Invasion of privacy

WHEN political opponents of the president tried to pry into her family’s finances, her brother-in-law Ignacio Arroyo said he had the right to privacy. His move effectively derailed opposition efforts and was supported by quite a few lawyers.

Now the President of the Philippines says she wants everyone to give up that right. Her proposal is that every citizen should file a statement of assets and liabilities with the government. The disclosure of every citizen’s finances will supposedly help the administration’s fight against corruption.

Beyond creating yet another opportunity for government to spend money by printing forms and hiring people to collect them, requiring every citizen to declare personal assets won’t accomplish much. It will certainly irritate the percentage of the population that obeys the law, and it will definitely open up fresh opportunities for breaking the law for those who are already in the habit of doing so, and so have something to hide. Another strand of red tape is about to be invented, at a time when the country needs fewer forms, not more.

The fact is that government is once again proposing that the public do its work for it. Anyone with any money already reports it to the government in many ways. First, through the declaration of income and filing of income tax; second, through real and property taxes which also require a declaration. Third, through the many other taxes sourced from almost every conceivable legitimate source of income –and many of these taxes are sourced automatically, through employers or the banks.

Everyone admits that the government is not collecting the taxes it should, due to a combination of skimming from collections by bureaucrats, and tax-avoidance and cheating on the part of taxpayers. The question is, how should the government go about collecting more?

Not by requiring a financial disclosure form from the public. The system of declaring assets and liabilities is observed more in the breach by government officials to begin with, so how can it be expected to work for ordinary citizens? The idea that an official should be required to declare all that he has is, on the surface, a good one. But turning these documents into useful tools for good governance has proven difficult. Officials are the first to declare that they deserve the right to privacy, and so even if the forms are filed, they are hidden away and not made public. Therefore, they are useless in terms of checking up on the financial standing of those in power.

If an official can maintain that he has the right to privacy, and that furthermore, too much prying into what are supposedly public documents is a breach of privacy, what more the members of the public? If a citizen has a duty to pay proper taxes, that citizen has the equal right to privacy and a life free from the interference and inspection of government. The system of collecting taxes in this country is deficient, but the deficiencies will not be solved by decreeing the submission of a new government form.

Government should always be aware that it cannot ask of the people more than it is willing to undergo itself. Furthermore, those tasked with making the system work cannot pass the burden to those who have delegated that burden. The public elects officials to not only collect taxes, but spend them wisely. It has given powers to those who have been elected to ensure that when taxes are not collected, whether due to incompetence or corruption, that things are sorted out through administrative or criminal proceedings.

It must be made clear that government cannot presume that it is the citizenry that has something to hide. A fundamental attribute of democratic governance is that it is always government that has something to hide, and which must therefore always be willing to open up its books and account for its actions. The public is judge, jury and executioner in this sense, while the power and duty to prosecute, judge, and punish on the part of the government have been distributed among different branches of the government to prevent tyranny.

In the exercise of the powers of the state, the state has the burden of proof. In criminal prosecution, the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty; in administrative investigations, the one under investigation is accorded every opportunity to respond to accusations. In the case of a citizen’s finances, it is both unhealthy and wrong to presume the citizen has something to hide. Only totalitarian states approach their citizens from a position of mistrust. Only in tyrannical regimes do governments shift the burden of proving good faith from itself to those being governed.

Therefore, the stupidest idea of the year has come from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo: requiring ordinary citizens to disclose their finances to the government as part of her administration’s fight against corruption. Why, since when did ordinary citizens get access to government coffers? The president’s proposal opens up her administration to the suspicion that it must be so corrupt that officials now believe ordinary citizens are stealing from the government—in competition with them. Whichever presidential adviser put this idea on Mrs. Arroyo deserves a knock on the head.

This is an idea that should be dropped, and the sooner, the better. It betrays a dangerous attitude toward the public, a frightening contempt for the rights of the individual, and an illogical approach to solving national problems. The proposal is less of a solution than a means to create yet another national problem. In this case, an epidemic of panic on one hand, and of trying to get around instead of obey the law on the other.

Perhaps the government can look into issuing a single form for the payment of every conceivable tax, and require that. The form might be long, but consolidating income, realty, and other taxes in one form might accomplish what the President wants: a way for government to get an idea of how much taxpayers are paying and possibly not paying at all. Consolidating national and local taxes would also help achieve the same end. But neither alternative –to consolidate all tax payments in a single BIR form or to consolidate national and local taxes in a single form, too- is appetizing to government. The reason is that it would reduce the opportunity for fixers, and the number of offices (and officials) who get to harass the public. It would also make more citizens realize just how much of their hard-earned money is being gobbled up by the government.

After all, when we pay taxes piecemeal, we feel the pain less, or don’t get to appreciate how much is taken away. We are then less liable to demand good governance from national and local officials. Consolidate everything in one form, and it would cut down opportunities for corruption while making people realize just how much they’re dropping into the coffers of the state. This, however, is the difference between sensible solutions, and window-dressing.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.