Whereas hypocrisy once honored delicadeza by keeping bribes low and quiet, today’s corruption is garapalan, reaching dizzying heights of rates and ostentation…
In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman tells the parable of an Asian and an African Minister of Infrastructure who become friends during their conferences. The Asian minister invites to his home the African, who marvels at its beauty and asks how the Asian could afford it. “See that bridge over there?” said the Asian minister. “That’s right. 10%. 10%.” In the next year it is the Asian minister’s turn to visit the African and to marvel at his even more grandiose home. “See that bridge over there?” the African asks, and the Asian replies, “What bridge?” “That’s right,” says the African minister, “100%. 100%.”
In the past month, the Philippines has been convulsed again by the scandal over the ZTE-NBN contract. The controversy has pitted the Arroyo Dictatorship against a motley alliance of the idealist intelligentsia and “reformed” sinners, with bishops uncertainly in the middle trying to counsel accountability to the former and moderation to the latter. It’s all somewhat surreal, but I think the controversy merely manifests the presence of a far more massive iceberg beneath.
That iceberg is sometimes called the collapse of public ethics in the Philippines. In some ways related to the concurrent decline of private ethics, it is characterized by the systemic removal of all the controls of decency and propriety that once held corruption in check. However, it’s not my intention here to delve into the higher ethics of the matter, but only into its lower ethical dimension of practicality; for the problem, pragmatically speaking, is the rampant inflation, even the hyperinflation, of the cost of government bribery. In short, to use Friedman’s dangerous generalizations, we are ceasing to be an “Asian-type” crony-state, and are becoming a predatory state on the “African” model.
We see this most starkly when we compare the present with the past, what we might call Contemporary and Historic Philippines.
Historic Philippines was characterized by customary controls on abuse and rapacity. No one begrudged an official the act of skimming a little money off the common weal, since a public servant deserved a little bonus for serving the common good. What’s more, his poorest constituents saw him not only as administrator but as surrogate father, the parens of their many little patriae, and they depended on him to feed their hungry and to pay for their funerals, celebrations, medical treatments, emergencies, housing and whatnot. Woe to the official who did not honor his duties as patron; and since this was a staggering personal obligation for his pocket, it was understood that he would necessarily borrow from the public treasury to thus serve the public need.
What we might now call graft and corruption was, therefore, in those days not merely inevitable, but necessary. It was also honorable, for the dominance of quasi-ethical concepts like amor proprio (personal honor), patronazgo (responsibility to the needy), delicadeza (decorum), and palabra de honor (inviolability of promises) meant that bribery had to be hidden from view, moderate in amount, stable in value, and calculated to not radically prejudice public service. Also, the formal morality that was honored by law and canonized by religion militated against selfish profit, which thus had to be moderated lest it reach scandalous proportions. This was hypocrisy as a fine art; for if it trysted with the occasional corruption, hypocrisy at least honored morality as a revered spouse, and feared social ostracism for its abandonment.
In Contemporary Philippines, on the other hand, the customary controls are lost, and the moderating influence of hypocrisy and hellfire is but a dim memory. When a certain First Lady allegedly demanded 10% for public contracts it was an earthshaking affront to the customary laws; but with today’s breathtaking 100+% kickbacks, society scarcely yawns, and feels content to buy peace by letting the bribing go on till 2010. And this is not a mere phenomenon at the summit; it rears its evil head at every level of social government, even to the barangays (loosely, village governments) that will not renew a permit without compounded gifts. And the opportunities are multiplying, with the grant of massive revenue-making powers to local executives, and nullity for psychological incapacity enacted as a bonanza for judges and prosecutors.
The decay is shocking. Whereas hypocrisy once honored delicadeza by keeping bribes low and quiet, today’s corruption is garapalan (blatantly excessive) reaching dizzying heights of rates and ostentation. The idealized model of a Magsaysay, who reimbursed the government for meals served to his friends, has been replaced by that of officials serving Petrus to allies and flying their extended families on junkets to Europe; and nobody cares who notices that expensive suites are hired in Las Vegas for Manny Pacquiao’s fights by moderately paid officials and/or their spouses. On lower levels, a judge and his sheriff won’t issue TROs for less than half-a-million; and a mayor in Southern Luzon demands 20% of the gross capitalization of a project before he approves it, the good of his constituents be damned.
Gone too is hypocrisy’s respect for palabra de honor. In the good old days, officials had the decency to stay bribed, and their promises once sold were durable, but today a judge or commissioner will abandon a side in a case at the mere hint of a better offer, and the PBACs of the several agencies are become unreliable. Hence, getting contracts and favorable rulings are increasingly a matter of continuous competitive bidding, forcing the client to pay more for bribe security, which even then is rarely absolute. A member of a powerful commission changes his already sold vote upon getting a brown valise; and a prosecutor who gets a bribe for himself and his boss pockets all the money with nary a care. Such is treachery, such is dishonor!
At least in non-adversarial proceedings like those before the revenue agencies, there remains some stability: the going rate for examiners, collectors, and revenue district officers is fixed by custom, and investors in big contracts can preemptively get favorable Rulings or Orders for a mere P100,000.00. Even there, however, costs are rising, especially in licensing: The average building permit today costs twice what it did merely 10 years ago, and franchises for transport are so expensive that it’s cheaper to just go colorum (illegal) and pay off the policeman. If you’re in Manila, however, pray that it’s a policeman who arrests you: cops are reasonable and will lower their demands if you show good cause, but MMDA enforcers show little mercy, and won’t even honor the time-honored custom of haggling.
Where has decency gone? Some mayors at least still provide exemplary social services, and their old-fashioned corruption is seen as a forgivable continuation of the old ways of patronage, but many executives now treat their constituents not as clients to be cared for but as cash cows to be brutally squeezed. Few still care for the obligations of patronazgo, or for the old partnership of public good and private gain; now the Philippines is becoming an materialist-individualist paradise where religious sanction and social shame mean almost nothing. Hypocrisy for the sake of amor proprio is overthrown; our republic is now the openly rapacious kingdom of sin verguenza (without shame).
All this has resulted in a hyperinflation in the corruption market, as demand for bribes outstrips diminishing supply, forcing officials to have recourse to foreign government suppliers. The macroeconomic effects would no doubt be shocking if they are quantified. Foreign direct investment is fleeing to countries with lower corruption rates, where bribes are low enough the escape the half-lidded eye of the FCPA, and the field is left to crony capitalists insulated by their influence from the inflation, and legitimate investors and wage-earners who must bear all of the burden. The cost of business is spiking, and it may soon become so high as to make profit, and therefore salaries to proletariat and salariat alike, impossible.
The bull of the bribe market must therefore be brought under control, for it has indulged its exuberance too irrationally and too long. It is the task of leaders to regulate corruption and temper selfishness, and they must do so by restoring the customary controls. Is it any surprise that the opposition is now led by advocates of the old order of decently decorous corruption, calling on leaders to moderate their greed? A few choice convictions of dispensable allies would be a good start, provided they are not later stoppered with cynical pardons, since they would at least discourage outright pillage, and show that the customary laws are still respected. That would suffice to tell officials: No more! Too much! (I won’t add “Get out!” lest I be accused of sedition.)
But we must act soon. Let the overheated bribe market continue and it will destroy the customary controls entirely: hyperinflation destroyed the general economy of Weimar, and look what that did to the rule of law? Public ethics must be restored to its ancient equilibrium between gain and service, decency and hypocrisy, for if not, then we will see in the Philippines the same events that followed the replacement of the ancien regime and its customary controls with the all-corrupt Directory, or of the Manchus with the Kuomintang: specifically, the rule of military tyrants (as prophesied by Edmund Burke in the case of France). The freedom to bribe must therefore become once again an ordered freedom, lest all freedom be completely lost.
(Note: This is meant to be a satirical diatribe, written from the pretended persona of a supporter of old-style corruption to highlight the seriousness of the problem in the Philippines today. The opinions therein are not to be taken as our views on the matter–in other words, I do not support corruption qua corruption–, through we believe the analysis of customary controls to be correct. Therefore, before anyone mistakenly calls me a cynical bastard, please take note that this essay is an exercise in gallows humor.)