Private interest and the common good, the issue of rights

Published in The Freeman (Philippine Star), Jan. 12, 2012

Catchy signage at a train station: “Turn left and you will be right; turn right and you will be left!” In making decisions in our life, I wish it’s this simple. Oftentimes, many aspects in decision-making always conflict with each other. And this dilimma is more pronounced in urban development, more so in the land use and transport sectors. These are often expressed in terms of rights. Thus we have children’s rights, human rights, rights of the unborn, rights of the poorest of the poor, rights of marginal farmers and fishermen, gay rights, taxpayers’ rights, and what have you. Everybody has rights – the commuters, the consumers, the taxi and jeepney drivers, etc.

The problem with rights is that they always conflict with each other. And in crafting urban policy, or just making day-to-day decisions, you have weigh everything in consideration so that everyone’s rights are carefully considered. It’s impossible to make everybody happy, so a certain degree of firmness has to be employed. Some people call it political will, but sometimes political will is misapplied. Technically, one can craft a decision-making criteria by logical or analytical means and use mathematical tools to arrive at the best course of action. But more often than not, compassionate considerations have to temper the choice.

I can remember Joel Mari Yu often saying that everybody is clamoring for their rights, … except the general public. That’s because the different sectors often have champions fighting for their rights. But who’s championing for the general public? Oftentimes nobody does that because the public seems to be a vague sector to fight for? Visually, the general public is, … well, … the public – they’re not as specific as when you’re lawyering for human or other social rights. Or the ecology, of which the number of champions are increasing that nowadays, even among environmentalists, there are already tendencies for conflicts within its different sub-sectors. In the public debate, the general public often loses.

In the land use and transport sub-sectors, the conflict often arises between the landowners, and the government who wants to make use of the land, for the general public. Logically, in a democracy, it’s the government who represents the common good, while private rights are respected. But decisions have to be made. That’s where the emminent domain authority of the state is exercised, through expropriation. The government/general public, buys back private property for public use, usually for transportation purposes. In any development, there are always winners and losers, that we can’t prevent. We just need to make sure that the advantages exceeds the disadvantages and that its general sum in the public good surpases the loses of the affected few, which have to be justly compensated according to our Constitution. In building a road, there is an built-in irony – some people will lose their property to the general public at a price which they will always argue is too low while an adjoining property may not be affected but will be greatly rewarded because land prices shoots up whenever a new road opens.

There is no choice or escape, however. Cities grow and never have they grown, both in size and numbers, than in the last century, decade, and years. More people are living in cities now and there will even be more in the next 50 years. More city residents require more intense need for transport infrastructure. The more road you build, the less urban space is left, and the more congested and unlivable cities become. That’s why it has already evolved to the dictum that “you can not solve urban transport woes just by building more roads or widening existing ones, especially if you reach a certain density.”

Yet no matter what we do, there always remain the dilimma – do we have the will, political or otherwise, to raise the common good over individual private interest? Easy question to ask … very difficult to answer.

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