[Viewpoint] Free lunch comes at cost of freedomA free lunch program for all schoolchildren has become a hot potato among campaigners ahead of the June 2 gubernatorial elections. Progressives call for free school meals for all because a selective program could stigmatize students placed on a free lunch list. Conservatives argue that such a program would waste tax money by serving students who can afford to buy their own lunches. It’s a question of a comprehensive or selective program on a key welfare issue.
Those disinterested in a political debate lean toward the free-for-everyone lunch idea because of simple expediency. But the issue goes beyond campaign rhetoric. It concerns one of the fundamental choices leading to the society we want to build for the future.
Providing free school meals goes against the simple principles of a free-market democratic society.
There is a role for an individual and separately for the state in a community. The state collects taxes to build bridges, dams and schools, as well as to tend to security, defense and other affairs that are beyond an individual’s capacity.
The state also can reach overcapacity if it overstretches its role to household affairs such as providing daily meals. Free school lunches are not literally free as they must be subsidized by taxpayers. Also, a free meal connotes a handout.
To exaggerate a little, schoolchildren standing in line for a free meal are no different from North Koreans in a queue for food stamps.
To be responsible for my child’s diet is my right as an individual. It is my duty as a parent and should not concern the government.
Of course there are many families among us that cannot avoid a situation where their children must skip lunch at school. These are ones who should be eligible for government support. They must be given special attention.
There shouldn’t be a social stigma because their children eat lunch for free at school. There should be discreet ways for them to eat without being singled out.
The issue of free school meals is not as simple as it looks. If the government provision of what individuals eat, wear and where they live are taken as a given, then society will be filled with dependents instead of independent individuals.
Worse, the greater the government role, the greater its control will be. We may have to give up our freedom and rights in return for the government’s charity.
Can we tolerate the government meddling with what we eat, wear and where we live? Suppose free meals are provided at school to all. There would be politicians who would like to take the credit.
But are they paying? No. We are the ones who are paying - the faithful taxpayers. We would have to live with politicians who gloat over a free meal program that comes straight from money in our own pockets.
Then there is the problem of efficiency. Which is more economical: paying for lunch directly or indirectly through the government? If the government picks up the tab, there would be those who appropriate the cash for other purposes. Prodigality and corruption may creep in, given the historical lessons of socialist societies. Individual choices and wishes would also be discredited.
Children are also entitled to the freedom to choose what to eat for lunch. They can bring a packed lunch. It is part of diversity in a free society. Many children are already unhappy with current school menus. Why do we have to ignore the individuality of our schoolchildren over the lunch menu? They get enough uniformity from school learning. Sameness is forced more and more upon our children while society calls for more individuality.
Politicians argue the program is for the poor. But they are exploiting the poor for more votes during the election season. The ruling Grand National Party opposes free meal offers to students from wealthier families. They are also resorting to populism to win votes from the poorer voters by taking swipes at the rich.
Lunch for our children is not an issue of wealth. It is a parent’s right and happily accepted duty. If parents neglect to care for their children, the state must inevitably take their place.
How can we defend our own freedom and rights if we surrender our duties and rely entirely on the state? Democracy cannot take root in such conditions.
The community will grow more and more like a totalitarian or communist society. Independence is the bedrock for the prosperity of an individual as well as the state. Therefore the debate over free school lunches is more than an issue of a simple meal and expedience, but a matter of philosophy and ideology. We cannot sell our freedom and dignity over a free meal.
If the program is chartered, we would have to start a campaign to boycott it by sending packed meals to school. Only this way can we defend the value of our family and the foundation of a free democratic society.
*The writer is a senior columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Moon Chang-keuk