[OUTLOOK]For have-nots, everything is relativePoverty has been the issue that afflicted mankind the most, following aging, illness and death. Except during times of tyranny, the principle concern of politics was the resolution of poverty. Religions also focus on how to save the poor in this life. Nevertheless, the problem of poverty has not yet been resolved to date despite millennia of struggle.
The problem of poverty has two aspects: absolute poverty and relative poverty. Absolute poverty can be resolved to a certain degree. When a country becomes generally wealthy, absolute poverty naturally disappears. If the goal of a government campaign is to resolve the problem of wealth disparity by eradicating absolute poverty, citizens would have to follow it. Reportedly, around 7 million people belong either to the poorest group, paupers who are protected by the livelihood protection law, or to the second poorest group. As the nation becomes wealthier the government must resolve these people’s absolute poverty. Of course, the best way to help them is to have them find a job and lead a self-sustaining life without depending on the state.
However, eradicating relative poverty is rather complicated. It involves psychological and social factors. In terms of the quality of life, some people are apparently better off than they were in the past, but they compare their standard of living with those around them and feel poor.
One theory states that revolution breaks out in a society not because of absolute poverty but because of relative poverty. Therefore, it is not simple to resolve the problem of poverty from a position of relative indigence. There is no way to do so unless everyone becomes wealthy or everyone poor. In North Korea, where everyone is poor, the people probably feel less sense of relative poverty.
The world is a strange place, so when you pursue economic equality in order to get rid of relative poverty, you will be faced with unintended side effects. In order to attain economic equality among people, who are selfish by nature, forcible measures are necessary. The inevitable result of coercion is the expansion of power. That’s why communism was destined to deviate into tyranny. The power of a large government grows for the very same reason. Political power can get rid of self-centered capitalists, but ironically, their place has to be filled by those in power. While equality might be attained, you have to pay a price by giving up liberty. Therefore, there must be tension between freedom and equality.
A bigger problem is that when you force equality in order to eradicate relative poverty, everyone becomes poorer instead of becoming equally wealthy. While the intentions might have been noble, the results are disastrous. The failures of socialism and communism are good examples. The reason is simple. When equality is forced, people have no incentive to work harder. The economy collapses entirely.
The Blue House brought up the issue of economic polarization in a series titled, “Cold-Hearted Society, Warm-Hearted Society” on its official Web site. I would welcome the campaign if it advocated the eradication of absolute poverty.
However, the Blue House is covertly fanning a sense of relative poverty and relative inequality as it talks about the “absolute poor.” By juxtaposing the elite 20 percent with the hopeless 80 percent, the Blue House highlights the idea that in Korean society only a few winners can survive and the majority of losers cannot. “The economically powerful are 100 times, 1,000 times crueler than the lions in the jungle,” according to the Web site, which calls Korean society “cold-hearted.”
Why does the Roh Moo-hyun Administration stress the issue of relative poverty? Is Korea really such a miserable place to live? Polarization is a fancy word that encapsulates the old saying, “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” In the past, the opposition parties used to make attacks over the issue of wealth disparity, but today the president is talking about poverty. Why does he never say that he feels responsible for the economy and distribution structure that have gotten worse throughout his administration?
The problem of relative poverty cannot be resolved even if the government takes the lead in wealth distribution. It is a problem of mentality. If you know that the world is full of things that are more valuable than money, having little money can not be a big problem. You can find happiness by taking the road you like and doing what you are good at. Diversifying values could help eradicate the problem.
Because the sense of relative poverty is literally relative, it can also be resolved if the haves are humble. If the rich behaved prudently instead of showing off, the less well-off wouldn’t feel so deprived. Just as love grows when you share it with others, the problem of poverty can be resolved when the rich voluntarily share their wealth with others.
* The writer is the chief editor of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Moon Chang-keuk