Business World, 9 February 2016


In the well-received film Heneral Luna, the eponymous hero asks the question: “Negosyo o kalayaan? Bayan or sarili? Pumili ka!” This quote is now regarded as the definitive meme for patriotism — ethical behavior is equated with self-abnegation, the sacrifice of individual well-being.

But while laudable in its own context, the quote overlooks the larger incongruity and injustice of a society that would ask its people to make such a painful choice. It would be a perverse social order indeed that required ordinary citizens to regularly choose between their own welfare and that of the collective. Outside those of ants, bees, and termites, no society could long operate on that basis without disintegrating. Rather than being a maxim for daily life, therefore, the quote from the Luna film represents a state of dire social dysfunction.

In fact, one should argue, a civilized and progressive society would be one where prosperity does not threaten freedom and where individual prudence does not stand in the way of collective advance — but where indeed each implied and promoted the other.

The problem of reconciling self-interest with collective welfare is the central normative question in all social science.

In one of many stuck-in-traffic conversations with Cayetano “Dondon” W. Paderanga, Jr. many years ago, the subject of “das Adam-Smith-Problem” came up, the now-discredited notion that there was an inconsistency between Smith’s two works, the earlier Theory of Moral Sentiments and the later Wealth of Nations. Nineteenth-century German economists thought Smith contradicted himself by advocating “sympathy” or altruism in his earlier book and extolling “self-love” in the latter.

All this, of course, was based on a misreading (too arcane to be discussed here), but it is still a matter of some debate exactly how Smith’s consistency is to be demonstrated.

I remember Dondon taking the view of Ronald Coase, the late Nobel Laureate, who noted that Smith’s notion of self-love or prudence was actually far broader and inclusive than mere interest in material wealth or comfort. Rather, the social — even altruistic — instinct might itself be traceable to self-love.

For, in this expansive notion of prudence (which Smith never equates with greed, Gordon Gekko notwithstanding), people, more than wanting money, desire to be loved and to be praised. Indeed one might understand the pursuit of wealth itself as a mere means to that end. (Smith calls this a “deception” imposed by nature.)

In truth, in Smith’s words: “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise.”

In this view, therefore, self-love is not itself the problem. Pursuing praiseworthiness and loveliness that proceeded from self-love and that deserved social approbation would encompass actions that were decent, honorable, and patriotic. There would then be no dilemma of the self versus the collective. Rather the problem lies in the fact that one does not love one’s self enough; or that one loves oneself only in too shallow a manner, e.g., desiring only love but not loveliness; only praise but not being praise-worthy. Or perhaps the problem might lie with a society that too-easily showers its approbation and praise on people who merely flaunt wealth and position (no matter how these were acquired, e.g., think of how easily we rehabilitate former plunderers).

I recall that Dondon never seemed to be plagued by such dilemmas. He readily and cheerfully plunged into the work of service in government, the private sector, academe, and advocacies perhaps over-extending himself.

In the darkest days of crisis for the country, he did not flinch in his search for solutions, or in seeking to persuade others to join government to help the country. His deepest rationale — revealed in another stuck-in-traffic conversation — was that he did not want to raise his children in a country that they would eventually want to leave.

In more recent years, he was visibly elated at the administration’s political capital (“There’s nothing like a 70% approval rating.”) and how much resources the government had at its disposal (“There was so much waste and corruption!”) to finally make a difference in development. No one was happier to see the historical break for the better in the economy’s performance.

Dondon’s high spirits, irrepressible and often caustic humor, and seemingly boundless appetite for work and responsibility are well known. Many will wonder where he got his enthusiasm and energy to work for the country and the many causes he espoused. Here’s what I think: he deceived himself into thinking that he was doing it for himself. And the country was the greatest beneficiary of that self-deception.

(Cayetano Paderanga, Jr. passed away on 29 Jan. 2016. He was the founder of IDEA and the originator of the Introspective column.)


[Other tributes to Prof. Paderanga can be found here and here.]