Business World, 7 August 2011

Rizal is famous for his polymathic genius and political prescience, but little is written about his economic views. It is wrong to think, however, that Rizal had no economic philosophy at all. (Shameless plug: the Philippine Economic Society is devoting the December issue of its journal to the content and context of Rizal’s economics.)
Some of Rizal’s views issue from the mouths of his major characters. In particular the following dinner-table observation by Ibarra (Noli, Chapter 3) is probably the most explicit and general statement from Rizal’s pen regarding the nature and causes of the wealth of nations: [H]e visto siempre que la prosperidad o miseria de los pueblos estan en razon directa de sus libertades o preocupaciones y por consiguiente de los sacrificios o egoismos de sus antepasados.

This statement’s importance is underscored by irony: the ignorant Damaso actually dismisses it as trite and commonplace. But more suggestively in the Fili (Ch. 16), when Simoun is asked for remedies for the country’s economic problems, he advises his audience to “study how other nations prosper.” Pressed for a more explicit recommendation, however, he simply shrugs his shoulders and provides no answer. Obviously Simoun no longer wanted to repeat what he, as Ibarra, had already proffered. For that would have meant helping people understand their situation and possibly addressing it — and helping was no longer on Simoun’s agenda.

Here at any rate is Derbyshire’s 1912 translation of the said passage: “I have observed that the prosperity or misery of each people is in direct proportion to its liberties or its prejudices and, accordingly, to the sacrifices or the selfishness of its forefathers.”

Rizal, a late offspring of the Enlightenment, obviously highlights “liberties,” which refers here not only or necessarily to political rights and civil liberties but also to commercial rights and freedoms, such as the protection of property against takings and the unimpeded and untaxed movement of persons and goods. Elsewhere Rizal also observed how “the most commercial and most industrious countries have been the freest.” But it was Braudel who noted the crucial difference between “liberties” and “liberty”: the former referred narrowly to the exemptions from dues and other obligations that were granted to townspeople, notably merchants. Only later did such small medieval privileges develop into the more comprehensive notion of inalienable human rights and Liberty with an upper-case L.

Rizal fully supported human rights and Liberty writ large, but he was observant enough to accept that political rights — or even independence, for that matter — were not indispensable for material prosperity. In words that would have pleased Lee Kuan-Yew, Rizal grudgingly praised the unsentimental way Britain ran its colonies, which was “tyrannical and selfish without hypocrisy or deception, with a whole system well-planned and studied out for dominating by compelling obedience, for commanding to get rich, for getting rich to be happy.”

More enigmatic, however, is the word preocupaciones. Derbyshire’s “prejudices” becomes “problems” in Guerrero’s popular 1961 translation, and turns into “concerns” in Lacson-Locsin’s 1996 effort. It is puzzling that Guerrero and Locsin translate the idiom preocupaciones as “prejudices” almost everywhere else. But why not in the above quotation as well? And as any reader will see, using either Guerrero’s “problems” or Locsin’s “concerns” reduces Ibarra’s well-considered observation into a banal tautology worthy indeed of Damaso’s derision. Hence they cannot be right. But Derbyshire’s straightforward translation is little better: for how could Ibarra logically attribute the Filipinos’ poverty to their own “prejudices?” As normally understood, prejudices (as in racial prejudices) are after all the stigma of conquerors and not the subjugated. Such variability and illogic only indicate that Rizal’s true meaning has been lost and his translators are grasping at straws.

I’ll go out on a limb: I think preocupaciones is better (if crudely) rendered as “uncritical beliefs.” Like prejudices in the usual sense, they are unexamined mental preconceptions, but are a species of what Douglass North more generally calls “ideology.” This reading is entirely consistent with Rizal’s strident criticism of his countrymen’s ruling beliefs, which were dominated by religious superstition, empty but extravagant rituals, conspicuous personal consumption, a blind servility to wealth and authority, and a hostility to science. In this sense Poblete’s (1912) old Tagalog translation of preocupaciones may be closest to the mark — he called them mga cadiliman ng isip.

This exegesis also makes sense in economic terms. For uncritical beliefs will frequently lead to wasted resources and talents because these will either be misapplied or diverted to unproductive uses. Output is reduced either way, and society takes a step closer to misery. Rizal for this reason ridiculed his countrymen’s penchant for conspicuous feasts and religious observances that devoured time and money and lowered saving. He bristled at the habitual subservience that killed initiative and the slavish imitation that stifled creativity and innovation, all necessary ingredients for successful enterprise. Instead he praised education and scientific effort, which he thought were the antidote to religious superstition, excessive deference to authority, and a shallow human existence.

Though cryptic, Rizal’s view of material progress was well-reasoned and rested on two elements: freedom and education (the latter being the antithesis of uncritical beliefs). The first demanded formal rules that permitted people to exercise their initiative and industry. Adam Smith, who advocated “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable system of justice,” would have said as much. But the second could only have come from Rizal, who demanded an uplift of the quality of his people’s beliefs, as these influenced their mutual dealings and their relation to authority. Hence, he demanded reforms of both formal and informal institutions. Douglass North would be pleased.