[Viewpoint] Let’s talk about what’s fair

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[Viewpoint] Let’s talk about what’s fair

Chairing the last cabinet meeting of 2010, President Lee Myung-bak urged his government to do its best to put shoulder to the wheel to build a fair society in the new year. Since the president first brought up the concept of a “fair society” during his Aug. 15 Liberation Day address, it has become a popular phrase for his administration and on the political stage.

Some members of the conservative ruling party worry that too much emphasis on the concept could work against various policies the government is pursuing. It already has. But regardless of the political benefits and drawbacks, it is meaningful that the government called attention to the concept of a fairer society.

Despite staggering economic progress, many in Korean society feel left out and left behind. A survey of 1,017 adults by the JoongAng Ilbo in September showed that 73 percent believed our society to be unfair. Another survey of 800 adults by a think tank at Seoul National University rated the society’s noblesse oblige, or social responsibilities that should accompany power and wealth, at 26.5 out of 100.

Few would oppose the pursuit of a fairer society. But the problem with our society is that we differ greatly on what fair means and what policies should be changed to go in that direction. The incumbent government has been chastised from its inception for unfairness and arbitrariness in carrying out policies. Its sudden conversion to equitability can lead to half-baked policies that may end up costing future generations.

Before trotting out policies to build a fair society, we need to reach broad consensus on the concept of fairness. Public debate and argument cannot guarantee agreement. Mankind is constantly changing its concepts of state and governing structure because of wrangling over this very issue. Most societies are divided between conservatives and liberals, and the dividing line is in their notions of fairness.

Building a consensus on this concept is guaranteed to be bumpy. But we need the discussion to move toward becoming an advanced society. Though laborious and demanding, we need to go through the process of debate, persuasion and compromise in order to form a social consensus.

Western society has experimented with liberalism, utilitarianism and socialism, and it went through revolutions to bring about a common doctrine of human rights, freedom, justice and fairness. Their systems and laws have taken root to pursue these common values and goals.

We have imported their system and laws, but we have fallen short of deliberating and questioning the values and principles behind them. Korea’s policies on economics, social development, unification and foreign affairs may be incoherent and often-changing because they are rooted in fuzzy and irresolute common values and philosophies.

Our people have led hard lives since the founding of this nation. We have suffered a truly apocalyptic civil war, worked day and night for industrialization and shed blood to attain democracy. We were too busy making a living to have time and energy for the luxury of talking through values and philosophies, and we lived under a constant security threat that kept us from debates on ideologies.

We have finally accomplished industrialization and democratization, but we have yet to become an advanced society. Our economy is the world’s 15th largest and our military power is among the world’s 10 largest. Still, we cannot tout a similarly high ranking when it comes to the suitability of our systems and laws and the fairness that governs them.

A state must pursue justice, and justice stands on the bedrock of fairness. A fair society is a goal every government must pursue whether it is conservative or liberal. If the government is serious about its campaign, it should encourage public debate on the issue. Even if the debates fail to narrow differences, they can raise understanding and make room for compromise and consensus.

Fairness will be the pillar of any policy, whether it’s a tax cut, welfare system, health care, corporate support, military service or market opening. Before unleashing various half-baked ideas in the new year, government offices should open grounds for public debate and try to create a consensus on the values on which our society runs.

*The writer is a professor of Graduate School of International Studies, Sogang University.

By Cho Yoon-je
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