Francis Fukuyama

“Beg your indulgence”

Image credit: internetmonk.com

How the Catholic Church eliminated its own version of pork barrel and how the Philippines can too

Back in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was undergoing its developmental phase. It was not the huge global entity that it has become today. It was heavily dependent on the patronage of the landed aristocracy. As a result, the Pope did not have much clout and could not exert central authority to appoint priests and bishops to the parishes of feudal lords who would place their relatives in these prestigious positions.

Faced with limited means to address the missionary role of the Church, priests decided to engage in the practice of selling indulgence, “the remission of temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven.” Although the sale of forgiveness, which is what this amounted to was not really sanctioned by the church, it was nevertheless widely practised out of necessity. The funds raised went to pay for monasteries, schools and even Crusades to recover the Holy Land.

Despite the noble causes it supported, the practice undermined the legitimacy of church teachings. The abuse of indulgence eventually contributed to the Protestant Reformation which weakened the Church by splitting it in two. If such an organisation devoted to otherworldly spiritual endeavours can fall for such malpractice, what more a government not meant to be run by angels, solely devoted to temporal affairs?

The Philippine state is in a position much like what the early Roman church faced. You have the president of the republic resorting to the bully pulpit of his office, engaging in mini temper tantrums, to complain before the nation that he cannot even get lowly bureaucrats to comply with his orders to do their job and follow the rules set out by the law of the land. These bureaucrats are purportedly protected by wealthy elites who placed them there.

For the same reason, the Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF) or pork barrel, though it may go to some noble programs, actually corrodes and weakens our democracy by perpetuating many corrupt politicians in power. This limits inclusiveness in our politics as dominant clans have ruled many places since the time of the late-Spanish or early-American colonial period. Their exclusive control over most jurisdictions has been directly correlated with the severity of poverty across the nation.

The dominance of aristocratic political dynasties, undisturbed by the upheavals of the Pacific war or Marcos’s New Society, is actually facilitated by taxpayer’s money through the institution of pork barrel. These elites have also weakened the state by appointing friends and allies into strategic posts within key agencies and business units such as the Bureau of Customs which provide a revenue stream not for the government, but for the “padrinos” who have cornered it through such appointments.

When appointees are recommended by power brokers acting as “padrinos” and subsequently underperform, we know it is for a reason. Their appointments undermine the very rules that they as officers are meant to uphold. It is clear that the rules within these agencies are not set by the central government, but by power brokers who benefit from illegal activities. This weakens the very integrity of our state, as in the case of the customs agency since it erodes our ability to enforce our borders and puts this power in the hands of crime bosses.

According to Francis Fukuyama in the Origins of Political Order, the Church was able to gain financial independence from its patrons when it undermined the very notion of kinship and family. How did it do that? By refusing to sanction cross-cousin marriages, and recognising the rights of women to own and bequeath property. Previously, childless widows married back into the clan of their deceased spouses which allowed his land and other property to revert back to his family.

By changing this custom, the church encouraged childless widows and spinsters to convey their inheritance to itself. The church profited immensely from this. By undermining the family, the Church was able to wean itself off of the corrupt practice of selling indulgences to fund its missionary projects.

In the same way, the Philippine government needs to wean itself off the system of patronage. Banning PDAF won’t solve the problem, just as banning the sale of indulgences did not prevent corruption from continuing in some shape or form. It takes more than idealistic moral crusading to get rid of it. Apart from eliminating pork, state resources must be used to shore up political reforms that would make elections more inclusive and contestable.

The irony is that the large sum of money devoted to pork demonstrates that the state now has the capacity to directly finance political institutions and decouple our democracy from the “anarchy of families” as Alfred McCoy put it.

If we promoted meritocratic institutions within our political system through state funded electoral campaigns, political parties and better pay for elected officials, we would be able to remove the perverse incentives currently at play that motivate the abuse of PDAF and other appointive and recommendatory powers.

Let’s face it, political dynasties have begged the indulgence of their constituents (we the people) for far too long and gotten away with “patrimonial plunder” (hat tip: Paul Hutchcroft) – which is using the very money they have stolen from the public purse to pander to the needs of the very same people they are keeping impoverished by that act.

The Binary World of James Robinson: a rebuttal to Why Nations Fail

He came at the invitation of the Angara Centre for Law and Economics to present his ideas from the book Why Nations Fail which he co-authored with Daron Acemoglu. This pair along with Simon Johnson had originally published back in 2001 an article in the American Economic Review entitled The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation.

Their book could be seen as an essay expounding on the themes uncovered by their earlier research which credits economic development to the institution-building conducted during the colonial era between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. It begins by drawing our attention to the differences between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, towns on opposite sides of the US-Mexican border.

The basic thesis of the book is that nations with institutions that promote greater inclusion in both political and economic spheres prosper while those that foster extractive or predatory policies wind up becoming impoverished and backward. The seminal moment in history, according to the book, happened in England back in 1688 during the Glorious Revolution.

For those not familiar with this event, I provide a brief background here. The basic argument goes a little like this: security of ownership and property rights is essential to investor certainty; investor certainty is needed to foster capital markets, and a set of political checks and balances that guarantee this is best suited for capitalism to flourish.

These principles were essentially what The Glorious Revolution was supposedly fought on and why the Industrial Revolution subsequently took place first in Britain, rather than in Continental Europe. The rights and ideals that Englishmen fought for were transplanted to their American colonies and became the basis for the American declaration of Independence in 1776.

Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson (AJR) sought to prove empirically that institutions mattered to development. Previously, it was argued that climate and geography had a lot to do with it, i.e. that the industrious, temperate, northern states of Europe were more prosperous than the sluggish states in the southern Mediterranean and the tropics.

AJR sought to dispel this using colonial history. Why was it that not all colonised countries developed along the path of the United States? The difference lay in institutions. Their article demonstrated that in places where diseases led to high mortality rates among early European settlers, and where consequently hardly any permanent settlements were planted, centuries later, the lack of institutional legacy was found to be significantly correlated with low development.

The main lesson was that geography was not destiny, and that even history was not destiny. Less developed nations could begin adopting the institutions that promoted greater inclusiveness and discard extractive policies that left them in squalor. This dove-tailed with the agenda promoted by Washington on good governance, as it searched for a way to rescue the failed Washington Consensus from repudiation.

What came about was the augmented consensus that said free markets and good governance promote economic growth and development. After decades of telling less developed countries to shrink the role and capacity of the state and let markets rip, they were now saying that government needed to be strengthened once again.

The liberal democratic states of the West act as an ideal to which other societies need to aspire to. No other path leads to sustainable economic growth other than this. Just as Calvinist preachers of old would proclaim that no one cometh to the Father, but by His Son, these economists present a case that no other path leads to economic Nirvana, but through the Market (with Institutions performing the role of the Holy Ghost).

This rather binary view of the world is actually contradicted if you go deeper into the colonial history of the Americas which is what John H. Elliott did in Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492 to 1830.

Here he wrote that it was actually the exclusionary racial policies fostered by the English settlers that led to greater social cohesion among settlers around Enlightenment principles of individual rights and liberties, which in turn led to greater independence and prosperity.

Meanwhile in the Southern hemisphere, the Spanish settlers had an “organic conception of a divinely ordained society dedicated to the achievement of the common good” which was “more inclusive rather than exclusive in approach”. The granting of rights both economic and political to natives consisting of mestizos, creoles and freed slaves led to a mixed-race society prone to greater divisions than existed in the North.

The irony here is that a more inclusive colonial policy led to greater exclusivity as subsequent societies were stratified and organised into “pigmentocracies” which made it harder to achieve the egalitarian principles espoused by the Enlightenment. In the Philippines, the outpost of New Spain, the situation was worse in that apart from developing this multi-racial caste-like system, the facility of a common language was not provided as it was in the Americas.

This is the difficulty of using colonial history to prove or disprove that institutions matter in the way attempted by the authors of Why Nations Fail. They do matter, but in different ways, which is the point I highlighted previously in this column (see here).

Secondly, there is the anomaly of the benign dictators of East Asia and the desarollista states of Latin America. Robinson has taken the view that the East Asian growth formula, what is termed the BeST Consensus (BeST consisting of Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo), represent a unique moment in history that cannot really be duplicated or sustained.

Peter Evans disputes this saying that just because the East Asian miracle emerged from a unique blend created by the Cold War policy of the United States, it does not mean that we cannot distil a few basic principles and emulate them today. Just because these states were predominantly autocratic does not mean that weak democratic states cannot adopt the policies that made them succeed in fostering rapid industrialisation (see here for a deeper discussion).

What’s more is that both Germany and the United States, late industrialising Western nations after Britain and France, followed the same industrial policies a century earlier. It was just that after scaling the development wall, they felt the need to “kick the ladder” away to prevent others from following them up because not doing so would disadvantage them.

In Latin America, the record of developmental or desarrollista states of the 1970s and 1980s in Brazil and Mexico is more spotty than in Chile but nonetheless more successful than in Africa or South Asia as these countries made their way into middle income status ahead of countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. This is the evidence that Robinson conveniently sidesteps.

Another point James Robinson makes in the book and in interviews is that collective action, which he equates to people power, is key to expanding opportunity for people if the system is closed. He cites the experience of the Philippines and of the Middle East a la Arab Spring to underscore his point. Again, the use of people power is problematic. Why?

Well as Elliott points out, people power features in Spanish colonial traditions as well because

(b)y the laws of medieval Castile the community could, in certain circumstances, take collective action against a ‘tyrannical’ monarch or minister.

Cortes in fact used this against governor Velasquez who ordered him to survey and not to invade the territory of Montezuma in the Yucatan peninsula. It was based on the notion of a social contract between the prince and his subjects which if broken gave the right of the governed to say, “I obey, but I do not comply” (se obedece pero no se cumple).

From time to time, commoners or comuneros resorted to acts of dissent bordering on revolution. But these were simply seen as a way to get the authorities to the bargaining table. Once their grievances were heard and the tyrannical laws or ministers were replaced, they would go back to living as loyal subjects of the monarch. Direct democracy rather than representative democracy ruled until very late in the piece, which left them with very little in terms of a genuine parliamentary tradition.

This swinging of the pendulum from uprising to dictatorship and then back again is exactly what we are witnessing in Egypt today. The problem with equating collective action, i.e. people power, with greater openness, is that the relationship does not always hold.

Finally, let me address the fallacy that only the Anglo-American form of capitalism works well. Francis Fukuyama is right to point out that this is not the only successful Western model that exists. Scandinavia demonstrated another path, which did not require revolts against oppressive monarchs. Theirs was more along the lines of an enlightened, benevolent monarch based on egalitarian religious rather than secular beliefs.

What I hope to point out through this discussion is that the world that we live in is more complex, more multifaceted than what Robinson tries to portray. While it is easy for him to be parachuted into the Philippines to spread his brand of institutional economics, we don’t necessarily have to buy into his whole message.

I agree that the Philippines needs greater openness and participation in political and the economic life, and that collective action to widen the sphere of participation probably needs to be organised, because elites won’t surrender their privileges willingly, but that is as far as I would go.

We don’t need a whole theory based on a faulty or perhaps selective reading of history to back this up. We have seen how people power can be hijacked or used for narrow political ends. We need to guard ourselves against simplistic arguments that say unseating this corrupt ruler here or that autocrat there is going to bring about nirvana for us. Institution-building is not accomplished by this alone, but through a sustained, deliberate, evolutionary process.

The social innovation of Oportunidades and Bolsa Familia more widely known as conditional cash transfers which have been credited with reducing poverty in Mexico and Brazil were not developed by the World Bank or the IMF.

They were experiments conceived by indigenous policy makers who were thinking ‘outside the box’. The East Asian industrial policies responsible for creating economic prosperity and convergence were pursued against the advice of international economists from the IMF and the West. Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry sought to deceive their Western minders that they were complying when in fact they were doing their own thing.

Similarly if the Philippines were to find its way in the world, it will have to be by taking into account its own unique blend of ideas, capacities and institutions. It won’t be by applying some universal one size fits all formula promoted by a Western economist armed with some statistical regressions, a few case studies and a loose reading of history.

Since the era of Martial Law we have had technocrats sing from the same hymn sheet as their Western counterparts while ironically supporting a system that undermined the very principles they were espousing. We need to be smarter and wiser this time around.

We need to accept that the world is not a binary system, comprised of dummy variables that say you are either inclusive or exclusive, free or unfree, open or closed. We need to admit that we live in a multi-polar world, where things are not as clear cut, as some experts would have us believe, and that many paths lead to development. Ours in fact still needs to be found.

Christianity Undermines the Family

Yup, that’s right; that’s not a typo. The Catholic Church was responsible for reducing the size of families in Western Europe contrary to popular belief.

Before I get stuck in the details, a little context is needed.

The fight over the reproductive health bill in the Philippines has pitted the Catholic clergy and faithful on the one hand against secular, feminist, and humanists on the other. One of the contentions of the anti-RH camp is that the bill is anti-family and will cause a rapid decline in our population similar to what has occurred in Western Europe.

Here is Sen President Juan Ponce Enrile one of our elder statesmen opposed to the RH bill,

If you are going to contract the population, you reach a point in time where you will have less workers, less production, less consumption, less taxpayers to support the government.

And again, he goes on

The economic interest of the country will be a factor and the security of this nation for the next 100 years will be on the balance. Mind you, this bill is not really that easy. It’s a matter that will affect, will impinge on the faith of each one of us.

This popular belief which he expresses comes from the experience of Western European countries where fertility rates have dipped below replacement levels since the mid-60s. This is attributable to the rise of contraception use in those countries, the strength of the women’s movement and the legalization of abortion. Concurrent with these developments has been the collapse of the traditional family and with that the greying of the population.

The Philippines with its exposure to Western media and culture has still managed to maintain laws which reflect the predominantly Catholic nature of its population. This according to Sen Enrile is the only thing that prevents it from slipping into the demographic malaise of our European counterparts.

Modern Family

In reality, the decline of the traditional family in the West preceded the rise of modern contraceptives. In his new book The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama devotes an entire chapter the title of which I borrowed from him here to discuss this form of “European exceptionalism.” According to Fukuyama, dating the rise of the modern family is a bit tricky.

Karl Marx associated it with the rise of the bourgeois class during the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the Communist Manifesto Marx claimed that the bourgeoisie “has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced family relation to a mere money relation.”

For his part, Max Weber felt that the rise of individualism came about through the Protestant Reformation with its emphasis on personal salvation and the Enlightenment with its emphasis on individual rights and secular humanism. This would date the existence of modern families to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

If Weber and Marx are correct then the collapse of traditional societies, which were based on extensive ties of kinship, restrictions on market transactions and individual social mobility due to informal social norms grounded in tradition, religion, and charisma, and the transition into modern societies which are based on individualism, meritocracy, egalitarianism and rational-legal forms of authority is only but a few centuries old.

The french historian Marc Bloch however believes that the rise of feudalism in the ninth and tenth centuries was in part a way of coping with the decline of kinship based tribal societies in Europe. According to Bloch, “Neither the state nor the family any longer provided adequate protection…Everywhere the weak man felt the need to be sheltered by someone more powerful.” This dates the birth of the modern family much sooner.

But it was actually around the sixth century, when the Catholic church, confronted with the marriage practices of newly converted Germanic tribes that had toppled the Roman empire, introduced changes to them. These tribal practices included marriage to cousins or close kin, the levirate or marriage to widows of deceased relatives, adoption and divorce. The church instituted edicts that forbade concubinage and promoted marriage as an indissoluble, monogamous and lifelong bond.

The reason according to Jack Goody was not theological but material in nature. Goody labels the marriage practices banned by the church “strategies of heirship” whereby kinship groups maintained control of property. At a time when the average life expectancy was less than thirty-five, the likelihood that a couple produced a male heir who survived into adulthood was quite low.

At that time the church encouraged donations of land and property to itself. Accordingly, women were allowed to own property to prevent their deceased husbands’ inheritance from reverting back to the family group in the absence of an heir. Thus, women’s rights to own and bequeth property was an unintented consequence of this teaching which profited the church largely. By the end of the seventh century, one-third of all productive land in France fell into the hands of ecclesiastical estates.

So there you have it. The rise of individualism, women’s rights and the modern society in Western Europe which is blamed for the demise of the traditional family originated from church law back in the sixth century. If it was motivated by material interests to outlaw old forms of marriage back then, it might be similarly motivated today in seeking to discourage new forms of family planning to prevent its flock from shrinking.

Fertile Ground

Finally with regard to the argument that the promotion of modern forms of contraception will lead to an irreversible decline of population and economic stagnation, I would offer the following chart taken from a study by Mikko Mryskyla of the University of Pennsylvania published in the science journal Nature back in 2009.

It shows two snapshots of cross-country fertility rates recorded in 1975 and 2005 on the vertical axis plotted against human development scores on the horizontal. Back in the twentieth century, you could be forgiven for thinking that the downward trend would have no end as countries that grew richer exhibited lower fertility rates. This is clearly shown by the 1975 scatter plot (in blue).

Here in the twenty-first century, that pattern has clearly been reversed with countries exhibiting advanced levels of human development recording a recovery (see the red scatter plot) of their fertility rates compared to previous levels set in 1975 (HDI or the human development indicator on the horizontal axis is a composite index of health, education and income levels).

The way that these countries have reversed the downward trend and produced the J-curve observed in 2005 has been by promoting a number of family friendly policies which include generous maternity/paternity leave allowances, free or subsidized childcare and pre-schools, pre- and post-partum care to mothers and newborns, and flexible working hours, to name a few.

Myrskyla has since then studied the relationship between happiness and fertility using data from the World Values Survey and has concluded that having children is “a long-term investment in well-being.” In the short-run however the data shows that having more kids poses challenges to happiness (less time for personal needs and interests). The policies mentioned help to counter that and allow families cope better with raising kids.

With such policies in place, these countries have seen their fertility rates rising above the demographic point of no return (of around 1.5 births per woman) to near replacement levels (around 2.1 bpw). Given that this field of policy research and development is still in its “infancy” (pardon the pun), we can expect to see more countries joining them and hopefully see fertility rates in rich countries reach replacement levels in the near future.

So to the doubters out there who still feel that modern family planning is anti-family, perhaps they need to brush up on their reading of events, both past and present.

The New High Priests

In the debate over reproductive health, the country is caught between the increasingly vociferous moralist and rationalist voices in society.

Reproductive health advocates consider the involvement of the Catholic church in the debate over whether or not to enact a law that would provide the legal basis of family planning practices to be propagated by the state in schools, hospitals and workplaces an unwelcome intrusion. The debate does not seem to be about the merits of the measure but on defining the proper role of the church in relation to the state and society.

For the so-called Filipino Free-thinkers, an association of humanists, scientists, agnostics and atheists, and their ilk that role should be completely circumscribed by the separation of church and state provision of our consistution. In fact they would prefer it if the church performed as much of a diminished role in society as possible. For the “middle forces” or the so-called “yellow army” in the People Power coalition of President Aquino, the church performs an important role as moral guardians of our society; there lies the problem.

The members of civil society that often unite against corruption in government and mobilize everytime there is a crisis involving the illegitimate use of power splits asunder over social issues involving identity or a crisis of moral uncertainty. One faction looks back to tradition, while another looks forward to modernity. PNoy has been careful to tip-toe on the issue, afraid to upset either party. From his standpoint he cannot afford to lose either the moral or rationalist wings of his broad coalition.

In weak states, unable to withstand pressure from groups based on tribal and kinship loyalties, the only recourse to rein in the greed and abuse of power by the political class is some kind of appeal to a higher moral code. The advice and admonitions of people with moral authority who belong to the religious class help instruct future rulers on how to build a just society.

Without a moral code governing society that lays the basis for the legitimate exercise of power, that little thing called the rule of law which separates primitive from modern societies would have never come into being. The pre-colonial rajahs of India had their Brahmins, Chinese emperors had their mandarins, and the kings of Europe had their bishops to advise and guide them. These priestly classes would determine if their kings and emperors had lost “the mandate of heaven” and could therefore be deposed.

A tension arose between the monarchy, the aristocracy and the peasantry in pre-modern states. As Fukuyama points out in the first volume of The Origins of Political Order, a just ruler was seen as one who did not engage in excessive predation, and sided with the peasants against exploitation by their aristocratic landlords. They would concentrate authority in a central bureaucracy and military autonomous from feudal estates through taxation. This is how modern states came about. But this wouldn’t have occurred without the help of the priestly class that lent legitimacy to them.

The corruption of the priestly arbiters of power independent of tribal or kinship alliances occurred as they increasingly took on the trappings of power and gave in to the biological impulse to bequeth their titles and assets to offspring that they were originally discouraged or forbidden from having.

Since the Protestant Reformation followed by the European Renaissance and the scientific revolution early in the second millennium, the clergy have been increasingly marginalized from exercising their legal and moral authority over heads of state, particularly in Britain where the observance of common law as distinct from Canon law took root and independent judges held the English monarchs in check.

The veiled threats issued by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines to withdraw the “mandate from heaven” if the RH bill was passed was reminiscent of the way Pope Gregory VII excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor in the year 1076 and forced him to come barefoot to Canossa to pleading for clemency. This action was pre-empted by PNoy in his speech at the University of the Philippines when he in essence dared them to do so, prompting one Catholic clergy to say that the son was very different from his mother referring to the pious Cory Aquino.

The president with his economics degree represents a new order of rationalist thinking on which to base public policy. Economists are considered the new high priests in today’s modern state. Whereas shamans and withdoctors were once summoned to perform rituals and cast spells to protect the polity from plague, famine and wars, so do economists conjure up their spreadsheets and statistical models to forecast and plot the direction of the state in this day and age.

When he announced his bid for the presidency, PNoy expressed a formula for countering the calculus of corruption which consisted mainly of incentives in the form of punishments and rewards. This was an expression of his vision for a state governed by the principles of homo economicus. If his mother appealed to a sense of altruistic motives, PNoy would rely on self-interested behavior to stay on the straight and narrow.

For similar reasons is he advocating the passage of the RH bill. The rationale behind this piece of legislation is primarily economic in nature for the president, but for many of its supporters, it is much more than that. For them, it would represent a break in Filipino mores and customs away from traditional social values based on religious beliefs and into a more modern one based on individual freedom. In this regard, both oppositors and advocates of the bill would agree.

The rise of religious fundamentalism or the resurgence of traditional values in response to the failings of modernity to achieve its promised objectives of human progress and happiness has cast the economic rationalist high priests in a bad light. Their overly materialist and utilitarian prescriptions have found their limits as society increasingly becomes more affluent. In fact they create new problems.

Those opposed to the RH bill point to the breakdown of the family in many Western countries as caused by this way of thinking. They point to the commodification of sex that freedom of choice allows (Catholic doctrine teaches that sex is only meant to perform its function within the “sacrament” of marriage). From their point of view, the bill is but one part in a wide array of liberal ideas and values that have caused the breakdown of society.

The conduct of the public debate can be characterized more as a battlefield than as a market place of ideas at the moment with either side engaged in vociferous name-calling and taunting. Discussions over deeply held beliefs often do slide into an abyss of crass behavior.

It would be better if this were not so. For the rationalists to come to terms with the legitimate role religion performs in modern day living for individuals who turn to it not just for rewards in the hereafter, but also in the here and now (as empirical studies have validated), and for moralists to come to terms with the fact that they can no longer coerce society through the state to adhere to its principles and that they now have to compete in the market for ideas without resorting to abuse of their spiritual authority, would be a big step towards restoring civility in the public discourse.

I am sure we can all say ‘amen’ to that.

Forget Paris

Sex and politics have been front and center in recent days.

Three controversial events have brought sex and politics to the forefront of the news recently. First, the installation of artist Mideo Cruz of a crucifix and a penis drew the ire of the Catholic faithful, art patron Imelda Marcos and the president himself. Congressmen and Senators have opportunistically gotten on the bandwagon breathing fire into the debating embers of our society.

Second, the inclusion of the RH now RP Bill on reproductive health and responsible parenthood by the president along with a dozen other bills in his proposed legislative agenda for Congress to consider. His willingness to work in a bi-partisan way with the sponsors of the bill and with the clergy is a mark of true statesmanship.

Third, the faux pas committed by a reputable news agency in sewing confusion over whether Hollywood celebrity and hotel heiress Paris Hilton would meet with PNoy during her visit to the Philippines gained much oxygen when Presidential Deputy Spokesperson Abigail Valte deemed it necessary to deny such reports via Twitter.

As the title of this piece suggests, this is all about the third event.

After all the serious debates and theological arguments surrounding art and religion or sex and religion, the light-hearted controversy of such “girly goss” is probably a very welcome distraction. The timing of it could not have been better planned in my opinion. I am not suggesting that it was (planned), but I sense a certain tendency among palace officials to boost the president’s “macho image” every chance they get at times.

Fanning speculation

Remember the photo released of him and a lady having a lively night on the town with some of his communications people in the background? This came after the president had been linked to an image consultant within his own team. The porsche incident also portrayed the president as an avid motoring enthusiast.

This of course back-fired, but initially the president did not mind telling the press that the sportscar brought a large smile to his face. Similarly, the president’s fondness with guns caught some attention, and then back-fired on him (no pun intended) when his shooting gallery buddies whom he had appointed to sensitive posts got caught up in some unflattering situations.

I also recall reading an article a while back (but can’t find the link right now) in which Budget Sec Butch Abad admitted to feeding the press stories about PNoy’s supposed links to certain female celebrities during the election season. This was a bid on his part to boost the president’s own status among voters. Abad was then a ranking member of the president’s campaign team.

In a country where tobacco chomping generals, philandering husbands and strict authoritarians are considered top dog, it wouldn’t hurt to project the image of a swinging bachelor this time around…or would it? I think it sometimes runs counter to the other messages that the palace wants to send. What made PNoy so appealing to the electorate was that his persona gave a strong contrast to the often flambuoyant or charismatic character of other prominent leaders.

He was in effect, in a world full of Pepsis and Cokes, the “uncola”. His simple, mild manner contrasted with the extravagant wining and dining of his predecessor. He was patterned after his mum, a president who rode the same car when she first strode into the palace and when she stepped down from it. His geeky, balding and awkward demeanor were just the sort of antidote the country needed at the time when the field was full of bombastic individuals with sexy dancers and starlets in tow.

It is quite understandable though that given our country’s fascination with Hollywood that the media advisers surrounding him would want to engage with that side of our culture. After all, most people tune out when conversations turn to politics, religion or the economy. It is also quite understandable for the president to want to have a social life despite the heavy demands of his job (or even because of it).

Alpha males and eunuchs

This could all be considered a natural consequence of taking the reins. A study found that certain candidates (and their supporters) seem to experience a sudden boost of testosterone after winning a contest. Behavioral and evolutionary scientists link this to the pattern among animals where males fight over the right to spread their seed among the females in the pack. The rise in testosterone is perhaps a biological response in anticipation of the reproductive demands that come with being alpha male.

So perhaps, the country with its adherence to macho, feudal and primeval culture has not evolved all that much from this primitive state? Perhaps.

But there is one reason why I believe we need to celebrate the “single-blessedness” of the president and some of his men. In his most recent book, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, Francis Fukuyama describes how the Catholic Church’s insistence on priestly celibacy gave European societies an edge in developing the rule of law and how it was vital in the battle against corruption and rent-seeking within the church.

In societies at the lower wrung of political development, kinship is the primary criterion for conferring wealth, status and power. Fukuyama points out the role of celibacy in shielding the state from the patrimonialism and nepotism of tribal clans. From the imperial eunuchs under the Qin dynasty in China to the Mamluk warriors in the Sultanate of Egypt and the Janissaries, elite slaves of the Ottoman Empire, celibate public servants and warriors were used for this purpose.

It is perhaps not coincidental that the political movement that seeks to remove the artefacts of wang-wang culture and replace it with the rule of law should be so influenced by a small band of single brethren, the president himself being chief among them (either they are single or they are married to such wealthy women of substance, freeing them from the need for material accumulation allowing them to focus instead on the interests of the people).

Perhaps it is a mark of our political development as a nation that such a class of individuals has risen to the top. I hope it is an antecedent to our turning a corner on the rule of law. It goes against our political, cultural and biological programming, but I for one am glad that the president is able to refuse to go Hollywood on us by saying to the press corps, “hey, why don’t we just focus on affairs of the state and simply ‘forget Paris’.”