Richard Javad Heydarian, Non-Resident Fellow of the Stratbase ADR Institute
Reflecting on the French Revolution, British Philosopher Edmund Burke warned against the dangers of radical change. For him, gradual reform is always preferable to violent departure from status quo, and for a good reason.
This isn’t to say that he was a reactionary conservative, a stubborn defender of contemporary state of affairs irrespective of its demerits. If anything, the Irish-born statesman promoted change, since a “state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation.”
Stagnation and mediocrity isn’t an option, especially since that means susceptibility to, overtime, anarchy or, in other cases, predation by more dynamic societies. The story of European colonization is precisely the failure of our ancestors in the Orient was to come up with “the means of some change” for “the means of its own conservation.”
Instead, Burke believed in the preservation of the best elements of the existing order, while incorporating much needed reforms in order to serve the society’s evolving needs. Well-designed and effectively implemented reforms are like supplements that keep the body politic healthy and eject the reservoir of toxins that inevitably arise from structural contradictions of any modern society.
For him, the mistake of radicals and revolutionaries was to throw out the proverbial baby of order with the bathwater of political decay. If anything, Burke argued that any radical change — no matter how noble the nature of its intentions — carries the inevitable risk of chaos and violence.
Today’s most successful nations such as China took Burke’s lesson to heart, preserving the best elements of their Confucian past, while incorporating capitalist principles with distinctly Chinese characteristics.
Decades earlier, Japan and Newly Industrialized Countries such as Taiwan and South Korea took a similar path. In Burke’s logic, what made China a superpower isn’t Mao’s violent revolution, which reduced a once proud civilization into a Gulag, but instead Deng Xiaoping’s adaptation in the shape of calibrated reforms, which awakened a sleeping dragon.
Burke warned against change for the sake of change, and those who mindlessly seek destruction of status quo without contemplating the implications of imposing new order. In today’s lexicon, he shed light on the law of unintended consequences, a reality that should be central to our discussion of Charter Change in the Philippines.
On paper, all constitutions tend to look majestic. Our 1987 constitution, for instance, is widely considered as one of the most well designed liberal documents ever created by mankind, drawing on the best elements of enduring democratic constitutions, especially in the Anglophone episteme. Or, at the very least, that’s how the framers of our existing constitution put it with a touch of biting persuasion.
Yet the 1987 Constitution is far from perfect, even in its very design. My main concern with it is the fundamentally anti-Marcosian nature. It’s more an anti-thesis, namely a negation of a preceding order, than an affirmation of evolving realities that a mid-sized nation faces in an age of globalization.
In the attempt to prevent another Marcosian nightmare, marked by ballooning debt and human rights calamity, our existing Constitution deprives the opportunity for competent leaders to enact a long-term vision for the Philippines, while enabling a protectionist economic environment to the detriment of our overall productivity.
A cursory look at democratic practices around the world shows that, for instance, six years is too short for a competent leader, but too long for a terrible one. This is why most advanced democratic nations have reelection for their heads of state.
This creates a strong incentive for good performance in first years in office, lest one fails to secure reelection, while giving sufficient time to leaders to think and act across longer temporal horizons.
It took well more than six years for Barack Obama to get most of his major initiatives, from health care to marriage equality, passed constitutional hurdles. Anyone familiar with development planning also knows that it often takes a decade for major economic transformation to crystallize and take root.
Thus, another perverse effect of our single, six-year term in office is that newly elected presidents tend to shamelessly take credit for all the good reforms of their predecessors, while conveniently laying all the blame for their failures on them too.
Our excessive constitutional restrictions on foreign investments are another point of concern. Sure, econometric studies show that legal restrictions are not primary drivers of investment flows, but they matter nonetheless, especially when the Philippines is up against rival neighbors, which are willing to relax all forms of restrictions on foreign investments.
In its bid to joint the World Trade Organization (WTO) and now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), Vietnam, for instance, completely overhauled its legal structure vis-à-vis trade and investment matters.
On top of that, they offer more competitive labor, geographical proximity to the Pearl River Delta industrial complex, and a wide range of incentives to attract foreign capital. There are of course other concerns with the existing constitution that exceed the scope of this column.
In short, our Constitution hasn’t been designed to accommodate these emerging realities in the 21st century. Thus, in principle, like Burke, I am for certain forms reforms to preserve the best elements of the existing order, even if this means certain constitutional amendments.
But seeking a complete Charter Change carries a wide range of unintended consequences, which we should take into consideration.
The problem, however, is that the defenders of the existing constitution fail to appreciate emerging realities that tend to render some aspects of law obsolete, while advocates of Charter Change tend to downplay if not completely ignore the inevitable risks that accompany radical change.