[Viewpoint] Try compassionate conservatism

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[Viewpoint] Try compassionate conservatism

In the summer of 2004, the state of Florida in the United States was hit by a severe hurricane. Power was cut off and no refrigerators or air conditioners worked. An ice pack, which normally costs $2, was being hawked for $10. Trees fell and destroyed a resident’s roof, and local workers demanded $23,000 to remove the trees. A motel room, which normally costs $40, went up to $160.

Florida has an anti-profiteering law. In his book “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” Michael Sandel wrote that a heated debate erupted over whether the law was proper or not. In a capitalist market economy, there is no “fair” price. A price is decided by supply and demand. When demand grows and prices go up, production increases and industries expand. Based on this simple market principle, many argued that the anti-profiteering law should be abolished. But without punishing greedy people who profit from others’ misfortunes, how can social justice be achieved?

Among Twitter users, “E-mart pizza” has become a new topic of heated discussion. E-mart chains enjoyed extremely high sales of just-baked pizzas, larger than pizzas available in other stores, even though their price was cheaper. Many Internet users criticized Chung Yong-jin, vice chairman of Shinsegae Group, for forcing the closure of small pizza shops.

“Do you consume based on ideology?” Chung replied. “The problem will be solved very easily when many people use traditional markets. It is ultimately up to the customer’s choice.” The market principle collides with the theory of social justice. So who is right?

A bill that would restrict the locations of so-called “super-supermarkets” is about to pass in the National Assembly. When supermarket chains run by conglomerates dominate all the small alleys, mom-and-pop store owners have no place to go. Protecting them is justice. But cheaper and more convenient stores are also a right to customers. Why do we have to restrict the super-supermarkets?

Some are concerned that such restrictions could become an issue at the World Trade Organization, when more restrictions will be promoted by the ruling and opposition parties who are vigorously promoting “working-class friendly” policies. Fair competition and working-class friendly policies collide. A society where the people cannot pay for education and medical treatment is a bad society. But equal opportunity in education has prompted standardization and reduced the competitiveness of the public education system. During the past 10 years of liberal administrations, the state medical insurance system was advanced, but the plan to allow for-profit hospitals - or investor-owned hospitals - has not progressed, despite intentions to improve the competitiveness of medical services. Are equality and getting things accomplished in a perpetual war with each other?

The free school lunch program was the most popular pledge during the last election for the education office chiefs. A fair society in which all students get free lunches is not a bad idea, but it is not realistic. School facilities are so old that heating systems often fail during the winter. And yet the meal program will give free lunches to children from wealthy families.

Instead of such a plan, it would be more realistic to worry about providing dinners to children from poor families or meals during school vacations.

Ideals and reality are hard to harmonize. State-run exams to become diplomats, lawyers and public servants have given an opportunity to talented people from poor families to climb the social ladder. They invest years in study, secluding themselves from the world. Suggestions were made that the talented people should be groomed to make our manpower more competitive in the global market.

Thus, U.S.-style law schools were introduced and a foreign service academy was planned. More fifth grade public servants were selected through special applications. But the scandal over a foreign minister’s daughter’s job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is about to undo all those efforts. Are state-exams the only gateway for a fair society, while those who are hired outside exams are products of an unfair society?

President Lee Myung-bak has announced he’ll spend 3.7 trillion won ($3.2 billion) on an unprecedented “working-class friendly” campaign, creating policies to expand free child care, scholarships and subsidies to multicultural families.

It is natural to boost child-care policy if it helps reverse the lowest birthrate in the world. Providing scholarships and education benefits to students of vocational schools will also improve professional job training, allowing a beautiful culture of maestro education to bloom, as in the TV drama “The King of Baking: Kim Tak-goo.” Our society is too complicated to be measured by a single yardstick of what’s fair and unfair. Just like in Florida and with E-mart, the market economy and social justice collide. In the effort to protect mom-and-pops, global competition and working-class friendly policies face friction.

What’s fair and unfair, and what’s just and unjust are in confusion. Only the compassionate, open-minded conservatives are capable of leading this complex society. Seeking a practical answer to reality, not based on ideology, is real pragmatism.

*The writer is president of the Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation and former president of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kwon Young-bin
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