CHECKING MY PRIVILEGE: The Indivisibility of Liberty and Prosperity

By: Ricka Abigael R. Dumelod

University of Santo Tomas



“Joan of Arc came back as a little girl in Japan, and her father told her to stop listening to her imaginary friends. Elvis was born again in a small village in Sudan, he died hungry, age 9, never knowing what a guitar was. Michelangelo was drafted into the military at age 18 in Korea, he painted his face black with shoe polish and learned to kill. Jackson Pollock got told to stop making a mess, somewhere in Russia. Hemingway, to this day, writes DVD instruction manuals somewhere in China. He’s an old man on a factory line. You wouldn’t recognize him. Gandhi was born to a wealthy stockbroker in New York. He never forgave the world after his father threw himself from his office window, on the 21st floor.

And everyone, somewhere, is someone, if we only give them a chance.”

– Iain S. Thomas

          I owe all of my successes to my privilege.

          In fact, it is the very reason I am even able to submit this application. I was born to parents who see the value of a legal education, who tirelessly work to bear the costs that come with it, and who forego their own dreams in order to give me mine. Their sacrifices allowed me to enroll in the University of Santo Tomas (“UST”), one of the country’s top law schools, and to maintain the level of academic performance required just to be qualified to apply for this scholarship.

          My privilege gives me a choice. Unlike some of my brightest peers, I was able to choose to become a full-time law student with time to train for debate and moot competitions, all of which are funded by a generous University administration and Dean. Today, I can choose to spend my time to work on this essay, to study for our upcoming midterms, or even to take a break, and that choice would not determine whether there will be food on my family’s table tonight.

          My father did not have the same privilege. Born to a family of eleven, he is painfully aware of what privilege (and the lack of it) meant more than I could ever know.

          As I was researching for this essay, I was surprised by how the origin story of former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban (“CJ Panganiban”) resembles that of my father’s. In his Inquirer column, With Due Respect, the FLP founder looks back at the time he lost a scholarship from the University of the Philippines (“UP”) because his parents could not afford the bus ride to Diliman.

          While CJ Panganiban still ended up finishing his undergraduate and law degrees in the Far Eastern University, my father was not so lucky. Despite having graduated as the salutatorian of a public high school in Manila, he settled for a vocational course to become a seafarer because his parents could not afford the application fee for the UP College Admission Test. He topped the board examinations for radio operators and spent the prime years of his life providing for his parents and siblings, and thereafter, for my mother and me.

          It is against this background that the way I view privilege was shaped. At the pinnacle of all our liberties is the right to the pursuit of happiness, and this right is rendered illusory by political and economic institutions that deprive the underprivileged any reasonable chance of turning their dreams into reality. There is no true liberty without prosperity, and there is no true prosperity without liberty.


The Indivisibility of Human Rights

“If a man does not have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness.”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

         Human rights are generally categorized into two: (1) civil and political rights (“CPRs”) and (2) economic, social, and cultural rights (“ESCRs”). According to CJ Panganiban, the concept of “liberty” embraces CPRs, while the concept of “prosperity” embraces ESCRs.

          The criticism on the division of the International Covenant on CPRs (“ICCPR”) and the International Covenant on ESCRs (“ICESCR”) gave rise to the concept of indivisible human rights. Since these two Conventions entered into force in 1976, it has been widely recognized in instruments issued by a number of international organizations, including the United Nations. Under said concept, the protection of ESCRs is seen as a necessary precondition to the protection of CPRs, and vice versa. This concept has been poignantly illustrated in the acclaimed book Why Nations Fail. By looking into territories sharing a border, authors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson show how even societies with the same geography and culture could lead vastly different lives by reason only of the different political institutions that govern them. For instance, North Korea, a totalitarian dictatorship, suffers the consequences of being one of the poorest countries in the world, while South Korea, a liberal democracy, enjoys its status as one of the richest.

          This conclusion should not come as a surprise. The protection of ESCRs allows a society to meaningfully exercise their CPRs, which, in turn, allows them to demand protections of their ESCRs under the rule of law. For instance, the right to vote under the ICCPR can only be meaningfully exercised when the rights to an adequate standard of living are adequately protected. Poor communities are more likely to sell their votes, and when corrupt politicians are elected, public funds are appropriated as “returns of investment” – thereby perpetuating the cycle of poverty and preventing the improvement of living conditions. It is an exhausting cycle, and to end it, the rule of law is our only hope.


Liberty and Prosperity Under the Rule of Law

“In third world countries like the Philippines, equal justice will have a synthetic ring unless the economic rights of the people, especially the poor, are protected with the same resoluteness as their right to liberty.”

– Republic v. Manila Electric Company

          The theme for this scholarship program’s essay requirement illustrates the current state of CPR and ESCR protections under the law. While prosperity must be nurtured, liberty simply needs to be safeguarded. In other words, the protection of liberty is so entrenched in the legal system, it only needs to be maintained, while prosperity, usually relegated to a second-class status, must be developed.

         Two factors can explain this disparity. First, the protection of ESCRs is seen as less important than that of CPRs based on the argument that one cannot live without their right to life or the freedom of movement to escape from life-threatening situations. Secondly, the protection of ESCRs is seen as more difficult to achieve. While the protection of CPRs is a negative obligation for which States are merely required to exercise restraint, the protection of ESCRs is a positive obligation for which States are required to commit valuable resources.

          This disparity is unfortunate. As discussed earlier, our liberty is constantly under the threat of attack without the prosperity required to meaningfully exercise such liberty. To safeguard liberty, prosperity must be nurtured with equal intensity.

          Economic forces driven by profit incentives cannot be trusted with this goal. Hence, it is important for the government to take an active role in nurturing prosperity. For the most part, the Philippines has demonstrated commendable efforts in this regard. Our Constitution, for instance, protected the right to work and the right to a living wage, and these rights are given even more specific protections under the Labor Code and related laws.

          However, there is still so much work to be done. Policies like endo contractualization, for instance, threatens the very quality of life of thousands of Filipino workers, and the thousands more who depend on them for subsistence. It is unreasonable to require the overworked and underpaid laborer to fact-check every social media propaganda, research the track record of every electoral candidate, and reject false promises of a brighter future in favor of our sovereign rights, when they are constantly laden by an inability to even support their basic needs.


Education in the Age of Fear Politics

“It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: This is water. This is water.”

– David Foster Wallace

          My privilege allowed me to pursue my interest in competitive debating. In debate, one is taught to think critically and to express those thoughts clearly and persuasively. In the age of fear politics, these skills are crucial. It is thus unsurprising that in recent years, the Philippine debate community has become one of the loudest voices in correcting misinformation and opposing abusive policies. Fear turns people against each other, and it is only the cordial exchange of opposing views that can bring them back together.

          I am fortunate to have been a key officer of the three debate organizations I joined since I started debating at the age of 12. I was the former Vice President of UST High School’s debate organization; the former President of UST’s university- wide debate organization; and the current President of UST Law’s debate (and moot) organization. With a career spanning for more than a decade, I have probably trained a hundred debaters, and as a teacher, it brings me great pride to see them succeed in their debate careers even more than I did during my time. But what makes me even prouder is how they use the skills they learned in debate to restore reason into politics. One of my juniors in debate is the current President of a non-government organization that advocates for good governance. She also took an active role in the campaign of one of the political parties in the recent national elections. Another started a business of his own to cater to schools interested in integrating debate into their curriculum. As a social responsibility program, he teaches debate to kids from far-flung areas for free.

          There is another skill learned in debate that most people do not realize, and that is empathy. In debate, participants are required to defend a side, even if it is inconsistent with their views or even if they barely know about the topic. In national debate competitions, even high school students from exclusive schools and gated communities are able to argue eloquently on why the poor should get more votes, or why they should be given less punishment for petty crimes, to name a few topics.

          One of the first lessons learned in training is that to win a debate, one must be able to characterize the key players involved and to “paint a picture” of their problems. In doing that, it is necessary to put one’s self into the shoes of someone they have not even met – stated simply, to empathize with strangers. This empathy is essential in the age of fear politics, because it is easy to despise those who repeatedly vote for politicians with a proven track record of corruption and/or a campaign based on the deprivation of our basic rights. However, hate only further widens the gap between “us” and “them” and makes the vulnerable even more susceptible to manipulation by demagogic politicians.

          As a student leader, it has been my duty to foster the culture of empathy in discussions surrounding our current political climate, whether during training, in the classroom, or on social media. In the age of fake news and alternative facts, the best response is not to hate, but to educate.


Law and Justice

“I will always remember how one professor of mine put it evocatively: we study at the College of Law, and not the College of Justice. It implies a challenge: work hard to make them mean the same.”

– Kristina Conti

          The podcast episode Blame introduced me to the growing field of neurolaw, which explores the effects of discoveries in neuroscience to legal rules and standards. Neuroscientist David Eagleman makes a compelling argument that the dominant use of culpability as a standard of criminal justice is misguided. In his The Atlantic article, he writes:

[E]very experience throughout our lives can modify genetic expression – activating certain genes or switching others off – which in turn can inaugurate new behaviors. … When it comes to nature and nurture, the important point is that we choose neither one. We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint, and then born into a world of circumstances that we cannot control in our most-formative years. The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens – equal before the law – possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision-making. The unique patterns of neurobiology inside each of our heads cannot qualify as choices; these are the cards we’re dealt.” [boldfacing supplied]

Regardless of the merits of Mr. Eagleman’s argument, it is indisputable that in the lottery of birth, there are winners, and there are losers. This reality must be acknowledged if we are to fully give life to the fundamental legal principle that “those who have less in life should have more in law.”

          When people ask about my plans for the future, I tell them I do not know yet. I have learned that plans have a way of going astray, and it is usually best to just see where the tides take you. But in my heart of hearts, I know that my ideal life resembles the one led by United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – either handling civil rights cases, or even sitting as a judge in court.

          Wherever I may end up in my career, I know that all of my decisions will be guided by the awareness that prosperity is not simply a fact of life that must be left to birth lottery, nor an aspirational right that a State may or may not choose to protect. Rather, it is an enabling right, without which all other fundamental rights may not be meaningfully exercised.



“Service is the rent we pay for living.”

– Marian Wright Edelman

          When I realized the extent of my privilege, the things I used to be proud of about myself all seemed borrowed and undeserved. As observed by author Milan Kundera, our lives are exemplified not by “It must be so,” but rather by “It could just as well be otherwise.” Everything I am is only a matter of chance.

          No amount of hard work will ever compensate for all the things I have been blessed with, but it will be my life’s purpose to try. I do hope to come close enough.