[FORUM]The dangerous populist trap

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[FORUM]The dangerous populist trap

No matter how hard I try, I cannot understand Grand National Party lawmaker Hong Joon-pyo. As he goes around the country, he continues to stress a need for special legal measures to restrict housing ownership and steadfastly advocates that he would propose the controversial law regarding overseas Koreans. The unceasing applause from some classes seems to make him energized.
However, there is an enormous chasm between the applause of the public he relies on and the deep silence of the public that I am witnessing. Discussing whether the applause or the silence is mightier is not the point. It is meaningless to have an opinion survey. Those who support his two proposals are categorized as patriots, or struggling common people, and are allowed to speak freely. But those who oppose Mr. Hong’s view remain silent, for fear that they might be accused of being traitors, or “the haves.”
Having enforced the law in the prosecutors’ office and dealt with classified intelligence at the National Security Planning Agency, Mr. Hong used to tout himself as a conservative figure. I wonder about what has led him to advocate a series of radical leftist policies. In order to accommodate the understanding of his two initiatives, we need to thoroughly review the vicissitudes of his ideology and the history of his philosophy. However, such an attempt would naturally be viewed with suspicion.
No matter what the circumstances, he seems to follow his political ambition, riding on the sentiments of the citizens. The transformation of a politician into a man of the people requires long-term insight. If it goes wrong, the attempt could hurt the people’s economic fortunes instead of helping them. The citizens are busy with their daily lives and might not have an eye on the future. A politician who emphasizes what’s going on right now instead of talking about the future is bound to fall. When a problem arises, the politicians are long gone, and only the citizens are left to suffer. There are countless examples of such cases of lack of insight and responsibility.
In 1980, the Chun Doo Hwan Administration banned private tutoring altogether, much to the applause of ordinary citizens. However, people began to get tutoring secretly, and because of the risk, the tuition costs surged. As a result, the common people had a harder time in the end.
In 1990, ruling and opposition lawmakers raised the graduated property tax rate on lands owned by businesses by up to 17-fold. They were determined to control real estate speculation. The decision had a ridiculous outcome. The extra costs were passed on in the prices of products and services, and the fluctuation of the prices produced added burdens on household economies.
Characteristically, a policy failure tends to fade from memory. Three years ago, lawmakers revised the commercial lease protection law and housing lease protection law in order to help powerless tenants, but instead, the country had to go through a shocking rise in lease prices. The politicians that contributed to this fiasco are still in utter shame. Former president Kim Young-sam needs to remember the price Korea paid after he proclaimed that he would safeguard the rice market. The country paid a price for this ignorant promise, encouraged by public opinion. When we face these crises, we ask ourselves whether what we need more is enlightened citizens or an insightful leader. However, it is a function of circumstances.
Mr. Hong needs to talk about truth and vision. Aside from popular sentiment, he is obliged to explain how the two proposals will influence the future of the country. Korea relies heavily on exports, and in these internationalized and globalized times, he needs to abide by international rules when he speaks, and needs to base his understanding in reality to nurture creative talent. Can his shocking initiatives appropriately connect the present and the future? We should learn from the saying that banality of language is a misdemeanor, but banality of vision is a felony.
The saying is appropriate for Mr. Hong’s case. Even if he cannot go beyond the level of the citizens, we hope that he is a politician suitable for that level. If he fails to hear the silent majority and underestimates the citizens, he could easily fall into the trap of populism. He should remember what happened in the United States in the 1920s, when Prohibition was enforced to reduce crimes committed under the influence of alcohol. Politicians need to know how to analyze their applause.

*The writer is the editor in chief of the monthly publication NEXT. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Choi Chul-joo
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