Prince Noy

Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III
Tolerating flattery is dangerous. And listening to frank and honest criticism makes a wise prince wiser.

Filomeno S. Sta. Ana IIIWhy call him the Prince?

President Noy Aquino is definitely not Prince Charming. He is going to be a a misfit in a fairy tale like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty.

In a metaphorical sense, though, he is a prince, being the scion of a powerful landlord family. In a more literal sense, he is a prince because he rules, not in a monarchy but in a land where the vestiges of feudalism are hard to erase.

Further, President Aquino (or PNoy) should be seen as a Prince in the Machiavellian sense. Be not afraid of Machiavelli’s Il Principe. Although Machiavelli’s little book is revolting especially for those with conscience and noble intentions, it is an objective and dispassionate study of statecraft. Machiavelli, who by the way was a republican, distilled the lessons from his acute observation and scrutiny of the past and the events during his time.

In Machiavelli’s own words: “I have not found among my possessions anything which I hold dear more than, or value so much as, the knowledge of the actions of great men, acquired by long experience in contemporary affairs, and a continual study of antiquity, which having reflected upon it with great and prolonged diligence, I now send, digested into a little volume, to your Magnificence.”

Besides, the ethics of Machiavelli’s time was different from ours. To quote W.K. Marriott, the preeminent English translator of Il Principe, “It is the cry of a far later day than Machiavelli’s that government should be elevated into a living moral force, capable of inspiring the people with a just recognition of the fundamental principles of society; to this ‘high argument,’ The Prince contributes but little.”

Marriott further said: “But what invests The Prince with more than a merely artistic or historic interest is the incontrovertible truth that it deals with the great principles which still guide nations and rulers in their relationship with each other and their neighbors.” Hence, when asked what book he would require US President Barack Obama to read, Jared Diamond, the renowned professor of geography and Pulitzer Prize winner, chose Machiavelli’s book.

Most likely, President Aquino himself has read and digested The Prince. After all, it was required reading in any elite university, including his alma mater.

It is high time the President revisited The Prince, especially in light of the “reality check” that Glenda Gloria discussed in her year-end Rappler column.

In some instances, the actions he has taken bear the mark of Nicolo Machavelli’s The Prince. On a few but critical occasions, he strayed from Machiavelli’s principles or conclusions.

Arguably, the most important insight from Machiavelli that PNoy has grasped is found in Chapter XV: “[I]t appears to me more appropriate to follow up the real truth of the matter than the imagination of it; for many have pictured republics and principalities which in fact have never been known or seen, because how one lives is so far distant from how one ought to live, that he who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil.”

Too little, too late

One decides or acts not on what should be but on what is real, concrete, and possible. This, in a word, is recognizing that what works is the “second best.”

The pork barrel issue illustrates this clearly. On the surface, pork barrel looks bad; it perpetuates the politics of patronage, and it is inefficient. And so, the do-gooders want all forms of pork barrel, not only PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund), abolished.

Yet, in the context of what is second best, PNoy pragmatically sees the pork barrel as a carrot to carry out the most important changes. The impeachment and removal of Renato Corona as Chief Justice were absolutely necessary to exact accountability from the old regime and defeat the attempts of Gloria Arroyo to destabilize the country.

Long-delayed bills like reproductive health and the reform of alcohol and tobacco taxes had to be passed. On these fronts, the pork barrel, despite not being a virtue, became an effective instrument to serve the cause of strategic reforms.

Public opinion nevertheless turned against PNoy in relation to his justification of the pork barrel. Puzzling was how the issue suddenly shifted from the misuse or embezzlement of the PDAF, with Napoles, “Sexy,” “Tanda,” and “Pogi” as villains to the abolition of the pork barrel, with PNoy as target. It could only be that his opponents’ propagandists were clever in manipulating emotions and in reducing a complex issue like pork barrel to a simple bad. Or perhaps his own strategy to convince the opinion makers and do-gooders about the nuances of the pork barrel was doomed at the outset.

Fortune, this time, did not favor PNoy. Time and again, Machiavelli emphasized how luck or accident could change the course of governance. At the same time, he cautioned “not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.”

Call it “popular prejudice” (Karl Marx’s term) against the pork barrel, but the only way to stem the discontent was to yield to such prejudice. PNoy could have heeded this piece of advice from Machiavelli (Chapter XXV): “I believe also that he will be successful who directs his actions according to the spirit of the times, and that he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful.”

Ultimately, but a case of too little and too late, PNoy dropped PDAF. In hindsight, in accordance with “the spirit of the times,” he could have augmented anti-corruption measures like the passage of the bill on freedom of information. In this manner, he could have either appeased or won over a critical mass of do-gooders who are stridently and steadfastly opposed to the pork barrel.

Support base

Notwithstanding the setbacks in 2013—the criticisms and agitation arising from the pork barrel and government’s fumbling response to the devastation brought about by Typhoon Yolanda—PNoy’s support base is resilient. A clear majority trust him, even though many have not savored the gains of high economic growth or in fact have become worse off, especially in the wake of natural disasters.

The masses have simple joys, and they do not make stringent demands on their leader. Here’s an insight from The Prince (Chapter XIX): “It makes him hated above all things…to be rapacious, and to be a violator of the property and women of his subjects, from both of which he must abstain. And when neither their property nor their honor is touched, the majority of men live content….”

No one, not even his most wicked enemy, would dare accuse PNoy of plunder or pillage. To destroy PNoy, the best that his opponents can do is smear his friends and allies, some of whom are vulnerable to charges of corruption. The overwhelming majority believe in PNoy’s straight path or matuwid na daan. Being a clean or honest leader may not be enough to transform society, but it is more than sufficient to earn the support and goodwill of the common people.

But PNoy’s obsession is not about being popular. Didn’t he say recently that he governs not on the basis of surveys but on the basis of facts? His main concern is to change society and leave a legacy. He wants to institutionalize reforms and prevent a bad leader in the future to reverse the gains from his administration.

To do so, much has to be done in the final stage of his governance. To be sure, continuity is essential, which is to say that the next administration must carry on, not dismantle, PNoy’s strategic agenda. Still, PNoy’s administration has to attend to urgent matters that are binding constraints on growth and development—providing adequate infrastructure, arresting the threat of power shortage, expanding the fiscal space, and reforming the judiciary.

Be bold, decisive

At the same time, to prevent policy reversal, some of the reforms on open government that his administration has initiated need to be institutionalized through legislation. The citizen’s access to public information (or the right to information) comes to mind as an example.

Because time is short, PNoy has to undertake bold and decisive actions. In this regard, the approach of just letting Congress do its thing or let government agencies sort out their differences is problematic. In the final stretch, the Prince or the President has to become interventionist and expend his vast political capital.

On critical legislation issues like freedom of information, rationalization of fiscal incentives, mining taxation and amendment of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA), the Executive can no longer be hands-off or neutral. At the very least, it must signal to Congress the measures it favors.

Note what Machiavelli said (Chapter XXI): “A prince is also respected when he is either a true friend or a downright enemy, that is to say, when, without any reservation, he declares himself in favor of one party against the other; which course will always be more advantageous than standing neutral.” For “he who is not your friend will demand your neutrality, whilst he who is your friend will entreat you to declare yourself with arms.”

In that spirit, the Palace must avoid equivocation and hence be clear about its positions. For example, it must abandon the defensive line of its spokesperson of “no new taxes,” when certain fiscal measures like reform of mineral taxation, which anyhow Finance and Trade and Industry have endorsed, will in fact be for the benefit of society. The Palace must likewise nudge Congress to amend EPIRA, instead of merely saying that any amendment is the responsibility of Congress, not of the Executive.

Furthermore, it is in the interest of the present administration to institutionalize open government through the enactment of freedom of information. It makes transparency reform durable and prevents policy reversal by a reactionary administration in the future. It also cements an alliance with a broad segment of good governance advocates, whose support is necessary in upcoming political battles, especially the 2016 national elections.

Glenda Gloria also suggests repairing the “broken parts,” particularly referring to some of the President’s men. Here again, The Prince offers sound advice: “But to enable a prince to form an opinion of his servant there is one test which never fails; when you see the servant thinking more of his own interests than of yours, and seeking inwardly his own profit in everything, such a man will never make a good servant, nor will you ever be able to trust him; because he who has the state of another in his hands ought never to think of himself, but always of his prince.”

Protecting servants

What has been observed though is that Prince Noy protects his servants, not the other way around. Some servants, more concerned about being in power in 2016, undertake politically motivated actions that nevertheless inadvertently embarrass or harm the President.

Like any other prince, PNoy has his foibles or weaknesses. He is said to be stubborn and sensitive to criticism. However, tolerating flattery is dangerous. And listening to frank and honest criticism makes a wise prince wiser.

Hence, said Machiavelli (Chapter XXIII), the Prince has to choose the wise men who will be given “the liberty of speaking the truth to him, and then only of those things of which he inquires, and of none others; but he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions. With these councillors, separately and collectively, he ought to carry himself in such a way that each of them should know that, the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred; outside of these, he should listen to no one, pursue the thing resolved on, and be steadfast in his resolutions.”

Will the last two years of his term favor Prince Noy? Will his administration be able to surmount the great disturbances that struck the country in 2013?

We cannot give a definite answer. For to repeat what Machiavelli said, “Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions.” That said, it still leaves much space for PNoy to skillfully, wisely, and boldly direct the remaining half.

Long live the Prince! –

An economist and author of published studies on economics and development, Men Sta. Ana is the coordinator of Action for Economic Reforms, an independent policy group.