[Viepwoint] Competence over morality

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[Viepwoint] Competence over morality

Morality should not be the most important requirement when deciding whether someone is fit to be president, though we often place it at or near the very top.

Politics decide the fate of millions of people, and therefore competence should take precedence over morality when ranking the merits of a particular candidate,

I don’t mean to imply that morality is not an important trait for a leader to possess.

I simply mean that morality should not be our main focus.

In the 18th century during a prosperous period of the Qing Dynasty of China, Emperor Yangzheng used the Honesty Silver System in order to eradicate corruption associated with power.

The system involved providing money to encourage integrity, although in a roundabout, halfhearted way. The government was trying to address the growing problem of officials embezzling tax revenues.

Under the system, the officials could legally pocket a specified amount of the tax revenues that was supposed to wind up in the central government’s coffers. The government felt that corruption was impossible to eradicate or even temper. So it made the practice an official institution, within limits.

In this case, morality took a back seat, as it was deemed less important than solving the problem.

Lord Acton said that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and, indeed, where there is power, there tends to be corruption.

However, the Western world has historically subscribed to the notion that certain duties and responsibilities come with power and prestige - an idea called noblesse oblige. A ruler, therefore, has the duty to defend and protect his country.

The West can point to any number of leaders who possessed this trait.

His land invaded by the Persians, Leonidas, king of Sparta, led his army against the enemy and fought until he was killed in battle.

Caesar himself led military expeditions.

Friedrich, Phillip and Richard, kings during the Middle Ages, participated in the Crusades.

Many other kings and emperors throughout Western history were also killed while fighting in battle.

That’s quite different from the history of the Eastern world, where most rulers did not have what it takes to lead a country, let alone lead on the battlefield.

Among Chinese emperors, Yongle, the emperor of the early period of the Ming Dynasty, was the only one who had led an army, marching across the Gobi Desert to travel to the northern part of Central China. In Korea, we don’t even have anyone like that to look to in the history books.

King Hyeonjong of the Goryeo Dynasty escaped to Naju in the southern part of the country when Kitan invaded. King Seonjo of Joseon escaped to Uiju on the northern tip of the country when Japan invaded.

When the Korean War broke out, Syngman Rhee, the first president of Korea, broke his promise to protect Seoul in three days, bombed the bridge over the Han River and escaped.

It’s a complete mystery as to why the people did not rise up and overthrow their leaders in the face of such actions.

There has been a near-complete lack of noblesse oblige in the Eastern world, something that likely stems from the fact that social status has a different meaning and importance here. In the Eastern world, the ruling class rules subjects politically.

In the Western world, social status is defined as one’s role and function in society. In the West, for example, farmers took the lead in growing and providing food for the country, while soldiers headed up efforts to defend against invasion. The roles of the two were, more or less, clearly divided.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern world, all farmers were potential soldiers.

The farmer-soldier principle was created during the Tang Dynasty and had since been a basic military system in China and Korea for ages. Under the system, all farmers can be mobilized as soldiers. The concept of noblesse oblige did not exist.

Noblemen in the Western world risked losing their lives and went into war not because they were extraordinarily courageous, but because it was their duty, and society placed that responsibility on them.

In modern times, philanthropy is common in the upper class of the Western world.

That is not because those who belong to the class are especially moral. Rather, it’s because society dictates an unwritten code that says they have a “duty” to contribute to charity.

Corruption associated with power in our society cannot be solved in the short term, as these are deeper, institutional problems. Even a former president who confidently displayed morality is now in the hot seat. This shows the practice is deep-rooted in our society.

From now on, we need to make persistent efforts over the long run to establish a new framework for society.



The writer has authored books on humanities and social issues. Translation by JoongAng Daily staff.

by Nam Kyung-tae
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