The Power of the People

by | Apr 22, 2020 | Philosophy

Sitting in the middle of the frame, sullen-faced Joshua Molo periodically looks down at his phone as he speaks, almost robotically, to the camera. “I know what I did was wrong,” he said in Filipino, “I promise not to do it again.” This was Molo’s public apology video, posted after his journalism teachers threatened to press cyberlibel charges against him for using Facebook to criticize the government’s inaction about the COVID-19 crisis.

Molo, editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper Dawn, was not alone in having his views repressed. A few days prior, the Cebu provincial governor summoned Berns Mitra, editor-in-chief of Today’s Carolinian, after the campus publication expressed dissent over the deployment of a task force meant to trace netizens who are critical of the administration’s mishandling of the crisis.

In light of these issues, public opinion appears divided. Some argue that we should call out the government when it fails to protect its citizens, especially when people are dying preventable deaths. Yet others argue that we should just comply with the policies and stop “biting the hand that feeds us.” However, with the administration’s questionable actions amid the health crisis–delayed response, shortage of supplies, space, and equipment, abuse of power, VIP testing, politicking, inequitable emergency policies, and so on–endangering the Filipino people, the critics are not biting the hand that feeds them. They are sovereign citizens simply asserting their power, demanding accountability from the institution that was supposed to serve them.

Scrolling through Facebook comment sections, I notice that many people treat the government like a monarch whose autocratic orders we have to follow, whose magnanimity we have to thank, and whose faults we have to tolerate lest we become ungrateful and disloyal subjects.

This cannot be further from the truth. Article II, Section 1 of the Philippine Constitution states that “the Philippines is a democratic and republican State. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.” This follows from the theories put forward by Hobbes, Locke, Plato, and all the social contract theorists. Although they differ in the details, they universally agree that the government is an artificial device created by the people, for the people in order to maximize the good of all.

Contrary to what many believe, the government is not powerful by itself. In fact, it cannot even exist by itself. The state–and consequently, the government–only emerges from a communal covenant of every man with every man, a contract where all citizens unite, offering each of their powers to generate a superhuman sovereign that would serve everyone’s interests. The government, therefore, is beholden to its people, not the other way around.

In Leviathan (p. 136), Hobbes says “the obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them.” And during these times when the government is not fulfilling its mandate to the best of its ability, the citizens’ obligation to “keep quiet and cooperate” cannot legitimately be enforced.

Plato would agree with this argument. In Crito (51b-c), he writes that the citizen must either “obey [the Laws’] orders, and endure in silence whatever it instructs [him] to endure” or “persuade it as to the nature of justice.” Many of the government’s critics, including Molo and the Today’s Carolinian journalists, were doing the latter. They expressed discontent at the injustice and insisted that public officials do better.

Criticisms, complaints, and protests are justified, even more so when they amplify the pleas of the marginalized and powerless–those who suffer disproportionately from this scourge, those whose whimpers would not even bat an eyelash otherwise.

The Filipino people have the sacred right to dissent and free speech, even if–and especially if–it questions the government’s actions. It is how we pool knowledge dispersed across many sectors of society so we can formulate the best solution to complex problems, such as the one we face now. It is how we maintain a just and healthy democracy.

Most importantly, it is how we restrain the government from becoming intoxicated with power. Our voices, soft or strident, timid or thunderous, remind the government that it is indeed the people who hold true power.

[This was a reflection paper I submitted for my philosophy class 24.01 Classics of Western Philosophy.]