Zen Policy: America, the Philippines, and Singapore

Although satisfying, scolding and shaming people into proper behavior is certainly a futile policymaking strategy. It’s merely an escapist illusion from our powerlessness in the policy process; individuals cannot easily enact large infrastructural projects or sweeping social change, but we can tell our neighbors that they are at fault for our national grievances. This form of rhetoric – the “personal responsibility model” (PRM) of politics – reared its head in the wake of the Great Recession. From the Left, we are told that the crisis could have been avoided if bankers followed their fiduciary responsibility, while the Right says the problems came from ordinary people irresponsibly borrowing beyond their means. They should have known better. Even many of those who are more sophisticated in their postmortem find ways to bring personal responsibility into it. They blame Christopher Cox’s lax attitude towards enforcement during his time at the Securities and Exchange Commission, Ben Bernanke’s poor decisions as head of the Federal Reserve, and of course Obama. In the Philippines, I hear this argument from those frustrated by their environment. They blame Manila’s infamous traffic on “discipline” rather than urban planning, which implicitly draws a false equivalency between their country and the West in everything except culture. Even Benigno Aquino, a national hero and leader, said, “they profess love of country, but love themselves – individually – more.” In Europe, the sovereign debt crisis brought cultural critiques. Many economists and politicians argued that the problems stemmed from the incompatibility between southern European culture and the northern supranational institutions governing it. When Greece became bankrupt, it was the Greeks fault for spending more than they could. ‘Why can’t they be more like the Germans,’ they asked? ‘The Greeks are irresponsible. The Spanish are lazy. The Italians are chaotic.’

Alan Watts once said that to be “Zen” is to help people without them realizing you had helped them. It’s a philosophy that applies to politics as much as personal conduct. This contrasts with PRM, which grandiosely demands people be accountable for their mistakes even though they were just following incentives like the rest of us. The American public for instance, is frustrated that the recession saw few Wall Street executives jailed. However, the most surreal realization of the crisis is that it was mainly created through legal means; few people were jailed because few people did anything illegal. They merely followed the structural incentives presented to them by the system. By criticizing them rather than the system itself, the public signals that self-regulation is a valid policy tool. Talk about moral hazard. I am not willing to rest my fate on the kindness of strangers, and I see no value in looking for blame in individuals.

We ought to be “Zen” in the sense that we manipulate policies in order to control how people behave, instead of relying on the public’s moral adherence through their own will. This needn’t take the form of direct government intrusion, but involve subtle adjustments to incentives so that people are more likely to behave in ways beneficial for society – as Richard Thaler called it, “Libertarian Paternalism.” An often-mentioned example of this is making “organ donor” the default choice, but allowing people to switch if they so choose. It turns out most people do not really care whether they are donors or not, so making it the default increases the donor population. In fact, in opt-in countries (like the US), only 15% of the population are organ donors, but in opt-out countries, 90% of the population are donors. If these countries followed the PRM, then they might have just unsuccessfully ran ad campaigns with pictures of dying children waiting for new organs.

The implicit theory of PRM is that culture is conscious and free-floating. However, a materialist would argue that all culture precedes from economic realities and formal structures. If we want to change “deviant” cultural practices, we ought to address these underlying realities rather than shame people into compliance. This approach however, is difficult because it requires the creativity and ingenuity to see the relationships between seemingly unconnected features of life. Take the Philippines. It has been 70 years since its independence from America and over 100 years from Spain, but colonial norms still dictate its direction. In Filipino politics, corruption and patronage are rampant. The system is plagued by political dynasties to such an extent that Filipinos are willing to elect the same people that they had revolted against. The current mayor of Manila is Joseph Estrada, who had been ousted as president during the EDSA II revolution. He also finished second in the 2010 presidential race. And “Bongbong” Marcos, the son of the ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is a former senator and was second in the recent vice presidential election. Despite their histories, these people are able to remain in public office because of their name and regional allegiance. In explaining this, many Filipinos follow PRM by blaming their fellow countrymen for their ignorant electoral choices and politicians for their disregard of the public good. But if we take a structural approach, we can see how subtle incentives promote this state of affairs.

Like other developing nations, the Philippines still grapples with its colonial history. Unlike the British, the Spanish Empire was very hands-off. They opted to rule their colonies with indigenous proxies through the Catholic Church or selected officials. In the Philippines, the Spanish appointed Filipinos to be tax-collectors. Being in a privileged position within the colonial bureaucracy, these appointees consolidated power and became the landed-gentry, the ilustrados. When America took over after the Spanish-American War, they continued using the ilustrados as bureaucrats, further increasing their power. The Americans also transferred land from the Catholic Church to the ilustrados in the Philippine Organic Act of 1902. Japanese occupation followed a similar structure. When the Philippines gained independence after the war, they had a chance to reorganize power. Since the Japanese had used the ilustrados, there was legal grounds to prosecute these elites as national traitors. However, in the interests of national healing, newly-elected resident Manuel Roxas absolved them. Thus, the road was paved for these colonial elites to form modern political dynasties. If Filipinos are looking for someone to blame, they ought to point towards their colonial oppressors rather than themselves. But of course, blaming Spain, America, and Japan is much less personal than blaming themselves, so many opt for the latter. The relationship between modern problems and colonial histories is much too complex to be intuitively satisfying. But it is by recognizing these relationships, even if they are frustratingly complex and hidden, that public policy can be used most effectively.

As a model against PRM, we can look to Singapore. The nation’s “father,” Lee Kuan Yew, was a great practitioner of Zen policy in that he focused on structures and incentives to control the way his people behaved. As a multicultural nation, Singapore experience race riots early in its history. Lee Kuan Yew however, realized that people were less likely to spread mayhem if they risked their own property. Through government subsidies, he increased home ownership, which consequentially mitigated the damages of race riots. It became too risky to riot; your property may be damaged. The link between housing policy and racial tension is obscure, but in finding the connection, Lee Kuan Yew addressed the problem much more effectively than scolding the public would. Singapore also has one of the least corrupt governments in the world. To achieve this, Lee Kuan Yew changed the incentives of officials so that corruption would be less attractive. He understood corruption to be cultural, saying Asians “openly accept it as a part of their culture.” But rather than attacking the culture itself, he attacked the factors that created it. The government placed low caps on campaign finances so that officials would not be incentivized to solicit kickbacks in preparation for the next election, and civil servants were given salaries that rivaled corporate executives so that they would not need to seek alternative sources of wealth.

Furthermore, Lee Kuan Yew wanted to distinguish Singapore from the rest of the Third World in its cleanliness. One of the ways he did this was through a tree-planting program. If the environment people live in appears clean and ordered, then their behavior will reflect that. Singapore does have strict pollution laws, but I am unconvinced that it makes much of a difference. Many other countries have harsh laws for civil violations, but it does little to curb the deviant behavior. And anecdotally, urban parks in Southeast Asia appear to be much cleaner than the rest of the city.

Policymakers ought to take Zen policy more seriously. We like to believe we make choices from our own accords, but the evidence is strong that our environment dictates what we do. Recognizing this offers a more efficient and effective way to conduct policy. It may receive criticisms as overambitious social engineering, but PRM is much more ambitious in this respect. How can we expect to change the behavior of a national population simply from blame? We should work with the tools nature has provided, which are human responses to incentives. I suppose the case could be made that shame is a disincentive; no one likes to be blamed, so the social exile that comes from widespread shame will discourage bad behavior. I think history has proven this not to be effective. It is also unreliable to expect society to consistently distribute blame in a socially beneficial way. More effectively, we should work to change incentives.