[Outlook]Liberal conservatism

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[Outlook]Liberal conservatism

One of my students said the word “progressivism” gives him an image of a media artist wearing distressed jeans, while “conservatism” makes him think of a brassy company chairman who likes playing golf.

An intellectual who served as minister in the former administration maintained in a TV program that the opposite of “progressivism” was “fascism.” He meant a military dictatorship that set anti-communism and advancement of the country as ultimate goals, while suppressing individual freedoms and controlling the economy.

The biggest task for Korea’s conservatives is to get rid of those images of conservatism. In Western European countries and the United States, the origin of conservatism is liberalism. I understand liberalism as a belief that humankind becomes wisest and happiest when individuals in society are free.

This belief is directly related to the idea that an economy grows best when the government’s intervention into the market is minimized and competition and trade take place freely. I also believe that thanks to this kind of liberalism, the West surpassed the East in terms of science and economics and succeeded advancing faster than other parts of the world.

However, the trust in classical liberalism was shaken to its roots due to World War I and the Great Depression. As a result, socialism and fascism appeared as alternatives. The two sides fought against each other fiercely, but in fact, the two are related.

The two ideologies are based on nationalism, which means suppressing individual freedoms and government control of the market. Most underdeveloped countries that gained independence after World War II chose a variant of nationalism, either socialism or fascism.

Korea achieved legendary economic growth under a nationalist system. Although competition among companies and trade played an important role, the system was also full of nationalist factors. We had nationalized banks and the government had very explicit economic development plans, fostered major industries and directed prices and supply volumes. The system was the foundation for the economic miracle of which we Koreans are so proud. But at the same time, it is something that we need to overcome to become an advanced country.

There should be a great deal of debate on the role of the state in advancing Korea’s economy. It is a small economy, consisting of less than 2 percent of the world’s total wealth. Still, we need to worry about the dangers of U.S. or British style laissez-faire. As North Korea is headed for self-destruction and Japan and China are claiming our territory as theirs, the government has other roles to play than the one in the market.

However, as Korea has come close to becoming an advanced country, conservatism should find its spirit in liberalism, and overcome nationalism in order to move the people’s hearts.

However, the nation still takes up too big a space in our current concept of conservatism. That is in part because of the influence of Confucianism and in part because of the strong bond that current political and economic elites have with the past era of rapid economic growth.

Some don’t understand that others can have different tastes in music. Some always pick the restaurant without asking dinner mates. Some believe that the dignity of individuals can be easily sacrificed for the sake of the efficiency of the group. These people are far from liberal.

Many policies that the Lee Myung-bak administration has considered or adopted are also a far cry from liberalism. The 747 pledge, for instance, is a relic of a controlled economy.

Such measures include creating a mega-sized bank, sustaining the economy through low interest rates and a high exchange rate, shutting down national research institutes and public corporations, controlling the prices of 52 basic necessities, not driving on certain weekdays, cutting down business hours of entertainment establishments and large-scale intervention in the foreign exchange market.

Some of these measures are probably absolutely necessary and some can even be positive. But what’s more important is the message these kinds of measures give to the people.

Those conservatives who felt a sense of danger while watching the candlelight vigils cry out for conservative unity. Elders of the country emphasize that the Bolshevik Revolution was successful with the support of 1 percent of the people.

It is good that the government strictly executes the law. However, strange political moves combined with the current economic policy remind me of the old black-and-white propaganda news.

Moderates in Korea gave birth to the Roh Moo-hyun administration five years ago and last winter the same people voted in a Lee Myung-bak administration with high hopes for its conservative economic policy.

The new administration presented a plan for a cross-country waterway and new cities. Can’t Korea’s conservatives have the competence to present a vision for a future?

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

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