[Outlook]In praise of conflict

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[Outlook]In praise of conflict

President-elect Lee Myung-bak can thank President Roh Moo-hyun for his huge success in the election. During the run-up to the presidential race, United New Democratic Party presidential candidate Chung Dong-young attacked Grand National Party candidate Lee hard and often, but all of Chung’s efforts were in vain. Whichever candidate the Grand National Party nominated would have won a landslide victory because most people badly wanted a regime change.
Roh does not seem to be a populist. If so, he would not have driven forward with such stupid policies as the closing down of the press rooms in the government offices and levying huge taxes on people.
In addition, he would not have revealed his real intentions so often and in such a straightforward way. Consequently, his political popularity has nosedived. Roh is one of those rare cases in Korea’s political circles: He acted on his convictions and was not a political hack.
In this regard, he might become a good friend in private, because he is honest and somewhat frank. However, he lost self-control and no longer seems to have a sense of balance, meaning he has not satisfied the people’s demands as a president.
Arrogance was Roh’s fatal mistake. He never hesitated to disclose his antipathy and hatred toward the rich, graduates of prestigious universities and conservatives. His policies clearly reflected those emotions.
Even his advisers were outspoken in their public remarks, saying, “People will wake up if they are given huge tax bombs,” or “If the taxes seem too high, you should sell your apartment in the Gangnam area, southern Seoul, and move to Bundang, Gyeonggi Province.”
Their remarks were both irresponsible and inconsiderate. Certainly, they were quickly well-known by everyone.
Roh’s attitude came out of his misunderstanding that conflicts were closely tied to hatred. We share the common belief that harmony is a good thing, but conflict is bad. However, we are aware that individuals and groups of people are all different in their preferences and interests. Conflict can be viewed as a normal and natural social phenomenon, building a wellspring of activity that cultivates the development of our society.
The world-renowned British philosopher John Stuart Mill maintained 140 years ago, regarding the interpretation of conflict, that conflict is the very basis of progress, the only way to prevent a culture from ossifying.
He said every civilization in the history of humanity has required “mutually conflicting” influences to increase vitality and realize their unique goals. If other purposes are excluded and a simple purpose is sought, one might be excessive while the others may be lacking. In addition, the actual goal that people are trying to seek at the exlusion of everything else will be weakened because the sense of purpose will be lost.
We need to realize that the existence of other people is necessary to promote well-being. Mutually productive conflicts are the sign of relationships in which the two parties make up for each other’s weak points, as long as they treat the other party as a competitive equal.
We can easily understand that those relationships -- including labor versus management; capitalism versus socialism; and progressivism versus conservativism -- have a mutually productive conflict relationship.
Capitalism and socialism are one example. In the early 1990s, Eastern countries decided to abolish their socialism-oriented economic systems; however, socialist economies still exist in our lives.
Every capitalistic country has a government sector. The government’s assets are not private, but public. All of the government’s economic activities are run based on a national plan, the so-called budget. If there was no public role for the civilian economy, the capitalist economy would end, entangled with social problems such as a widening gap between the rich and the poor, disorder in the monetary and financial systems and a serious economic recession.
The following relationships -- between conservatives and progressives, and freedom and the distribution of equality ― are the same. If progressives want to realize their idealism without taking into account the realistic caution of conservatives, the trials and errors that result will put society in a state of chaos. In a society where conservative realism is the dominant theory, without considerating the progressives’ ideals, we will not see development. If we pursue equal distribution with no freedom, it will encourage laziness and poverty. In addition, freedom without equal distribution will foster cheap egotism, with no regard for others.
We need to fight against prejudice and too much idealism, short-term interests and egotism. The mutually productive conflicts may turn into hostile struggles. Encouraged by the Roh administration’s experiences, we sincerely hope the new government will change society into something that is mutually productive, drawing on common sense and a sense of balance.

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

by Lee Keun-sik
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