The Long View: Charisma versus routines

The Long View
Charisma versus routines
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 22:48:00 01/09/2008

If you cannot afford to bury your mother, is asking an official for help in the nature of exercising a right or asking for a favor? If you lack the means to pay for medical care for a loved one and an official decides to foot the bill, is it an act of personal charity or a justifiable intervention (however belated) by the state?

For this reason I’ve never understood why the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) is in the business of directly doling out funds, either to charities or to individual citizens, or funding ambulances for local governments. It boils down to whether the assistance it provides is government policy, or official patronage. If it is policy, the funds raised by the PCSO ought to go directly to the government agencies concerned, the Department of Health and the Department of Social Welfare and Development, to be administered by bureaucrats, and its assistance to private institutions ought to require the institutions to do their part, as well.

For example, if the PCSO is mandated to help the Philippine Tuberculosis Society, there should be a special lotto draw on a specific date, with the beneficiary in mind, where the beneficiary is required to help by lobbying the public to support the cause by buying tickets on that date. It also makes the nature of the assistance more transparent — and a matter not of doing a favor, of doling out charity, but genuine social amelioration.

Gary Wills, in his book, “The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power,” takes a cue from Max Weber (father of Sociology, whom Randy David quotes a lot), offers up this reflection on the kinds of authority to which we submit: “Weber distinguished three kinds of authority — traditional, relying on the inertia of sacred custom; legal, based on contractual ties; and charismatic, based on the special gifts of a single ruler. Charismatic leadership is transitory — the ‘grace’ is attached to one person, who must constantly revalidate it in action… It serves, amid the collapse of order or old ways, to bind together a new effort — the embodiment of a cause in George Washington or Mao Zedong. The founders of states, or of religious orders (a favorite Weber illustration), have to exert personal authority, since they have no preexisting majesty or office or sanction of law to draw upon.”

The challenge every generation faces is that there comes a time when the old ‘obediences’ (as I like to call them), instead of providing security, stability, and thus, comfort, begin to cause misery, whether physical or psychological. In the past, the old obediences were established, and enforced, by three institutions: church, club and school, creating the ties of shared membership, according to a strict hierarchy. Today, these institutions have had their grip loosened.

In the end, this gets noticed by all of us, on the national stage, where the hope for charismatic leaders gets stronger in certain circles even as others express being fed up with such yearnings. Sometimes, charismatic leaders end up being sought, to shake up, and improve, the system. But then it must be asked, is the search for inspirational leadership a self-defeating quest?

Wills contrasts Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was fabulously endowed with charisma, with his successors, the frumpy Dwight Eisenhower, and the charismatic John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. These were leaders, he wrote, for whom “the external menace of communism made it imperative for a President to seize every margin of power available to him: he was facing so many hostile power centers that only the glad embrace of every opportunity could promise him success. No internal check upon one’s appetite for power was needed; the external checks were sufficient–were overwhelming.” On the other hand, “Roosevelt did not have this ambition of seizing power to be used against his own government. He sought power for the government, and set up the very agencies and departments that Neustadt and his followers resented. He created subordinate power centers, lending them his own authority. He began that process of ‘routinizing’ crisis powers that is the long-range meaning of the New Deal.”

Along the way, Wills again makes reference to Max Weber and, two decades ahead of Randy David, clarified what sets a modern society apart: “For Max Weber, charismatic power must always yield in time, either gracefully or by violence, to the everyday order of kingship (traditional rule) or contractual ‘modern’ government (legal rule). And if the course taken is toward legal rule, then it will tend, of necessity, toward bureaucracy, toward patterns of accountability, predictability, oversight and record-keeping. By contrast with a swift and arbitrary charismatic rule, this kind of government will seem to many ‘inefficient.’ In the same way, due process in criminal law is slower than arbitrary justice. But, outside crisis circumstances, the arbitrary soon becomes indefensible. Everyday conditions call for a regularization of procedures.”

Continuity; regularity; delegation of authority; separation of office from the person of its holder; the documentary record — all these constitute the modern state. In terms of the last, we have been moving backward since the martial law years, when the tradition of record-keeping built up from the Commonwealth era was dispensed with to veil the dictatorship in necessary secrecy.

Shrouded in secrecy, government becomes the plaything of the professionals. So you have some voters looking for a candidate who will purge the bureaucracy, and yet arm it with the means to dispense social services as such and not as favors, which is what politicians do. Yet you also have a far larger number of voters who really don’t care whether services are called such, or given as favors, because they simply have nothing and what is a vote, if in exchange for it, your mother is buried, and your son treated in hospital — and your candidate wins?

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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