A new year is typically the time to turn a new leaf — but maybe not before past accounts have been settled. While the administration has earned plaudits from some quarters for the economy’s performance under its watch (which, to be honest, could have been better), nagging questions continue regarding the social, civil, and human cost accompanying that success. Was it a vital component, even “a necessary evil” in the words of one economic manager? Or was it a purely incidental and gratuitous — and lethal — diversion? In other words, would the economy and society have prospered anyway without a mounting pile of bodies (more than 7,000 drug suspects to date)?

This will not be the first time such questions are raised. One might similarly ask: were the 30 million who died of starvation in the Great Leap Forward a “necessary evil” to be taken in stride in explaining China’s current roaring success? And of course, Hitler failed because of his territorial aggression, but if Germany had succeeded economically (as it was doing until 1938) or had emerged victorious, would the Germans have regarded the 17 million Jews, communists, and other victims who died in the Holocaust as an unfortunate but acceptable cost?

Germans have a quaint little word — Vergangenheitsbewältigung — to describe the difficult process of coming to terms with their past. Present-day Filipinos may yet live to see their country upgraded to upper middle-income status and the finally behold a future “A” credit-rating with misty eyes — but those who survived and thrived under Duterte will still have to justify their opinions, behavior, and speech with respect to the bloody toll of this regime.

Good friend Romy B. is fond of ribbing me for my criticism of the administration’s drug war. According to him, the rationale for the drug war can be explained in two ways: Duterte is either a brutal and murderous despot — or an economist. The facetious point of the latter, of course, is that physically eliminating drug addicts is more cost-efficient than the lengthy course of counselling, medication, and social services that a proper rehabilitation program might require. From benefit-cost considerations alone, therefore, EJKs (extra-judicial killings) should be something an economist should appreciate.

The ultimate cost-benefit calculus underlying the drug war, however, is simply that some human beings are worth more than others. To the famous playwright and Fabian socialist Bernard Shaw is due this flippant but horrific quote: “You must all know half a dozen people at least who are no use in this world, who are more trouble than they are worth. Just put them there and say Sir, or Madam, now will you be kind enough to justify your existence? If you can’t justify your existence, if you’re not pulling your weight in the social boat, if you’re not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the organizations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yourself.” Essentially, the criterion is that one’s marginal product is less than the living wage — funny how that translates into being “poor” by definition.

The argument attains even greater force if we assume — as Duterte has asserted on numerous occasions — that drug addicts are “not human.” This convenient assumption allows the loss to society from the demise of drug addicts to be calculated with somewhat greater accuracy. Viewed in purely physical-chemical terms — as consisting of 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, 3% nitrogen, plus trace amounts of other elements — the value of a human body was calculated at around $1 in 2018. This increases to about $5 or about P263 (in 2018 pesos) if one sells the skin for leather — although the Nazis, being meticulous Germans, would have also saved gold tooth-fillings and hair for wigs. Multiplied by some 7,000 killed, that amounts to only about P1.8 million. Even if one takes the high estimate of 17,000 killed, that’s still only P3.2 million. (The police effort to hunt down and kill suspects can be regarded as a fixed overhead and so does not figure.)

So, from one viewpoint, this amount might represent what society loses by disposing of drug addicts and not “mining” them for resources. Drop in the bucket.

Of course, this all changes if one regards drug addiction as a health problem, drug addicts as human beings, and human beings as intrinsically equal by rights.

You spoil everything, Leni Robredo.


Emmanuel S. de Dios is professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines.