[VIEWPOINT]People power and institutions

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[VIEWPOINT]People power and institutions

Which is more important, an institution or people? That question has long been an object of debate. People who emphasize institutions believe that once a good institution is set up, all problems will be solved.
That was the weak spot of those who approached underdeveloped countries from an institutional perspective. They thought once democracy was introduced in these countries, it would flower naturally.
But Iraq is falling into even worse chaos, even though the country had an election. American neo-conservatives were arrogant to believe that an institution could change the country thoroughly, and they failed to look into thousands of years of Iraqi culture.
Others believe a change in people is more important than a transformation of an institution. Under this theory, if people want to change a corrupt society into a clean one, the solution is to change every member in the society into an ethical person.
But in reality, that is impossible. So, to take an ethical or a religious approach to social problems might be pointless.
Thus, it is a bad idea to make a dichotomy between institutions and people, as if they were contradictory concepts.
A debate on a single-term presidency versus a two-term one stems from a theory that emphasizes institutions. President Roh Moo-hyun talks as if it is hard to carry out responsible politics only because of our single-term presidency. He says the country will work better only if the single term presidency is changed into a two-term presidency.
Then, is a single-term presidency the only thing to be blamed for all the problems in our country? Four years is a long time. If one does one’s best he or she can achieve anything. The governing party secured a majority in the National Assembly. When the president has not achieved much, is it only because of the single-term presidency?
The administration seems to have placed too much importance on institutions. When fighting against dictatorship, to achieve democracy is important. To have a direct election for the president was important.
The earlier two administrations and the incumbent administration played a major role in making such changes in institutions. These victorious experiences may have made the people in this administration overrate institutions.
These people believed that social reforms start with reforms of institutions. They took a bellicose approach to achieve them. They did not care about the importance of people maturing. Reform plans that the administration has presented were those to change institutions. Every government body designed a reform program and created a team of reformists. And what was the result? Has the administration achieved reforms?
It is arrogant to believe institutions can change a society. Communism was aimed at building a heaven on Earth. But the former Soviet Union and North Korea turned out to be hell.
If people overrate the importance of institutions, they tend to underrate that of people. Why does a country with the same institutions face prosperity at one time and hardship at another? That answer is its people. If the problem lies with the ruling class, their leadership must be the cause of trouble. If ordinary people have problems, the problems have something to do with education.
We should take people as seriously as we take institutions. What’s more important is who is in the position of the president, not the institution of a single-term presidency.
A five-year single term is never too short as long as a president makes a resolution to work harder because five years is a short time, instead of only lamenting that that is too short to do anything.
We should focus more on people than on institutions. Our institutions are good enough. It is not that our politics are in trouble or relations between labor and management are in bad shape because the Constitution is not good enough. The more important factor is people.
Whether in a dynasty, a feudal society or a democratic society, good people are always good, bad people are always bad and great people are always great. Standards of good people do not vary depending on institutions. That’s why historical figures are respected through all times.
We should take a different perspective for this year’s presidential election. It may be important to change institutions and make reforms. However, let’s not forget that it is people who run institutions.
We should see whether a candidate has the personality to assume the presidency, if he or she loves our country and if he or she has been trained to run the administration. We also should look carefully whether people who would work with the candidate, if he or she is elected, have good personalities as well.

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

by Moon Chang-keuk
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