“The problem with the Philippines,” an exasperated relative once said, “is that there’s just too much democracy.”
For me, the problem has never been about having “too much of a good thing.” If we weigh democracy in terms of how many rights we have, then we are indeed a democratic society, as democratic as can be. However, having the opportunities and capabilities necessary to exercise those rights is an entirely different thing.
A catalog of rights is of little value to individuals. A person may have rights, but if he or she cannot exercise them in a free society, then those rights become accessories to living instead of being essentials. All rights are defined by limitations and frames; while rights are absolute essentials, one can think of them as absolute limits as well. For rights to be exercised by the individual, he or she needs the avenues and tools needed to exercise those rights to the absolute maximum.
The right to land comes to mind. A wealthy landlord’s hacienda, for example, can always be distributed under the guise of one’s right to abode and changing of the same. However, without the necessary education needed to farm efficiently, or the support from the State needed for farming reforms to be in place (much less land reform), then the individual’s other rights to things like opportunities for a decent income are compromised. While the farmer has land, he or she cannot maximize opportunities in that property if he or she keeps on producing low yields and low qualities of crops.
Rights are the lowest common denominator to a good life within a free and democratic society. However it is not enough that governments should be measured in terms of how many rights are protected, and how much of these rights are protected. I borrow a lot from the economist Amartya Sen in saying that the success of government is measured by the capabilities and opportunities accorded to citizens to achieve the barest minimum result of having those rights in place.
The problem with the Philippines is not too much democracy or too many rights, but that there are not enough capabilities (to further borrow from Sen) for us to exercise those rights. There are many obstacles – made possible by patronage and policy, among other things – that keep people from utilizing their rights. Somehow, we are muddled in the assurance of rights that the guarantee of the Constitution is for the state to provide the barest minimum of capabilities for people to make a better life for themselves, outside of the necessities of hard work and human achievement. Poverty is one thing, but even that is consistent with other problems essential not to rights, but to capabilities: the lack of quality education, the unreasonable limitations to income, the denial of shelter, the shortage of goods to meet proper nutritional needs, and so on and so forth. It goes beyond more than a hierarchy of needs, but a foot in the door of capabilities to meet those needs.
The problem, I think, is weighing democracy in terms of rights and rights alone. Granted we all have rights, but not all of us do have the capabilities needed to meet those freedoms. As JFK once said, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” Indeed, the challenge to the long and winding project of Philippine democracy is not the rights themselves as they are already enshrined, but the way to those rights. It’s not having just about having rights as political justice, but social justice that assures people of the way to making the best use of those rights.
Somehow, the ideal freedoms always have to be framed by the substantial ones: the lowest common denominators to the experiences of the poorest of the poor, and the richest of the rich.