Arrogance of power

CHASING THE WIND - Felipe B. Miranda -
Those in power appears to have less use for wisdom, intelligence, fairness or justice. They evidently find arrogance more satisfying and thus haughtiness and lack of compassion are typical of most power-wielders in government, business and even many civil society groups. Observers have been often struck by the negative correlation between power of any sort and virtue. Across cultures and over time, a most popular aphorism has been "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

The Philippines provides further evidence for this observation. The highest government authorities regularly engage in folly and still arrogantly expect the nation to applaud their alleged sagacity and compassion for the poor. Against reason, they involve Filipinos in imperial wars that do not serve the nation’s interest; they commit their people to serving a coalition of those willing to employ weapons of mass deception in justifying foreign adventurism. Later, unable to fudge an erroneous policy putting Filipino overseas workers and the Arroyo administration’s own political survival at extreme risk, they are forced to repudiate ill-conceived international commitments. Opportunistically, they try to foist this retreat as an exercise in laudable compassion for desperate OCWs and their terrified families.

Equally arrogantly, the same authorities that had shown little competence in the past three years in addressing the nation’s public finance crisis — drawing local and international agencies to warn about dangerously high levels of budgetary deficits, public indebtedness and government corruption – now ask Filipinos to prepare for greater self-sacrifice. They are to pay more taxes even as the national administration fails to provide proof of its ability to efficiently utilize taxes to serve the public interest. The traditional mantra normally chanted in annual state-of-the-nation addresses and once more echoed in the latest 2004 SONA — more jobs, more classrooms, more houses, more and better infrastructure, better health and nutrition for the nation, balanced national budgets and social justice — no longer inspires. It is no longer possible to keep Filipinos in convenient genuflection even as they reflect or fantazise about the miracle of politicians transforming into patriotic, willful and capably performing national leaders.

The heartwarming euphoria of EDSA 1 and the illusory optimism of EDSA 2 are nothing more than historical footnotes now. (Nostalgia-trippers may seek comfortable sanctuaries in both but they have little contact and afford even much less comfort with current realities.) If national leaders continue to be folly-oriented in their modes of governance, if they continue to substitute arrogance for an objective analysis of what needs to be done to turn this country around fast and if they continue to be politically promiscuous and permissive instead of being properly discriminating and politically willful, there is more than an even chance for an EDSA 4 or 5 to come about. Either could make EDSA 3 look like a picnic in the park.

The main reason for this grim scenario being a distinct possibility may be situated in a paradox. Power breeds arrogance but not only the most powerful are capable of it. As no one is completely devoid of some degree of power, there is in everyone a latent capability for arrogance too. The poorest citizens, the politically and economically marginalized, those who are generally miserable because of numerous social inequities and other unnatural handicaps are nevertheless with their respective personal domains. They have their hungry families, their makeshift hovels, their squalid communities and, above all, their poverty-stricken nation.

At each level of personal commitment, millions of poor, despoiled and increasingly hopeless Filipinos exercise their marginal power and fortify it with much arrogance. They ignore property rights and squat where they mushroom into shanty communities with little regard for laws that after all are inequitably applied. They treat traffic rules — vehicular as well as pedestrian — with much contempt and allow for nothing less than the laws of physics to ultimately govern their movements. The more daring among them arrogantly reformulate the laws of economics primarily by refusing to integrate with those tenanting the economy’s formal sector. In that other, more dynamic dimension that few professional economists are knowledgeable about, what is demanded is automatically supplied and what is supplied generally does not become an entry in the national income accounts. (It makes little difference whether the commodity involved is a cavan of black market rice, a kilo of shabu, a cannibalized car, a pre-owned cellphone or some title to a land-grabbed property; it is the same with services, whether one deals in escort bodies, guns-for-hire or outright contracts for those targets that must be dealt with extreme prejudice. Legitimate as well as quasi-legitimate goods and services also pass through the informal markets; they, much like their suspect and illegal counterparts, assume the haziest identities and, thus cloaked, arrogantly tread their way through the economic maze, freed from the usual encumbrances of legal taxes, imposts and duties, but dutifully paying normally kindlier, informal fees.)

There is an understandable fixation with the arrogance of the powerful in government, business, the churches and other civil society groups. There is much coverage of plundering politicians, monopolistic oligarchs, crony capitalists, politicized soldiers, kotong policemen and politicking clergymen. Among these powerful entities, the law means nothing, respectable traditions count for less than nothing and self-serving pragmatism is everything. Indeed, there is much that these creatures are accountable for in destabilizing any society.

There is not enough understanding, however, of the greater danger posed by a citizenry that is perceptibly losing its ethical, moral and political grounding. Brutalized by enduring historical iniquities, most people eventually lose their basic sense of humanity. In every domain they move in, they aggressively exercise their personal power – regardless of reason, the law, morality and simple decency – and inevitably develop their own self-serving arrogance.

As in anything that involves corruption, the problem is not so much when the leaders become corrupt but when most of the public take to it as a way of life. When the citizenry takes to arrogance, anarchy cannot be prevented. That is this nation’s impending disaster. It is truly a wonder that Filipinos have somehow avoided this comprehensive societal catastrophe up to now.

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