When people talk about Philippine politics, the issue of political dynasties is — and will always be — at the forefront of discussions. Now that we are approaching an election year, the seemingly accepted “truth” that dynasties are bad for us becomes all the more salient, in the media, and among voters as well.
Is there any truth to this claim? Are dynasties really bad for the Philippines economic and political development? Given such a controversial issue, a more sober (and scientific) approach to answering this question is needed. While our personal experience and perception in the Philippines may seem to suggest that this is true, a careful look at the data, however, does not necessarily support the idea that dynasties are always and everywhere bad for our country’s progress.
In a recently published study (Dulay D, Go L., “When Running for Office Runs in the Family: Horizontal Dynasties, Policy, and Development in the Philippines. Comparative Political Studies.” September 2021), my co-author Dean Dulay and I investigate the question of whether dynasties are good or bad for development. As Filipino academics, we wanted to contribute to popular discussions on political dynasties by adding empirical evidence that provides a more level-headed and rigorous take at such a contentious (and often times emotional) issue.
What did we find? Using local elections data from 1988-2016, we find that mayors coming from horizontal dynasties (i.e., two or more politicians coming from the same family occupying political office at the same time) spend 4-5% more for their constituents than non-dynasties. We provide further evidence that this is driven by dynasties’ ability to better coordinate among relatives, remove institutional constraints, and thus lead to higher spending. According to a mayor we interviewed, if the vice-mayor is a political ally, then the vice-mayor could “fast track the projects or proposal of the local chief executive, (and)… serve a bridge between the mayor and the councilors.”
These results alone seem to suggest that dynasties, in contrast to prevailing perceptions, might actually be good for their constituents. However, looking at development indicators (i.e., poverty rates and growth), we see that horizontally dynastic mayors do not lead to more (or less) development than their non-dynastic counterparts. Combining this with the previous result implies that while dynasties can encourage higher spending, they might not be as efficient in their spending as it does not lead to better development outcomes. In other words, dynasties spend more money, but that increase in spending does not lower poverty rates and does not increase city and municipal growth rates.
There are caveats to this result, however. First, the increase in spending might not be immediately reflected in short-term poverty or growth measures. Second, there might be other indicators that can better reflect the developmental impacts of greater spending. Given these, we show that horizontal dynasties clearly result in higher spending, but the development potential from higher spending does not seem to follow. This suggests the existence of waste or corruption on the one hand, but it can also be due to the stated caveats on the other.
The takeaway from our paper is that dynasties are not inherently good or bad. Horizontal dynasties, as we have shown, can bypass political gridlock, allowing them to implement good policies, which in principle is a good thing. However, in the absence of accountability mechanisms, policies might not necessarily lead to better outcomes. For example, making sure voters know about the details of municipal spending may aid in keeping horizontal dynasties accountable, which will make them use their spending in more productive ways.
Why do we find divergent results from existing knowledge and studies in the Philippines? The main difference is in our ability to tease out correlation from causation. Previous work in the Philippines has shown a strong correlation between dynastic leadership and poverty — i.e., areas led by dynastic politicians tend to be poorer. This sort of correlational analysis does not account for many possibilities: 1.) poverty may lead to dynastic formation, 2.) dynasties contribute to poverty, or, 3.) a common cause, such as low growth, results in both poverty and dynastic formation. Using a more rigorous approach we are able to offer causal evidence showing that dynasties do not lead to more poverty and provide supporting proof to back up our claim. A key contribution of our work is that apart from showing what effects dynasties have on development, we also explain how dynasties operate in political environments such as those in Philippine local government.
When talking about politics — especially political dynasties — it is always important to take a sober and levelheaded approach. Political dynasties are complex institutions that cannot simply be evaluated based on binary judgments of good versus bad. Truly understanding the causes and consequences of political dynasties requires systematic and credible evidence, even if it may be unpopular or runs counter to our pre-conceived notions.
Laurence Go (@golaurencego) is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms, and leads its data lab. He finished his economics PhD at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.