Can a change in system of government really change the development trajectory of an entire nation? Perhaps so, but the complexity of any causal link that might exist between a system of government and the future success — or failure — of a country does not allow us a straightforward way of determining just how big an influence system of government has on future prosperity.
Consider the the years prior to 1986. Before that seminal year when a spontaneous popular uprising now called the “Edsa people power revolution”, most of the Philippine “intelligentsia” of the time thought that the solution to the Philippines’ chronic inability to maintain a sustained economic expansion lay in “more freedom”. So the 1986 “revolution” gave Filipinos just that — freedom. A new Constitution was drafted in 1987 replacing the old one and changing the system of governance into the ultra-representative government we enjoy today. Did this change in system result in a change in the collective ability of Filipinos to create, acquire, and accumulate the vast resource surpluses needed to become a First World nation?
History has already answered this question. The Philippines remains the same intellectually-, financially-, socially-, and culturally-bankrupt country it was before 1986.
Consider too the nine years between 2001 and 2010 when then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was a favourite punching bag of the chattering classes and the “politically passionate”. Back then the thinking was that the Philippines needed to get rid of Arroyo in order to get back to the business of building a prosperous country (as if Filipinos where ever really serious about doing just that). Again, history since 2010 has already answered the question of whether that thinking was necessarily right. The Philippines is fundamentally the same under current President Benigno Simeon “BS” Aquino III. It is still ruled by oligarchs, its politics remains utterly dominated by election winning machines devoid of philosophical substance, and its national priorities are dictated by the interests of feudal clans and deeply-entrenched dynasties.
In both cases, the rallying cries of their respective times were essentially the same in nature: both were popular and both sounded logical.
From the 1970s through 1986 we thought: If people enjoyed the power to select their leaders, then they could have a government that serves their interests.
In the years between 2001 through 2010 we thought: If we could get rid of (then) President Gloria Arroyo, things would get better.
Today there are a lot of “advocacies” premised on one big “IF” or another. IF we change [place thing to be changed here] THEN we achieve [place thing to achieve here]. This tagline template is pretty much the same across advocacies that promise an outcome on the basis of an assumed root cause. What is missing in the National “Debate” is the sort of world-class thinking that ingrains a sustained habit of challenging such assumptions.
Was the lack of a power to select leaders really the cause of the chronic backwardness of the Philippines?
Was former President Gloria Arroyo really the singular reason why the Philippine economy merely muddled along in the usual way it did over the last several decades?
It is easy to answer the above questions now that we are armed with the benefit of hindsight. We now know that given the chance to select their leader, Filipinos will merely choose those who show a willingness to sing and dance before a hooting crowd, come up with the most catchy slogans and campaign jingles, and hire the most popular celebrities to endorse them. We now know that who a President happens to be at a given moment only matters to those who are related to or are friends with said President. Easy.
The challenge then is to apply that learning to the so-called “ideas” around which the current crop of “advocacies” are being built.
Indeed, it should now become easy to see the unmistakable pattern in the way our minds foolishly confirm our own biases when the latest charlatan or demagogue comes up with the latest “advocacy” underwritten by the latest incarnation of that now all-too-familiar IF-THEN tagline template. Thus, when we encounter an advocacy that, for example, insists that IF we “reform” a certain body of bylaws THEN we become better able to “transform” our “economic competitiveness”, we now know that the right question to ask is:
Is this certain body of bylaws the root cause of our inability to transform our economic competitiveness?
Or if we encounter an “advocacy” whose defining feature involves an insistence that a change in system of government will result in better leaders and better outcomes for their constituents, we now know that the question to ask is:
Is the system of government the root cause of our inability to put good leaders in office?
Is not having good leaders in office the root cause of the majority of Filipinos’ inability to improve their lives?
The answers to these questions seem obvious at first inspection. But perhaps they do because of deeply-ingrained biases in our minds that desperately reach out for confirmation. But we need to be careful that this desperate reaching out for validation does not result in a blind latching on to shady characters who lead dubious “advocacies” underpinned by the sloppy thinking they espouse. The only way to protect one’s self from falling into this trap is to think with a clear and critical mind.