[OUTLOOK]Poor or rich? It’s about values

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[OUTLOOK]Poor or rich? It’s about values

About 40 years ago, when Korea was very poor, I went to university to study economics because I wanted to learn ways to make my country more prosperous. I could not learn those things there, however. I could not learn them even after graduation, when I went to graduate schools in Korea and abroad.
I read books on economics. I read books by Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. I also kept an eye on what was happening in the real world. I concluded that there is no one way to make an economy develop. There might be some specific ways for individuals to become rich, but the only way for a country to become prosperous is for all its people to study and work hard. Economic theories with difficult equations do not seem very helpful in making a country rich.
Actually, there is one more thing that is required to make a society or country rich: cooperation. In society, people do not work alone, but are closely connected by working together or dividing processes among themselves. No one could deny that an effective system is needed for cooperation. But the right ethical values and attitudes are equally necessary. These values include integrity, diligence and responsibility. A sense of shame is particularly important. That is, people do not force others to do unreasonable things but to carry out their duties.
These days, experts are voicing concern about our economy. Worries spread that if the economy keeps going on the same track, it will fall to the same level as a South American country or the Philippines. But that isn’t bound to happen. Korea’s economy will not fall backwards to that of a developing country as long as Koreans continue to work and study hard. The worry that Korea will become like China or the Philippines is absurd. It stems from ignorance about the fundamental differences between the countries. It will be hard for China to surpass our economy as long as it does not get rid of its endemic corruption among politicians and businessman and its suppression of its people.
The global trend is to emphasize the importance of knowledge. Better knowledge certainly helps a great deal when it comes to production, management and markets. However, ethical values are also important because they help smooth cooperation among economic activities. After the end of World War II, West Germany achieved greater economic development than Great Britain or France did. The key reason was that labor and management worked together in West Germany so the country did not see any strikes, unlike other Western countries, where countless strikes occurred due to conflicts between workers and management. The level of science and technology in West Germany back then was hardly higher than that of Great Britain or France.
Some people say West Germany had a peaceful relationship between labor and management because its workers participated in management. But what is more important, I think, was its people’s perceptions. They thought workers and management should work together, rather than confront each other. Korea’s technology is approaching the level of that in advanced countries, in electronics, steelmaking, ship-building and biotechnology. When I go abroad, I can see how developing countries have serious problems of corruption and their people and societies have low ethical values.
Our economy has not equalled first-world countries probably because our ethical values have not risen to that level. Our economy will become advanced only when we have integration and a better understanding of others, and when we stop being selfish.
For that to happen, we must transform the current social atmosphere from one of division and conflicts into one that emphasizes cooperation and coexistence.

* The writer is a professor of economics at University of Seoul. Translation by JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Keun-sik
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