&#91OUTLOOK&#93The limits of public participation

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&#91OUTLOOK&#93The limits of public participation

Another tempest is about to overtake our country, and more rough sailing is at hand with the heated public debate over whether to send additional troops to Iraq. While there is a great deal of disagreement on the matter, everyone probably hopes that the issue will be solved somewhat more quietly this time. How much noise have we had to go through since this administration came into office?
Our society has not seen a single quiet day with the dispute with the teachers’ union, the truckers’ strike, the street rallies to save the wetlands, the demonstrations against the nuclear facilities in Wido and general strikes by unions. With every day marked with strife and struggle, when will we ever get any work done?
Perhaps because this government wanted to be the “participatory government,” we are living in an abundance of participation today. Public participation is good. It is the core of democracy. No one would oppose the idea of expanding the opportunities for public participation and its scope. Korean society especially has a history of democracy achieved through public participation. That is why the word “participation” seems to have an undeniable authority to Koreans.
It was for the sake of “participation in the name of preserving the environment” that the construction of the Gyeongbu high-speed rail and the highway through Mount Bukhan was halted and billions of won were wasted. Now, the government says that the plan to build a nuclear waste facility on the island of Wido could be scratched. Why are such things happening? Our situation has gone beyond an abundance of participation to a flood of participation.
There are some things that work out better because many people participate in them, and some things that work out better when left to professionals. In the job of watching for the potential abuse of power and corruption, the participation of many people is helpful. But in problems that require high professionalism and a comprehensive judgment, it is desirable to follow the opinion of experts. No amount of arguing by 100 people can turn a wrong answer into a right one.
If government tyranny and the unilateralism of professionals was the problem in the past, today’s problem lies in the opposite; the tendency to decide everything by popular vote and the opinion of the larger group. Civic groups are making their demands on everything ranging from preserving the wetlands to nuclear energy, education and even appointing justices. Sometimes when a major issue is at hand several hundred groups work together and it is hard for anyone to raise an objection to such a formidable front.
How could ordinary people with everyday jobs, Roman Catholic priests and Buddhist monks understand and master every aspect of society and be capable of offering opinions on every issue? Should we not become a little more humble?
I am a person who believes in common sense. Even if you don’t have professional knowledge, you won’t make any big mistakes if you go by your common sense. Does our society possess common sense? Look at how the issues in question are handled in this society. We are too used to ideological judgments. It’s not only the North-South issue. The answers to all the issues seem to depend on whether we are rightists or leftists. Labor union problems, teachers’ union problems, reclamation project problems, no matter what kind of problems arise, we know what a person is going to say about the issue if we know his ideological tendency. “You’re a leftist. You’re a conservative. Your answer is obvious.” In such an atmosphere, common sense does not work. No one is interested in what we really need and what would be desirable in our everyday life. Our personal ideologies become the measuring stick for everything.
Ideological judgments are very simple. The “haves” are evil and the “have nots” are good. Destroying the environment is bad and conservation is good. If we apply this formula, the answers come easily for every issue.
But the reality is not that simple. Complex realities should not be judged by a single standard. Unfortunately, many people fall into this mistake of oversimplified analysis. Fascism and the Cultural Revolution are examples of this in world history.
The issue of sending troops to Iraq is a foreign policy matter that includes several complicated factors. It is not an issue to be decided with such simple slogans as “War is evil” or “Would you send your own son to Iraq?” Diplomacy is conducted with other countries and it requires the professional knowledge and experience of the other countries.
That is why it is inappropriate to leave the decision of sending our troops to Iraq to popular movements. We should wait for the decision of the leaders of our nation. Of course, the leaders should make their decision on a practical and professional basis rather than based on ideological tendencies or populism. While recognizing the necessity of public participation, it seems that the times require wisdom to distinguish between a time to cry out and a time to be still.

* The writer is chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Moon Chang-keuk
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