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Putting ‘parens patriae’ in the dustbin

The problem is the thinking that the government is there to take care of people. But this fundamentally goes against the philosophy and structure that our society, as embodied in the Constitution, is built upon.

Law schools and the legal profession contributed to this canard. Setting aside misguided thoughts regarding “social justice,” blame can be laid at the continued invocation of the “parens patriae” doctrine. As enunciated by the Supreme Court in Monte de Piedad: it is supposedly “inherent in the supreme power of every State.” As presently and popularly understood, parens patriae is a legal concept whereby the government acts as defender of the rights of the people.

Literally, it means the government is acting as the “father of nation,” which makes sense indeed if you are talking of helpless children or invalids. Because the doctrine was indeed originally conceived for the protection of such individuals, not adults capable of caring for themselves: “The parens patriae doctrine has its roots in English common law. In feudal times various obligations and powers, collectively referred to as the ‘royal prerogative,’ were reserved to the king. The king exercised these functions in his role of father of the country.

“In the United States, the parens patriae doctrine has had its greatest application in the treatment of children, mentally ill persons, and other individuals who are legally incompetent to manage their affairs.” (American Law and Legal Information).

Unfortunately, US jurisprudence (particularly Hawaii v. Standard Oil Co., 1972), whose lead we oft follow, evolved the doctrine to justify government case standing for a variety of matters, most notably antitrust cases.

But why the government should act as “father” over independent adults, particularly when those adults are the ones paying for the former’ subsistence from taxes collected, is an inconsistency never fully reasoned out.

Contrary to how many people today feel entitled to be taken care of by the government, particularly by the president, they forget that the point of our tripartite constitutional system is precisely to limit government’s powers.

Under our Constitution, it’s the citizens that run the country. Not government bureaucrats. Civil servants, from the president down are all exactly that: the people’s servants.

Our governmental structure is designed to allow our people to act with self-responsibility, government being merely there to assist. In other words, the government was not designed under our Constitution to be the be-all and do all for the people. The actual running and welfare of the State is the responsibility of the people themselves.

The primary job of government is to serve and protect the people, which includes maintaining peace and order, and securing life, liberty, and property. All others are secondary, for which the government acts subordinate to the people.

The rationale behind limiting government’s power is that if the people abdicate their responsibilities and prefer the government stepping in, the latter’s tendency is to want more power. Soon, it will be telling people what to eat, work, buy, believe, travel, who to be with. Which requires more government personnel/resources, which demands a bigger budget, hence more taxes. Hence, less autonomy for the people: less money in the wallet, less choices, less exercise of free will. Thus, more dependency. And on and on.

This COVID-19 pandemic (or whatever it is) has been exploited by the government to run amuck and enlarge itself. It is a Hobbesian nightmare on steroids (or rushed vaccine).

In truth, the proper thing to do should have been to cut the bureaucracy, thus allowing our citizens the freedom to take care of themselves as they best see fit; churches to engage in their religious, charity, and counseling activities; businesses to generate income; schools to educate our youths; and — most importantly — families to take primary care of our citizenry.

Instead, the government — with the people’s submission — has grown gigantically, such that it now pervades every decision point in every person’s life: when to leave the house, what to wear, how to eat, which people to meet, how to travel, how to set up a business. And on and on.

The ironic thing is that this submission, enslavement rather, as it includes the wholesale derogation of our civil liberties, is subsidized by the people themselves: a government budget of P4.1 trillion, representing a 167% increase from 2010’s Php1.541 trillion.

This expansion is not driven by economics or population, considering the 3% average inflation from 2010 to pre-COVID-19 2019 and 17% population growth from 2010 to present. Rather, it’s an expansion driven by the need to control and intrude into every aspect of Filipino’s lives.

Filipinos should stop treating government as the “father of the nation.” We already have our own fathers and many of us are fathers as well. Ours is a country of self rule and we should act like it.

Besides, considering how extravagantly and wastefully it spends the people’s tax money, the government is really just the most deadbeat father around if there ever was one.


Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.


Twitter @jemygatdula

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