From personalities to institutions, parts I and II

From personalities to institutions – Part 1

By Benito L. Teehankee

Managing For Society, The Manila Times

January 12, 2010

The reportage on the presidential hopefuls indicates a more combative tone among some of the leading candidates. I suppose that this was to be expected. In an effort to hold on to or attract more supporters, some candidates think they can improve their appeal at the expense of the others.

I had hoped it wouldn’t be this way and that the rhetoric of all candidates would serve, not only to enhance the electorate’s understanding of key national issues, but also to elevate their critical appreciation of what the presidency requires. A resort to personal attacks achieves neither.

Personal attacks are among the weakest forms of arguments in any debate because, as any college student of logic knows, they do not establish the falsehood of an opponent’s claim or the truth of one’s own claim. For example, it is fallacious for a candidate to argue that his opponent cannot do what he promises to do because he did not do so in the past. This argument–in its “you have no experience” form—was used by critics of Corazon Aquino and Barack Obama and it was fallacious then, too, because the past does not necessarily predict the future. History has repeatedly shown that people can rise to the challenges that the call of the times demand and that opportunity creates for them.

A candidate’s attack on an opponent’s person also fails in a more fundamental way. It says nothing about the validity of the candidate’s position itself. Suppose I claim that we should improve tax administration and that I can do it and you make a similar claim about improving infrastructure. Even if I could cast doubt on your claim by attacking your person, it would say nothing about the importance of tax administration itself or my ability to improve it. Put more bluntly, my proving that you are a liar does not prove that I am not a liar myself. In short, personal attacks amount to provocative talk that, while pandering to emotions and popular appeal, merely clouds the important issues the electorate should be thinking about.

I expect more than cheap shots from presidential candidates. They are running for the job of Chief Nation Builder. To pursue this, a president’s main role is to promote and defend the Constitution which is the basic promise of government to the people. A president swears to govern by ensuring that the country’s institutions are fully functional for the promotion of the common good.

Unfortunately, more than twenty years after its ratification, the Constitution remains a meaningless document for most Filipinos. Rather than capturing the noble principles and aspirations that bind a nation, the document is often conveniently used to justify the narrow positions of political or business interests to the detriment of the impoverished and marginalized. What I would like to hear from candidates is how they will fire up the spirit of the Constitution among the electorate and how they will make its goal of a “just and humane society” come to life through vibrant institutions.

What are institutions and why are they so important for nation-building? Why is a presidential debate focused on institutions better than one focused on personalities? What should we expect from a president in helping build the institutions the Constitution requires? How can we choose a president that will guide our country as it matures from the semi-feudal, personality-centered level it is in to a modern republican state?

From personalities to institutions – Part 2

January 19, 2010

Managing For Society, The Manila Times

Last week, I lamented the tendency of some presidential candidates to dwell on the personal attributes of their opponents rather than the important issues confronting the presidency. I argued that as an aspiring Chief Nation Builder, a presidential candidate needs to be more focused on how he plans to build the important institutions so necessary in making the Constitution a living reality for the average Filipino.

Institutions are the basic social structures that give stability and meaning to the lives of people in a society. It’s useful to think of them as the collectively held guiding principles, core values and binding rules covering how the country should work. If we look at our society as a house with many levels and rooms, institutions are the cement and steel rods inside the posts which hold up the house’s roof, walls and floors. They bind pieces of the house together so that the structure doesn’t fall apart.

Since the ratification of the Constitution in 1987, many of our national structures and processes have existed in form but have yet to fully mature in substance. The checks and balances expected between the three branches of government, for example, remain unpredictable and often contested. Practically every issue, from executive transparency and government contracts up to the qualifications of candidates, are brought to the Supreme Court. Running often to the highest court for resolving issues is a clear sign that institutions are weak and few principles can be taken for granted in matters affecting the general welfare. Our national house has all the floors and walls built but they hang together very loosely, and even moderate winds can cause the whole house to shake.

Institutions are more than laws. We have enough laws but they are often unenforceable because there is no clear consensus on what the spirit of the laws is. Those with the financial and legal resources can dispute any opposing interpretation of the law indefinitely and with impunity. There is almost no sense of what constitutes shameful behavior. Warlordism is criticized by leaders in public but practiced in private. Laws without a consensus on their spirit are like hollow house posts – they can’t hold the walls and roof up for long.

How can a president help improve the country’s institutions? First, he has to realize that he cannot be a hero and do it all by himself. He will need to engage the people as a whole. I am wary of candidates who promise quick solutions to complex problems through authoritarianism. Yes, they may achieve quick results in some cases but may actually further weaken the already fragile institutions of the country because people will merely comply out of fear but become more dependent as citizens on the whim of these “benevolent” dictators.

Instead, the president should resort to moral suasion. He should teach the nation, through words and personal example, about the moral implications of issues facing the country. A president must use the trust he has gained from the people to appeal to their better judgment and sacrifice to move the country forward. He must, for example, convince the people to pay correct taxes in order to fund the requirements of the nation. At less than 15% of GDP, our tax collection rate trails that of Malaysia and Thailand.

The president must also mobilize resources for institution building. Every president is proud to be known for building physical infrastructure such as roads, school houses and bridges. But he must also use resources to build social infrastructure. For example, the president must put more resources in professionalizing the bureaucracy and properly compensating law enforcers. By buttressing the laws with professional enforcement, the president will let the people know that the government means business. This will truly build a “nation of laws”.

Let the candidates wean us from the politics of personality and bring us to the politics of institutions. After two decades since the passage of the Constitution, it’s about time.

Dr. Benito Teehankee is the Aquino associate professor of business and governance at the Ramon V. del Rosario Sr. Graduate School of Business of De La Salle University. He may be emailed at