[Viewpoint] Fight the muddy water of inequality

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[Viewpoint] Fight the muddy water of inequality

A man was fishing in a stream. He threw out a net and dragged it along the bottom of the stream to catch fish. This made the water muddy. A villager saw this and scolded him for making water too muddy to drink.

The fisherman said, “If I do not make the water muddy I will starve to death.”

This story, like so many of Aesop’s fables, applies not only to his age but to any society. The interests of all citizens are not the same at all times. Sometimes something may benefit some people while hurting others.

The important thing is whether that thing benefits the majority. If the majority of the village people have to drink from the stream, it is wrong for the fisherman to make the water muddy, and people should come forward to stop him. If he insists on having his own way, they must take the net away from him.

The people can then give the fisherman a small plot of land so that he does not starve to death. But just because they do not want to give him a plot of land, that doesn’t mean they can look on him with folded arms or turn a blind eye when he makes their drinking water muddy.

This is the situation we are in now. There are too many people making water muddy through their selfish activities upstream. People are jumping into the stream from both banks, competing to see who can make the biggest splash.

Those who are sick and tired of hearing their arguments and noisy quarrels don’t dare step forward and criticize them. The representatives of the people, who are elected to handle situations like this, are busy because they are attending to the needs of the fisherman and taking their share of the fish, instead of protecting the people. We do not have the will or ability to pull the fishermen out of the river, even it were to turn into filthy sewage.

Professor James Buchanan, a Nobel laureate in economics, defined politicians accurately, saying, “Politicians follow good intentions, but their actions pursue their own personal benefits.” They always speak of “the people,” but the only things they see are “my” and “our” benefits.

I smacked my knees in recognition when I read the lamentation of Hong Gil-joo, a writer from the late Joseon Dynasty.

He wrote, “It is a damn serious problem. Political factions drive the country into disaster. Ouyang Xiu said that there would be no harm, even if there were many political factions, as long as they were led by true gentlemen. However, he should have given this deeper thought. He only knew of factions run by gentlemen and factions organized by ordinary people. He did not know that gentlemen become enemies once they lead their own factions, and that ordinary people follow in their footsteps.”

As Korea’s legislators have “gone fishing,” nothing gets done even though the lights of the National Assembly are always on. In the meantime, poor people in this country are dying of thirst as they wait for the mud in the water to settle.

Now is no time to sit musing. The reality is that the levee built by the middle class to overcome the flood of muddy water is crumbling. The “silent majority” that had propped up our society through any hardship is now breaking down. Some of those falling from the levee have now sided with those making the water muddy upstream, and some are rowing downstream because they have no more strength to resist. The muddy water is getting stronger and the wall that holds it back is growing weaker.

According to statistics on national income, the middle class in Korea, which made up 51.5 percent of the population in 1997, accounted for 43.7 percent in 2007. Meanwhile, the number of households in the lower-income brackets has increased from 19.9 to 26.3 percent, and the wealthy were 8.68 times richer than the poor in Q1 of this year, the highest since the statistics were first announced in 2003.

The Wolfson Index, which indirectly illustrates the fall of the middle class, has also steadily increased since the credit card chaos of 2003. The employment index was 43.7 people per 1 billion won ($775,000) of GDP in 1995, but that went down to 30.6 people in 2006. That means that development without employment is not far off.

It is natural to experience social conflict under these circumstances. The reason the present administration finds it hard to manage state affairs is that they have a weaker policy support base due to the absence of the middle class, as many move into lower-income brackets. Even the surviving middle-class families no longer have the energy to criticize those who are making the water muddy.

We should not leave the situation like this. The middle class has led our society to endure even when the economy was rough and their politics stagnant. If the levee built by the middle class grows weaker, we cannot expect our society to grow. In the absence of a middle class, there is no way to relieve conflicts between classes, either.

What comes next? Orestes Brownson, a 19th-century American transcendentalist philosopher, told us the remedy “will be found only at the end of one of the longest and severest struggles the human race has ever been engaged in ... the war of the poor against the rich, a war which, however long it may be delayed, will come, and come with all its horrors.”

*The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Hoon-beom
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