[Viewpoint]Noblesse oblige

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[Viewpoint]Noblesse oblige

This happened in northern Europe last year: A Swedish real estate agent drove across the border from Sweden to Finland. As he did, a speed monitor went off with a click. The posted speed limit was 30 kilometers per hour, but he failed to see the sign and sped by at 67 kilometers per hour. A few months later, he was unpleasantly surprised when he received a notice by mail for a traffic violation. He was fined 2,500 euros ($3,625) for exceeding the speed limit.
He could not believe that the penalty for driving at 67 kilometers per hour was such a hefty fine. He lodged a complaint with a Finnish court, asking whether it was “an administrative error.”
The court explained to him politely that the fine for a traffic violation in Finland is determined according to the violator’s salary. As the annual salary of the real estate agent was 290,000 euros, the Finnish authorities imposed a fine in proportion to that figure.
In an interview with a daily Swedish newspaper, the real estate agent said, “I felt bitter about having to pay such a large amount, but I could not help laughing for days thinking about this funny idea of the Finnish government.”
In Europe, the Finnish system for such fines is called the rule of noblesse oblige. The law stems from the idea that people who earn a lot of money should have larger social responsibilities.
It instantly makes us wonder whether the idea collides with constitutional principles of equality and the prohibition of excessive penalties. But there does not seem to be much resistance to the idea.
The notion is that the leaders in a society should abide by the law more faithfully than ordinary people, and, after all, no one stands to lose much money in fines if they abide by the law.
Noblesse oblige comes from a French adage: A higher standard of ethics and social responsibility is required of those with great wealth or social status. The idea is generally thought to have been expressed first in the novel “Le Lys Dans La Vallee,” written by Honore de Balzac in the 1830s. However, the social practice of noblesse oblige took root in European society long before the saying came into wide usage.
In the early days of the Roman era, aristocrats competed with each other to demonstrate loyalty to their country because they felt this was their natural duty. They were honored to contribute large sums of money to the society, and were the first to enter the battlefield, risking their lives when the country was at war.
It is the opinion of historians that what enabled ancient Rome to conquer the world was this sense of responsibility held by the upper-class. This tradition is still found in some parts of European society even in the modern age.
Nowadays, European companies carry out their sense of duty and honor under the slogan of Corporate Social Responsibility.
At the head office of Marks & Spencer in England, the retailing giant installed a huge billboard to track the company’s various social campaigns.
The board shows the progress, in real time, of a range of activities, from an educational support program for children in Uganda to a program promoting carbon dioxide emissions reduction.
The company has established five-year plans for its campaigns and it makes the employees at the head office aware of progress on meeting the goals. It also informs people outside the company of the plan, benefiting in effect by advertising its good deeds while also inducing outside participation.
Danone, the French dairy manufacturer, started making what it calls “yogurt of love” last year. For under-nourished children in Bangladesh, the company provides milk at a low price to a local dairy factory that makes yogurt. Thanks to this program, Bangladeshi children can drink yogurt for around 5 U.S. cents per pack, while young people also find work at the yogurt factory.
The fact that companies represent the nation also can truly be felt in Europe. The European press takes BMW as an example when they explain the German economy, and Hermes and Dior when they talk about the French trade situation. In Italy, Ferrari or Fiat are proud names.
These European companies rose to the top of their industries with great products, but they also acknowledge that noblesse oblige was one foundation for their success.
With the launch of the Lee Myung-bak administration, Korean companies are looking forward to a new relationship with government and the creation of an environment in which they can manage their businesses with few restraints over the long term. There is even talk that positive effects from this are already being felt in corporate activities.
If an environment is created in which our companies can rise up again, some say we would have nothing else to wish for.
But there is one thing I really want. I hope that Korean companies will think seriously about how we adapt and implement the noblesse oblige concept to our situation.
Judging from what the wealthy Europeans are doing, it seems that just making money is not enough for top-class international business.

*The writer is the Paris correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Jeon Jin-bae
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