Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Freedom and the common good

Even Americans find the dynamic between freedom and the common good perplexing which is why despite Newtown the clamor for the second amendment is not about to go away. But the reality is in “civilized America,” there are rules that people instinctively follow. For example, New York, supposedly the paragon of liberalism, taught other cities that smoking is indeed injurious to one’s health – and that it is good public policy to ban it in public places. I was explaining this to restaurant owners in Sofia (Bulgaria) after a couple of them intimated that the EU rule on smoking has been bad for the restaurant business; and that perhaps the rule would be rescinded. And so I asked if they thought New Yorkers were pushovers? And they would only laugh because many of them wouldn’t – ever – want to live in the Big Apple: “they are too aggressive”. That is only if you jump the line and get ahead of them. Respect their space and their time and they behave like civilized folks. And you would see it at the Grand Central Station, for example.

How come you have wide roads and highways but you drive so slow compared to us Europeans?” The 55-mile rule was arrived at because it is the optimum speed to attain the fuel consumption ratings of cars. “But aren’t all those rules stifling? We had to suffer under strict [communist] rules for decades that today we don’t want any more rules.”

In the Philippines we’re proud of our freedom taking for granted that freedom and the common good are two sides of the same coin? We’re critical of the West for their materialism and greed yet there are simple rules meant for the common good that we ourselves take for granted? For example, why can’t government collect badly needed tax revenues? And consequently the task of governing has become even more daunting?

And the higher we are in the hierarchy – where rank indeed has its privileges – the more we can take these rules for granted? But that is exacting a heavy price on Juan de la Cruz via a culture of impunity, anarchy, underdevelopment, widespread poverty, etc.?

Democracy presupposes maturity – which is what the rule of law is about. That if there are people who cannot operate in an “honor system” there is the equalizer in the rule of law. And not surprisingly, foreign investors value the rule of law. How deep a hole are we in? In the latest Global Opportunity Index we rank near the bottom (no. 88 out of 98 countries) in the ability to attract foreign investment: “The index answers a pressing need for information that's vital to a thriving global economy. What policies can governments pursue to attract foreign direct investment (FDI), expand their economies, and accelerate job creation? What do multinational companies, other investors, and development agencies need to know before making large-scale, long-term capital commitments? The costs and conditions of doing business are central to the FDI equation. Natural resources and hardworking people have great value, of course, as do a sophisticated banking system and healthy industrial base. But countries that invest in their infrastructure, suppress corruption, and maintain sound regulations can claim important advantages.”

We may have more billionaires today but that doesn’t mean foreign investors would bet on us; in fact we are generating the exact opposite image. They don't want to touch us with a ten-foot pole – and thus we’re missing not only a big chunk of investment but also technology which drives 21st century innovation. That only means that in the foreseeable future our economic pie would remain small no matter how much pro-poor we want to be – because of the lopsided economy we’ve unwittingly perpetuated with our values of hierarchy, oligopoly and political dynasties? Unfortunately, it takes time to reinvent yet we need to start somewhere . . . somehow . . . sooner than later?  

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