[Viewpoint]The government shouldn’t be a nannyA newly enlisted navy private wrote a letter to his parents: “Dear Parents ... the navy is all that I expected it would be. Our battleship is spotless and our uniforms are perfectly creased ― unthinkable conditions for a soldier in the army crawling around on the dirt. However, I have realized one thing: It is my job to maintain this cleanliness. I am writing this as I mop the deck. Your loving son.”
I read this in an American humor magazine a long time ago, and it came to mind as I thought about the streets of Gangnam, Seoul. Professing to be the Singapore of Korea, the Gangnam district has become very clean. Strict regulations and surveillance are the price for the spotless conditions. Unless a person has nerves of steel or is completely ignorant of the recent crackdown, a person will think twice before throwing away a cigarette butt considering he or she will be swarmed by civil servants and end up paying a $53 fine.
Citizens who can walk on clean streets and people who got perturbed when seeing someone litter cigarette butts will be extremely satisfied. However, one cannot help but feel uneasy when hearing that the head of the district office is being lauded for his idea. What is more troubling is the possibility this practice might be expanded to all of Seoul; it demonstrates the inherent nature of power. Regulations and crackdowns are the most raffish techniques employed by those in power. How long will they view the people as fools that need to be enlightened? Do they think they can force societal virtues? One can picture civil servants devilishly grinning and quipping, “Koreans only respond to physical threats.”
The “broken windows theory” attempts to legitimize the crackdown of cigarette butt littering. The mayor of New York City said that violent crimes dropped after a crackdown on minor crimes such as graffiti and illegal subway riding; however, there is a difference between someone who throws away a cigarette butt (a lack of civic responsibility) and someone who rides the subway without paying (that person may commit a crime on the subway) or someone who covers a wall with graffiti.
It would be more accurate to say this kind of crackdown resembles what goes on in a “nanny state.” This refers to countries where the government looks over the shoulders of its citizens, meddling with their affairs and protecting them. Undoubtedly, Singapore falls into this category, as the government fines citizens for not flushing the toilets after using the public bathrooms. In America, there is a proposal in New York State to levy a $100 fine against pedestrians for wearing earphones at crosswalks. The British prime minister announced his “Respect Action Plan,” which would fine parents who neglect their unruly children, and force the eviction within three months of a household that causes harm to neighbors.
These measures were not enacted for the citizens of the Gangnam district. The Gangnam District Office said 90 percent of the people caught littering cigarette butts do not live in Gangnam. They contend they do not disrespect the people, which is, in a way, more frustrating.
Noam Chomsky argued that the United States is a nanny state that protects and supports the rich. If we follow Chomsky’s interpretation, noble Gangnam won’t accept the vulgar people coming in from the outside and throwing cigarette butts away. The examples are extreme, but in a nanny state, the privacy of the citizen is not the only thing that is encroached upon -- naturally, this expands to obstruct the economic activities of individuals and businesses; all sorts of tedious regulations are developed.
Confucius said, “When ruled by punishment, people seek to avoid being punished, ignorant of shame; when ruled through civility, the people follow the proper path.” Instead of 200 civil servants from the district office coercively asking for the identification of litterers, what if they picked up the cigarette butts for themselves and thus made the litterers feel the sense of shame? Perhaps a meddling government might be more dangerous than cigarette butts discarded on the street.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hoon-beom