Next year’s budget has managed to pass, and the National Assembly faced harsh criticism in the process. While the U.S. Senate rejected a bailout for the Big Three automakers, the U.S. Congress reacted quickly to financial rescue plans, unlike its Korean counterpart. If the same had happened in Korea, lawmakers would not have even raised the issue of helping big companies out of fear they might be criticized for siding with conglomerates. When we face critical issues, politics always interferes with our actions. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is that politicians are attached to egalitarianism.
The National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee was paralyzed when the Democratic Labor Party argued tax cuts would benefit the rich and hurt the poor. Civic groups pushed the National Assembly to reject what they called the “budget for the rich,” and no one was willing to stand up to them. Both the ruling and opposition parties remain passive in order not to be branded “the party of the rich.”
In the Grand National Party’s handling of the comprehensive real estate tax, GNP insiders acted very cautiously. An elderly woman President Lee Myung-bak met at the Garak Market did not blame the rich. She merely hoped the economy would improve and the poor would benefit. Citizens supported the Grand National Party in the last presidential and general elections out of a desire to revive the economy without clinging to misguided egalitarianism.
Economics is a competition in making money. We have to win in our fight against the world to make our living. So we have to send the best warriors from our side into battle. When they win, they return with the spoils, which people on the home front can share.
Those who actually go to battle might take bigger shares, but they should not be resented for this. We cannot send unskilled warriors into battle only because we don’t want those with skills to take the prize.
Big companies with a competitive edge need to be sent to the forefront, but the opposition seems obsessed with the idea that big companies are evil and small ones are good. Big companies are tied up by restrictions, such as the ceiling on equity investments and the separation of banking and commerce.
Restrictions on development in the capital region ties back in to the same issue. When the capital region stands in front and wins a battle, the entire country shares the loot. It is foolish to restrain the Seoul metropolitan area using fairness to all regions as justification.
The only way for Korea to survive is to focus on the service industry, and the keys to success in this area are differentiation and quality. The service industry will only fail if we approach it with egalitarian thinking. Because we want standardized education and equal medical care, the educational and medical industries are not growing. If we upgrade our medical services, we can attract patients from abroad. But the related laws are mired down by demands for equal treatment. Prestigious foreign universities will not come to Korea unless education laws are revised. The National Assembly is responsible for making all legal decisions, but it is fettered by egalitarianism.
Equality is a thorny rose. It is a grand cause that requires heavy sacrifice. If we want to practice an equality that goes against human instincts, we will have to adopt coercive measures. Restrictions on freedom are inevitable. If we are to pursue economic equality, we must head toward autocracy and communism.
Another side effect is that equality does not bring development. We have to compete with one another to grow, which means different players earn different rewards. But in the world of equality, differences are not tolerated.
Professor Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize for establishing a microcredit bank for the poor in Bangladesh. He said that if you attempt to make the world a better place but fail, it can be seen as evil. But if you work for your own interests and end up making the world a better place, your deed is deemed good. Economic equality can be seen in the same context. The charm of equality and attaining it are different things in reality.
It is superficial to criticize the National Assembly for fractiousness and inefficiency. The more fundamental issue is that Korean politics is haunted by the specter of egalitarianism. As the economy struggles, the voices for equality will grow louder. However, a direct attempt to achieve equality through politics brings pain. Equality can only succeed through an indirect, roundabout approach. In other words, we should pursue equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.
Everyone will be given the same opportunities to compete, and the resulting riches in society will gradually lead to equality.
The best means is education. Bill Gates offered this prescription for curing the latest economic crisis. He said inequality wastes human potential and deprives society. Expanding educational opportunities is the only way to resolve inequality, he said.
Because of the economic crisis, we might tend to neglect education. But the situation demands drastic educational improvements. This is the best way to achieve prosperity and equality.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Moon Chang-keuk