Private Interest and the Common Good

Published in The Freeman (Philippine Star), Jan. 5, 2012

The term “the common good” is clear enough. What becomes confusing is when we start to use the term “public” in describing it. While public means “of, relating to, or affecting all the people or the whole area of a nation or state,” it also means “of or relating to a government” So when we say the public sector, we usually mean that which relates to how the government works rather the commonality of all citizenry. And it doesn’t help a bit that the usual perception, and trust of the people in government, leaves much to be desired. Especially in the Philippines.

I once asked my Japanese “sensei” why Japanese gardens and parks are immaculately landscaped and clean. He said, “because these are public property.” But ours are public property also and look at how they are. “Well,” he explained, “it depends on how you internalize what public means to you as a people.” In Japan, it means it’s owned by us, … by all, … by everybody. Hence, if it is a public park, I own a part of it; I have to care for it – I will endeavor to keep it clean and beautiful, for my, and everyone’s, enjoyment. Here in our country, the usual feeling is, … well, its public, … its owned by everybody, … hence its everybody’s job to keep it clean, not mine! Then we go on, “that’s why we pay taxes, noh! … so that ‘the government’ will clean it up for us!” And so people throw cigarette butts, and spit everywhere, especially in “public places” like parks or in government buildings, and care we not that we own a bit of those. Funny we don’t do that in SM or Ayala malls – well, these are considered “privately owned.” Ma-uwaw ta, di raba ni ato! Nayabag na …

The perceived notoriety of government and the apparent distrust that the average citizen has for the public sector is the one that keeps it from assuming the important role it holds in protecting the common good. Two powers, that of imminent domain and police power, or the exercise thereof, would have achieved a lot in preventing the effects of disasters, the kind we recently experience with Sendong. Almost everyone knows what expropriation means, but we usually associate it with the government buying private property to build a road or other public infrastructure. I have yet to know of a case where government bought property to prevent a disaster. In land use planning, we formulate hazard maps. But do we go to such extent as expropriating these areas so that these will not be inhabited?

If you believe flooding occurs only in Third-world countries, think again. The most celebrated cases of perennial flooding occurs in the world’s most advanced country – the United States! The Mississipi River basin system actually covers almost half of the US! I’ve never been stateside but my childhood memory of that river is through Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and flood it does indeed. Only that the Americans usually know in advance when it floods and has the capability to evacuate when necessary so the destruction is only on property. But in areas where flooding is inevitable, the US government actually BUYS BACK the land, build levees, and just allow the floodwaters to take its course! Now, that’s for the common good!

We don’t even have to go that far. Danger and hazard areas in many of our cities are usually still in the public domain and not private properties. We don’t even need expropriate, we simply prevent habitation and settlement. That is, if we value human life and our people. In other countries, the government spends to buy back private property to mitigate disaster, … for the common good. We don’t, we take our chances, and hope nothing happens. Every once in a while, an Ondoy or Sendong comes … and we suffer.

Private interest and the common good. We all know the latter should prevail over the former. But how do we ensure that this will happen?

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