Inequality from Ethics of Governance Discourse

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John Paul De Guzman's picture

Inequality from Ethics of Governance Discourse

Probably one of the most controversial issues of late is the growing inequality. Occupy protests spread like wildfire across countries. Similar rhetoric is being heard. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The ‘marginalized 99%’ despise capitalism as they claim it only serves the ‘1% majority’. Although science tells us that the relationship between humans may be of cooperation, competition relationship dominates in our day-to-day existence. The issues of survival and elimination become the de facto order of the present society. With the current political, economic, and social trends in place, the bleak picture gives us an overview that the marginalized would be eliminated, unfortunately. The literature on inequality mostly focuses on the macroeconomic aspect. Although it offers valuable insights in understanding the phenomenon, focusing on ethics of governance is a more direct approach to investigate. This essay uses Philippines as reference point. As the author has lived and seen poverty first-hand, the information herein cannot be any more realistic.

To begin with, I find it necessary to define the parameters with regards to the definition of rich and poor. These two terms are rather subjective and typically defined through economic indicators such as income, properties, and net worth. I beg to divert from the economic definition to further enhance my argument. In Philippine society, there is a general consensus that only three kinds of people belong to the ‘rich’ class: businessmen, lottery jackpot winners, and politicians. As for businessmen, I personally admire their capability to make wealth because if I have the chance to become one, I would definitely grab the opportunity. Although capitalists are the targets of inequality protests, businessmen are mere products of a system that was established in good faith. To determine if they are becoming richer as the poor get poorer is futile unless there is legal basis to punish them if they are found guilty. As for lottery jackpot winners, I envy them for their unusual luck in hitting such unpredictable numbers! The third group, politicians, has greater social responsibility to address income inequality for the reason that they are under oath to do the same, and yet they are the very people who accumulate wealth unprecedentedly, more often than not; source of wealth is unexplainable too. The recent article published by GMA News entitled ‘House of Millionaires’, a sarcastic reference to the House of Representatives, ranks the ten richest lawmakers in the country based on their declared assets. The numbers are unfathomable. From ethics of governance perspective, there is urgency to examine politicians’ wealth accumulation. For the purposes of this essay, the rich refer to politicians. Now, who are the poor in Philippine society? They are the people living in slums, people without access to basic sanitation, or people unable to feed themselves three meals per day.

Interestingly enough, political clans holding onto their power from generation to generation are commonplace in the country. On the contrary, poor people as described above continue to live in such conditions likewise from generation to generation. This scenario could better answer the question of inequality in Philippine context. The names of the politicians used herein are authentic but the names of the poor are disguised to protect their identities.

Congresswoman Marcos versus Victor

Congresswoman Imelda Marcos rose to fame when her late husband dictator President Ferdinand Marcos assumed the highest position in the country back in 1965. She is well-known in Philippine society to have gone from ‘rags to riches’. Because of her infatuation for her wealth, she flaunts it in each way possible. For instance, during their conjugal dictatorship, she had a team of personal sewer to make her dress and gowns on a 24-hour basis. She also holds the record of having the most number of pair of shoes in the world. The couple amassed vast wealth of the country for their personal gains; a lot of them were unaccounted for. As such, it was hard at the time to estimate their wealth in real numbers. Fast forward to year 2012, Marcos is an incumbent lawmaker. As the present law requires public servants to declare their current assets, liabilities, and net worth, there is now hint on how much she’s worth. According to her latest declaration, her net worth is Php 932,800,000 (US$21 million). Assuming she declared them all (which I doubt she did), her wealth remains unbelievably huge for a former peasant.

Meanwhile, Victor migrated to Manila from the province of northern Philippines in 1965, same year when Congresswoman Marcos rose to fame. Without any relatives and friends in Manila, Victor has become an informal settler in one of the biggest slums in the city. He worked in construction sites for many years to raise his family but barely made both ends meet. Fast forward to year 2012, fortunately for Victor, his children finished university. On the contrary, job prospects are hard to come by either for his children because of tough job market competition. Prestigious university graduates are preferred by employers which Victor’s children are not. And so his children settle in contractual jobs which typically last six months maximum each time. Needless to say, pay is not rewarding. They make a meager US$200 each month. Taking inflation into consideration, the wage Victor and his children make are, in fact, decreasing each year. Victor is now incapable of working in construction sites due to his age and thus relies on the surplus of his children’s wage, if there is any at all.

The two life stories from both extremes sum up the life cycles of the rich and the poor in Philippine society. These stories simplify the answer to the economic question of the ever-increasing inequality. The rich hold onto their power accumulating more wealth while leaving the poor survive for their own lives.

Scholarly Explanation

The research of Shankar and Shah is very true for the Philippines. They found that developing countries are two to six times more unequal than the developed countries. Two plausible explanations arise. The first is an imperfect government. Developing countries have greater focus on growth, which might force them to concentrate their developmental efforts on few areas or regions due to investment and capability constraints. The concentration of developmental efforts is largely explained by self-centered political interests. The rich favor development projects with which they can share ‘profits’. With increased development, increased capabilities and larger resources allow them to focus on more backward regions. Most of the time, however, development becomes stagnant because of tainted sincerity in development projects and efforts leaving the more backward regions behind. As consequence, the poor become poorer because development projects tend to exploit resources for the rich’s benefit.

The second explanation is the imperfect market. Developing country markets are less developed and there are greater barriers such as institutional, infrastructural, and cultural to trade and factor movements. As countries become more developed, market imperfections are removed and easier factor and goods movements lead to lower inequality. A prudent observer could easily notice that the imperfect market is the direct result of imperfect government. The market is the haven of the rich. Development efforts as mentioned are tailored for the rich themselves. They are not specifically designed to improve market conditions. If development policies lower inequality to some extent, the most probable gainers would be the ‘squeezed middle’ but not the poor. Indeed, even the ‘squeezed middle’ are being victimized by institutional policies in terms of doing business as the country consistently ranks low in World Bank’s Doing Business Index.

Ethics of Governance

A country ruled by people lacking in moral values is doomed to fail. The ‘House of Millionaires’ is just a stark reminder that Philippines is governed by such people. If these people only have the best intentions to serve the public, they must be willing to invest their wealth for their constituents. Although I do not advocate giving away their money for the poor, investment on the poor must be on their agenda. The story of the Good Samaritan in the Bible perfectly illustrates morality. The Good Samaritan took the ailing man to an inn, paid the innkeeper, and assured him to pay whatever excess cost the man may incur upon his return. He did not give money to the ailing man, but rather invested on him. The emphasis on the ‘Good’ Samaritan means that a typical Samaritan is bad. The Philippines equally needs Good Politicians. Development efforts can achieve its goal if intrinsic motives are pure.

Bottom Line

The discussions made in this essay is most likely not universal and therefore may apply only to its own context. On the same line of argument, inequality is a product of untamed human values. Humans have evolved to learn to survive, unfortunately, at the expense of fellow humans. If we collectively contemplate on the moral value of everyone, will we be able to survive without the need to eliminate others. Only then we are bound to see the extinction of inequality.

  1. Shankar, R., & Shah, A., (2003). Bridging the economic divide within countries: A scorecard on the performance of regional policies in reducing regional income disparities. World Development. Vol. 31, No. 8, pp. 1421–1441.
  2. GMA News, (2012). A house of millionaires and one billionaire. From Accessed on 21 June 2012.
  3. McClatchey, C., (2011). The rich: Exactly what does the terminology mean? BBC News Magazine. From Accessed on 21 June 2012.
  4. World Bank Group, (2012). Ranking of economies – Doing Business. From Accessed on 22 June 2012.