[OUTLOOK]Painting Same Issues in Different Colors

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[OUTLOOK]Painting Same Issues in Different Colors

As the current government's term nears an end, a hollow ideological debate is taking place over the way the government has pursued its reform policies. Some are even calling a handful of welfare policies, whose purposes are basically sound despite some flaws in their implementation, socialistic, which to me is laughable. Now we have to think twice before advocating reform lest we be categorized on one side or the other.

The reason we want reforms is because we are not content with the current state of affairs. But the cause of dissatisfaction may differ from person to person. For example, some may view the level of the government's social expenditure as excessive, while others may want to change policies or regulations because expenditure is insufficient. In the end, a choice is inevitable if the direction and substance of the desired changes are disparate, even when the majority of people want reforms. In a democratic society, such choices are made through the political process.

Policies are not something given but something manufactured. While the details of a policy may be decided by experts, its adoption and implementation are a product of the political process that aggregates the preferences of individual citizens. The reason why reforms are so difficult to carry out is not because people don't know what the policies are about but because it is difficult to convey to people what benefits the policies will actually produce. Rather than advocating what they regard as the best policy, but which has little chance of being implemented in the political world, policy makers should be able to opt for a second-best alternative that can actually be realized.

The biggest reason why many reform policies have remained stagnant despite the popular demand for change is because the brain that produces policies and the power that actually implements them are separate. The government put all its energy into advertising the benefits its reform policies would produce while neglecting the opposition from the sector of society that has lots to lose from such reforms. It also underestimated the interests of the bureaucracy that actually implements reforms. While discourse on reform was abundant, no detailed policy vision that coincided with the realities and would have allowed average citizens to make informed opinions was to be seen.

Ideology is not something advocated in words alone. It should also be expressed through policies. The way you view the society and your opinion on what role the government and the market should play become clear not through an amalgamation of thoughts produced in other countries but when a cost-benefit analysis of policies is proposed.

What our society needs now is not academic theories and political chants but policy alternatives that can persuade a majority of voters. As the voice of the middle class becomes stronger with the maturation of Korea's democracy and as international competition becomes fiercer through economic integration, economic policies proposed by different ideologies may not differ after all.

Whether one argues that regulations and business practices need to become transparent for market principles to work better or that promoting market principles is dangerous in an environment where existing rules and regulations are inadequate, when it comes to detailed policy proposals there are lots of similarities. Whether one finds the reason for the reform in the market's failure or that of the government, there appears to be a consensus on the direction of reform that our society needs. At issue is not which ideological group grabs power but who will come up with a more persuasive vision and a reform program that has a better chance of being implemented.

Devising policies while taking into consideration their feasibility of being adopted in a democratic political process, and thinking about alternatives that can ameliorate societal conflicts during the process of market reform, are possible without the intervention of ideologies. Ironically, the current government became mired in ideological debate after suffering a series of policy failures without having had the opportunity to express clearly its own ideology. Instead of just attacking the ruling party, the opposition party should put itself in the ruling party's shoes and think about its own policy stance. Instead of fistfights, the Korean people want to hear exactly how reform policies of the progressives and conservatives differ.

There is ample room to carry out reforms independent of ideology in Korea where proper rules and regulations are not yet in place. It is silly to deal with the same issue by disguising it in different colors. Now is the time when people who are quietly contemplating answers to a host of social and political questions should more actively share their ideas with the rest of society.


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The writer is a professor of economics at Ewha Womans University.

by Jun Joo-sung

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