When Big Business exceeds its bounds

"The greedy are not good at maintaining boundaries."

In his fifth State-of-the-Nation Address on July 27, President Duterte denounced oligarchs who he claimed had amassed immense wealth over the years that allowed them “to influence public policy to their advantage.” He singled out the Lopez family “who used their media outlets in their battles with political figures.” He said this family used their vast media network to swing public opinion against him and did not air his political ads during the 2016 election campaign although he had already paid for them.

In fact, then-presidential candidate Duterte said that if elected, he would go after oligarchs as part of a larger campaign to stamp out corruption. The big amount of public funds lost due to pervasive corruption in the Bureau of Internal Revenue and Bureau of Customs, he said, was peanuts compared to the high-level corruption by the economic elite running into billions of pesos.

House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano agrees that oligarchic control of the country should not be allowed to continue unchecked. He explained that oligarchs use their wealth to gain political power, while the political elite, on the other hand, use their power as public officials to amass more wealth.  

Cayetano laments that the Filipino electorate “willingly consent to being held back by the few who control the economy—and through that—the running of the nation."

Moreover, he said, "the real threat to the stability of our social, political, and economic ecosystems are those backroom deals that make exploitation legal. The quiet acquiescing to a system that naturally favors the ultra-rich and very powerful.”

Oligarchy is usually defined as the “rule of the few.” It also refers to powerful individuals or a small clique of private individuals who exert a strong influence on government. They are not part of government but are able to benefit from close connections with politicians to accumulate immense wealth.

There's no doubt that a small number of big businessmen have gained control of major industries in the country. These include the energy, water, media and telecommunications industries. Through control of these industries, oligarchs are able to play a big part in the daily lives of Filipinos. We pay high electricity and water rates, tolerate inefficient internet service and are fed biased media reports. All these take place while big businessmen try to find ways to evade paying the correct taxes to the government.

The government nevertheless acknowledges that some big businessmen have actually helped in sustaining the country's economic growth by providing employment to many Filipinos. These businessmen have also taken an active part in mitigating the adverse impact of the COVID-19 public health crisis through donations of food, medical equipment and facilities to complement government efforts to respond to the crisis.

Cayetano does not believe that all oligarchs are bad; nor do they want to own or control everything. “Just like every entrepreneur wanting to expand their business, these would-be oligarchs might very well have started off with the most benign, even benevolent, intentions. But the malignant DNA of unabated, uncontrolled capitalism, especially corporate capitalism, eventually comes to play, leading to people and systems being abused and exploited.” 

What he is saying is that capitalism and democracy can work together, and that the situation in the Philippines is not hopeless.

The House leader believes that we can begin to  change this corrupt system  by acknowledging that there is a problem and we are part of it. “This is a battle between those who are willing to fight their self-interest and change with the system, versus those who deny that there is anything wrong with the status quo—specifically as it relates to themselves—and instead simply choose to blame the politicians and officials in government,” he said recently.  

Big business is a reality in both developed and developing economies. But that does not mean that they can overstep their bounds by seeking to gain power and influence through both legal and underhanded means. That's when they become real oligarchs, and the strongly worded campaign by the national government to bring them to heel and compel them to "moderate their greed", a phrase in that gained traction in our political discourse in recent years, takes added urgency.

The greedy are not good at maintaining boundaries. They will compromise moral values and ethics to achieve their goals. They will look for loopholes or clever ways to outsmart the laws and the rules and regulations that have been put into place to moderate their behavior.


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Topics: Ernesto Hilario , President Rodrigo Duterte , State-of-the-Nation Address
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