MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – Often, our greatest problem is the failure to understand the true nature of the problems we face. And here lies the root cause of many developing countries’ inability to overcome perennial challenges of governance.
With the Philippines confronting one of the worst public health and economic crises in the entire East Asian region, calls for imaginative if not desperate “solutions” are once again in play.
And these ill-conceived and self-defeating “solutions” largely explain why our country has been trapped in a short-boom-and-big-bust cycle since at least the 1960s.
Throughout the decades, pundits and politicians have offered various explanations for the Philippines’ developmental predicaments.
Among the most common is the “culture” argument, with elites often blaming the supposedly “pasaway” citizens, even if our people have been among the most compliant in terms of wearing masks and observing hygiene during the current pandemic.
Or think of James Fallows’ famous “A Damaged Culture” argument, where he implies that there is endemic sense of dependence and lack of self-reliance among Filipinos.
But the problem with the “culture” arguments, dating back to Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (1905), is that they fall flat in the face of evidence.
A century earlier, Weber argued that Protestant nations have the right set of cultural attributes to succeed in the age of capitalism, namely high social capital and emphasis on success in this world.
Over a series of works, he mistakenly argued that other belief systems, including Catholicism and Confucianism, were incompatible with the “spirit of capitalism.”
He couldn’t have been more wrong. As historians such as Niall Ferguson point out, Weber not only overlooked the immense success of Jewish communities, but “was also mysteriously blind to the success of Catholic entrepreneurs in France, Belgium and elsewhere…”
By the second half of the 20th century, the “Confucian”- influenced societies in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and later China would turn into the world’s most successful stories of capitalism expansion.
Notice that the Philippines was ahead of almost all its neighbours until the early 1960s, so clearly “culture,” which can evolve over time, doesn’t explain our more recent predicaments.
Corruption alone is also not a good predictor of success, since nations with high levels of corruption such as China, Malaysia, or even Indonesia have been doing better than the Philippines.
Much also depends on the type of corruption – whether embezzled funds go to building domestic factories and businesses, or to luxurious parties in the Bahamas and offshore accounts in Panama.
And this brings us to the primary and recurring fallacy in our political discourse, namely the simplistic and deeply flawed idea that all we need is a “strongman” to magically solve our problems overnight, or, to put it in Rodrigo Duterte terms, in six months’ time.
Recently, hundreds of diehard Duterte supporters gathered at the Clark Freeport and Special Economic Zone in Pampanga to call for a “revolutionary government.”
Their offered solution to our festering predicament is apparently a confused mixture of overnight constitutional changes, including a shift to a parliamentary-federal form of government.
Never mind that among the worst-affected countries in recent months are the likes of the United States and Brazil, both ruled by strongmen populists overseeing two deeply federalised countries where lopsided decentralisation can undermine effective coordination of nationwide crisis management.
The non-federalized and unitary-presidential Indonesia, with a far larger population than Brazil, has done much better.
Or think of countries such as Russia or Turkey, which have had both presidents and parliaments, yet they are also among the worst affected nations.
Meanwhile, nations with dominant leaders such as Taiwan and South Korea have been among the most effective. Not to mention, non-democracies such as Vietnam, which is considered another model nation in Covid-19 crisis management.
As Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama correctly points out: “It is not a matter of regime type. Some democracies have performed well, but others have not, and the same is true for autocracies.”
What matters is having strong institutions in terms of state capacity, as well as social cohesion fostered by a vibrant civil society.
But you also need leaders that not only unite and inspire rather than divide and polarise, but also have the minimum competence to mobilise state institutions in times of crisis – something we have been sorely lacking in recent years.
The writer is columnist with the paper. The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media entities.
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