[Outlook] The pursuit of passion

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[Outlook] The pursuit of passion

A mother and her child are having a conversation while slowly walking down the stairs of a subway station. The mother asks the child, “How much is the cookie?” The child answers, “700 won ($0.77)” The mother asks again, “How much money did you pay?” The child answers, “1,000 won.” “How much change do you need to get?” “300 won.”
The mother applauds and is proud of her son for doing the calculation accurately. The mother’s expression is a mixture of pride in the success of her teaching and hope for her child’s future.
In his book, “The Passions and the Interests,” economist Albert Hirschman wrote that a rational approach to gains and losses is the spirit of capitalism. He identified the process by which people’s passions for honor, jealousy, love and violence were tamed by individuals’ interests in the Western world, and he analyzed the cultural backgrounds that activated capitalism and the market economy.
In the Middle Ages, people sacrificed their lives for honor, love, religious beliefs and loyalty and thought this was natural.
But as commercial culture spread, people started calculating economic gains and losses.
As individuals emerged as rational decision-makers, passions came to be regarded as brutal and uncivilized motivations that hindered the pursuit of what was in one’s best interest.
But until the 19th century in Europe, duels -- passionate fights to protect honor -- remained the heritage of noblemen. After that, this custom completely disappeared as most people pursued what was in their economic interest more than anything else.
In Korean society in the 21st century, such rational, interest-driven behavior can be found everywhere. Children learn how to do math from the time they are very young. Their parents want to teach them numerical concepts.
Children are brainwashed with the overly simplified formula, “High scores lead to happiness,” which makes them work hard to get better scores and to get ahead of others. Children are trained to discern gains from losses in every matter. In so doing, they gradually learn not to trust other people or society.
In the campaign for the presidential election, where state affairs must be debated, economic gains are the major topic.
People believe the equation that high incomes make a happy country. Whether from ruling or opposition parties, conservatives or progressives, all presidential candidates argue that they will make us better off.
Many people believe that a person who used to be a CEO is certain to have good leadership skills.
The national election committee, newspapers and broadcasters tell the people that we need to examine candidates’ strong and weak points carefully before making a decision.
It is not clear what standards we need to use when examining candidates, but the media and the election committee seem to think that we will find the answer if we just try.
Universities once were called ivory towers, but it seems that they cannot escape from the plague of the era.
It is depressing that high incomes are used as bait to lure people into productive academic careers.
Many universities give money to professors who write many articles in prestigious academic journals.
Civil workers and professors did not have to worry about being fired once they were hired in the past.
But harsh standards are applied to these people, too, and regulations say if they are not competitive enough, they will be fired. Some people are happy about this.
The truth is that the world is running smoothly, thanks to those who work diligently even when they are underpaid.
But people do not see this truth. It seems that people have become very smart.
But the world is not that simple. Being rational is not always good. We work hard to be better off than others, but many people feel unhappy. They feel exhausted from calculating economic gains.
Adam Smith maintained that when individuals pursue their own interests, public good will be realized.
But as people are left to pursue their interests, as he said, public hell is sometimes the result.
When measuring economic gains and losses, one easily sees that relationships, marriages, giving birth to children and raising them will lead to economic losses.
As a result, the population decreases as we all slowly age. Korea is aging. The world is dying.
If we do not share our feelings with others, care about others, sacrifice ourselves for the ones we care about or exhibit passion for life, where can we find meaning?
To be passionate might be the most economically beneficial and rational way to live.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Soongsil University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Cho Hong-sik
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