[OUTLOOK]Don’t look to the Blue HouseA few years ago when Japan was at the height of restructuring its financial sector, a seminar was televised, something rare on Japanese television. The subject of the seminar was individual responsibility after the financial reforms. The Japanese government would no longer assume responsibility for banks that went under, so individuals must be careful in choosing their banks, the seminar concluded. What may sound obvious to a Westerner was an enormous shift in the thinking of Japanese society, which had been under the guidance of its government for such a long time. A famous economist who attended the seminar stated that it would be difficult for the Japanese to adjust to such a cultural shock.
Written as a wave of neo-liberalism surged over Japan, Ozawa Ichiro’s new book, “Blueprint for a New Japan: The Rethinking of a Nation,” made an interesting point. Mr. Ozawa is the head of the Liberal Party. When he visited the Grand Canyon in the United States, he saw a young couple standing precariously near the edge of a cliff. When he expressed some worry about their safety, he was told that the national park would not be responsible if adults fell over the edge because of their own carelessness. He mused that in case of such an accident in Japan, the government would have been the one to be blamed. A fence would be erected and tourists would be supervised so they did not enter the area. Mr. Ozawa said in his book that should Japan try to reform its society, it needed for the public to change their attitudes and accept the fact that individuals must act under the assumption that they are responsible for their own actions.
It is the result of the modernization process in the 20th century that individual responsibility has become lost in our daily lives, relying instead on the state or large organizations to solve problems. The mass production system of the 20th century meant the fattening of organizations and the strengthening of the government role. In this process, the individual was often alienated from the massive organizations. In order to solve this problem, governments made a system to protect the human rights and freedoms of individuals, and society formed groups such as labor unions to protect the interests of individuals. But the mammoth organizations are beginning to crumble as we enter the 21st century. The individual can no longer lead a comfortable life under the protection of an organization. Ultimately, the principles of the market hold the individual responsible for everything, and this means that the roles of the government and the labor unions will change dramatically in the 21st century.
The recent happenings in our society seem to show how the government and the people are all at a loss about how to cope with the paradigm shift into an age of individual responsibility. Since the inauguration of the new government, the people in their collective actions seem to ignore their own responsibilities, while the government acts as if it should take responsibility for all problems. If you choose a bank with a higher interest rates, this means you must bear the responsibility for the higher risk rates that accompany them. But these days, milk producers are blaming the government for the excessive supply of milk, and credit delinquents are demanding the government to take responsibility for their excessive use of credit cards. Society is acting as if its problems such as farm household debts, restructuring measures and the deficits of the transport industry are all problems of the government and that the individuals have no responsibility.
This is not to say that the government is blameless in the failure of its policies. The government should not have misled the people by one-sidedly intervening in the market because of uncertainties about the future. But the government can not assume responsibility for results of individual choices. It is wrong to think that the government or society must be responsible for the costs of public finance institutes if they were incurred by inefficient management or by the monopolistic interests of the members of that institute.
Until now, we have relied on society, relatives and family to take care of our personal problems. Because Western societies, on the other hand, have always emphasized personal responsibility, insurance systems were developed.
Now that we are entering the age of neo-liberalism and unlimited competition, we need a shift in our view of personal responsibility. The individual is placed more and more in a position where he has to take responsibility for his decisions and the government will provide only minimum levels of social security.
The government will not take care of all the problems and should it try to, it would only incur social costs beyond its capabilities.
In the end, if the individual is not prepared for this age of individual responsibility, the individual and society will face serious consequences.
* The writer is a professor of public administration at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Yeom Jae-ho