just? The Rawlsian sense of justice tells us that justice is meant to favor those who are unfortunate in the natural lottery. This means that just schemes of social cooperation are intended to benefit those who have the least in society. This should not mean, however, that any individual should sacrifice oneself for the sake of equality.

Right now, we are at a crucial juncture in terms of charting our future as a nation. Under the Aquino administration, the gross domestic product growth rates are 7.6 percent for 2010, 3.7 percent for 2011, 6.8 percent for 2012, 7.2 percent for 2013, and 6.1 percent for 2014. The jobless rate for 2013 was 7.5 percent, which translates to some 2.96 million unemployed Filipinos. Thus, the common criticism against any administration is that economic growth has not been inclusive, which means that the wealth created by the economy has not trickled down to the household. The evidence cited for this is that the poverty incidence, including hunger, has not actually eased.

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There is truth to the claim that economic opportunities in the country are still noninclusive. Apparently, this means that there is lack of equitability in terms of income distribution. David Crocker has argued that issues pertaining to the informational basis of equality should also consider what capabilities are for. This means that it is no longer enough to make education equally accessible to all, but, rather, it must also be asked what sort of capacities are crucial in order to advance human development. While parents may have spent a lifetime of savings in order to send an eldest child to college, their hope is often shattered when that child is unable to find any gainful employment.

We can look into the agriculture sector as a matter of example. We probably have the poorest farmers in the world. Agriculture is very important because the survival of more than a hundred million Filipinos depends on it. The International Rice Research Institute plays an instrumental role in terms of improving rice variety, but our problem is not only limited to the development of a science of sustainable agriculture, but also in the inability of our poor farmers to optimize their earning potential. The reason for this is that unscrupulous middle men, who offer nefarious financing schemes, take advantage of our farmers’ lack of marketing knowledge.

Ultimately, the inability of the bureaucracy to expand the services that any government is mandated to provide is not only a problem of structure. Personal interest, bad attitude and the lack of moral motive also contribute to the weakening of the bureaucracy. While growth and equity are two things that laws, rules and policies are expected to secure, the cultural dimension of the problem cannot be put aside. For instance, the prejudice against graduates of province-based schools or ethnic minorities is oppressive.

Economic injustice is often equated with the lack of income. The lack of income is generally attributed to the absence of available jobs. Some welfare states in Western Europe have unemployment rates of more than 10 percent. Italy has 12.4 percent, and France has 10.5 percent, respectively. But Sen sees this double-digit unemployment tolerable. The reason is the presence of protective security in terms of government support to the unemployed. In stark contrast, during the rice crisis of 2008, the Philippine government subsidized the importation of rice to the tune of billions of pesos. Instead of our farmers being supported, traders and importers benefited from the shortage.

People in the margins are impoverished not only because of the absence of basic government services. The real culprit is their lack of empowerment. The poor are often blamed for electing useless and corrupt public officials. This perspective is insensitive and ignorant. In truth, poor and helpless voters are systematically exploited by dynasts and patronage politics. The lack of opportunities in the many rural areas simply forces them to be overly dependent on local tyrants and feudal lords.

Christopher Ryan Maboloc teaches philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University. He has a master’s degree in applied ethics from Linkoping University in Sweden.

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TAGS: democracy, economy, freedom, injustice, Poverty, wealth
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