Poverty and democracy

Published in The Freeman (Philippine Star), October 31, 2017

In February 17, 2011, R.A. Washington wrote in The Economist, an article entitled “Government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich.” A critical play on the most famous words of Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg address which immortalizes what democracy stands for. But the real sublime tragedy in Washington’s article is the truism that it blandly said about the reality of the state of democracy in the world. Not that progressive countries and institutions have not made tremendous advances in the last century, but that we often forget how the poor were neglected.

Part of the reason for the persistent levels of poverty in an otherwise democratic world is the emphasis placed on political equality in our definition of democracy. One person-one vote, in a free and fair elections, rule of the majority, legal equality -these are some of its hallmarks, in contrast to the aristocratic, feudalistic, oligarchic, and tyrannical forms of government it sought to replace. But in terms of economics and development, democracy floundered, as free market and competition enabled certain classes and sectors to advance over the rest. In due time, this developed the gap between the rich and the poor, more often widening than being narrowed.

We need to revisit the true intentions of democracy in terms of equality of people in a society, as well as in the enjoyment of the fruits of development. A democratic government is seen to be the great equalizer, not only in political terms (one person-one vote) but also in economic terms, especially in the basic human needs. Thus, governments go into progressive taxation in order to provide for the needs and services of everyone -equally! No, not just equally, but it must favor the poor, the sick, those with disabilities, people who can’t and don’t have the means to earn their daily food, the hungry. If you earn much, you are taxed much, in return, government spreads the services, equally to all, but with special importance to the poor. In theory.

What does this translate to? We have free elementary and secondary schools. No one, no matter how much billions you paid in taxes, can demand better/more expensive education than others. If you want this, you pay for yourself. Same with public health and hospitals -the same services are given equally to all; no one can demand better hospital rooms because you paid more taxes. If you want, you can spend for yourself. And so are the rest of government programs and expenditures, it’s a basic tenet of this democracy, that one man stands equal to the rest, in the eyes of the law and of the government. In theory.

(lifted from the Daily Mail: free public elementary school in the Philippines)

But even beyond that, we give special considerations to those who have less in life. We give senior citizens’ and students’ discounts. We have programs for the poorest of the poor. The PPP program would be the epitome of this. But are we truly and fully democratic? In our succeeding write-ups, we’ll look into how undemocratic we really are! And some of these issues are staring us in the face.

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