[OUTLOOK]Heed economic principles, not pollsA government often uses polls as a means to justify its measures. If a survey shows that many people support certain measures, it is easier to implement them. That is why governments carry out or order surveys on a variety of measures they initiate.
The problem is whether poll results truly reflect the public’s thoughts and opinions. Poll respondents sometimes answer questions without giving enough consideration to the matter, particularly when the issue is not directly related to their interests. They tend to support an issue when there seem to be valid arguments for it or it seems ethically right. These types of results are easily used to justify measures, instead of as a basis to decide on them.
Recent surveys on a free trade agreement with the United States seem to be of that type. The results vary a great deal, depending on how the poll was conducted and who was polled. Supporters of such an agreement reportedly outnumbered opponents. Kim Chang-ho, the secretary to the president for public information, said that as much as 50 to 60 percent of respondents supported a free trade agreement with the United States.
However, the respondents’ different levels of awareness and knowledge were not reflected in the surveys. It is unclear whether the respondents had enough data knowledge before answering whether they supported it or not.
I feel even more suspicious about this when people make contradictory arguments. For instance, even some people who support a free trade agreement with Washington argue that we should impose heavy taxes on foreign companies who earn a large amount of money in Korea.
People say so because they lack information and knowledge on free trade agreements. When these people answer questions in a survey, they easily answer without much consideration of the real issue. If the government wants these poll results as backing when pursuing a trade agreement, it should know that there is a big risk in doing so.
Surveys on an act to limit interest rates on private loans are basically the same. A survey conducted by the Ministry of Justice showed that 95 percent of people supported the draft act. It seems that the percentage of supporters was overwhelmingly high because the survey was conducted on people who had borrowed money from private lenders and knew only the hazard of their high interest rates.
The act to limit interest rates also seems fair and ethical on the surface. Would the result be the same, however, if people were given an adequate explanation of what possible side effects could result if interest rates on private loans were limited to less than 40 percent?
In the past, there were incidents where untrustworthy surveys were used to justify government measures. One example was in 1987 when daylight savings time was introduced here. The government wanted to introduce the daylight saving system to broadcast the 1988 Olympic Games to the United States at a more convenient time for Americans.
The government decided to start the new system on May 10, 1987 and conducted a survey one month beforehand. As much as 47 percent of people were in support of the plan, while only 18.8 percent were against it. It was the result of a public promotion on the benefits in energy saving effects and a longer daytime.
However, when another survey was conducted while daylight savings time was in effect, the number of people who supported it was less than those who were opposed. As people experienced inconveniences, many of those who had supported daylight savings time earlier had changed their minds.
If a survey is conducted when respondents lack accurate knowledge or data, the results can only be emotional responses. A small number of people who are certain to be damaged by a certain measure will often raise their voices, while the majority of people who share a small benefit will remain quiet. The arguments put by the minority group with loud voices can be misinterpreted as the major public opinion.
Sometimes, survey results are even fabricated. Thus, it is dangerous to pursue measures only because survey results show public support, because surveys do not always reflect public opinion accurately.
If the government is convinced that a free trade agreement with Washington is the right choice for the future of the country, it is not wise to pay too much attention to survey results. This applies to the case of the act on private interest rates too.
The government should look at economic principles first, rather than depending on surveys to find justification for the trade agreement.
When the government was implementing its real estate measures, it did not listen to criticism of instability in the market. So why does it constantly look at polls when it deals with the free trade agreement and interest rates on private loans? If the government does so because it does not know what guideline to follow and wants to play safe by pleasing public opinion, that is the same as trying to avoid responsibility.
* The writer is a deputy business news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Nahm Yoon-ho
More in Columns
A cautionary tale
A government in disarray
China’s thin skin
The Korean War from China’s view
Who’s laughing now?