Sunday, November 1, 2009

Aquino on Countering the Calculus of Corruption

At the press conference following his announced bid for the presidency in 2010, Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III revealed what could be a guiding principle in his approach to good governance.

(Right: Senator Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III announced back in September his intention to seek the presidency of the Philippines in the election of May 2010.)

When asked about his solution to widespread corruption, he said firstly that he would emulate his mother, former President Corazon Aquino, whose reputation for simple living engendered greater honesty among public servants. Secondly, beyond appeals to a concern for the greater good, he would vigorously uphold an enforcement of the rules which would not only entail swift justice in prosecuting those who break the code, but incentives to those who abide by it. He called this his “carrot and stick” approach.

The test of this hypothesis will come no less from his office should he be elected which now seems very likely given his astronomic lead in the polls. In the past, winning and occupying the highest post in the land has been subject to what economists call an “incentive incompatible” problem, namely, a misalignment of incentives that ensured a reneging on the promise to uphold and defend the constitution and the laws of the land.

Given weaknesses in institutions, it has been all too easy to “take” rather than “make” while in office. The so-called checks on the excesses have been ineffective under the structure of rent-seeking incentives at play.

But now Filipinos could be witnessing the birth of public stewardship motivated by a true sense of noblesse oblige. Self-restraint might be the only effective means to check executive greed. In the past every contender and pretender to higher office has feigned a sense of noble intentions. The purifying trials of the Aquino family under the repressive Marcos regime may provide the most authentic case of altruism at work.

Turning their backs on the honest democratic legacy of their parents would prove too costly for the Aquino children because it would mean nullifying the sacrifices made by their parents all throughout their formative years.

The late Senator Benigno Aquino Jr set off a virtuous cycle of willling self-sacrifice that was “gifted” to the Filipino people. They reciprocated first by expressing public grief and outrage over his assassination, and then by endowing the presidency to his wife, Corazon, who in turn renewed the cycle of giving back by restoring democratic freedoms curtailed under the dictatorial regime of her predecessor.

(Right: The assassination of former Senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, Jr on 21 August 1983 shortly after being escorted by airport security off his plane at the Manila International Airport triggered widespread public outrage against the Marcos regime.)

Now it seems the people in honour of her own personal sacrifice following her untimely demise due to colon cancer are about to reciprocate the Aquinos once over by entrusting the presidency to the only son of the family, Benigno III.

This politics of exchange is not the debased form of transactional politics that is common among the ruling elites and their constituents, a practice that has left the Philippines languishing at the bottom of Transparency International's corruption league table for the Asia Pacific.

Rather, the calculus of exchange that seems to have been initiated by the Aquinos follows the pattern of “gift-giving” in close-knit cultures where the commodities exchanged cannot be valued and where renewing ties by re-investing in social capital is the key.

This new and ongoing dynamic that has sparked a sense of altruistic behaviour among those engaged in the "political game” is set to counter the vicious cycle of corruption and rent-seeking that has been entrenched in the governance arrangements of political institutions operating at the moment.

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