[Viewpoint] The real pocketbook issues

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[Viewpoint] The real pocketbook issues

Two liberal intellectuals recently published a book on an extended dialogue they had over the span of seven months. Oh Yeon-ho, founder and editor of OhmyNews, asked the questions and exchanged views with Cho Kuk, a well-known liberal law professor at Seoul National University.

They pored over accomplishments and failures of liberal leadership from the liberal perspective. The liberals assumed power, but without concrete policy alternatives to conservative administrations, they fell into a “pit of ineptitude.” Former democracy activists became lawmakers and senior government officials, the rebels transformed into lords. Under the protection and patronage of the king, the lords lived to enjoy the benefits once monopolized by conservatives while habitually rebelling on the political front as the left wing.

The conclusion of the dialogue called for liberals to transform themselves with concrete ideas and a platform to win over the public with goodies and prepare to win the 2012 presidential election, or maybe the one in 2017. The ideas poured out: free school meals, free child care, extensive medical coverage, half-subsidized university tuition and cheaper housing. Free school meals have already been implemented, the authors wrote, and other ideas are also feasible if leaders don’t get pulled into bizarre schemes like dredging and damming major rivers.

But the debaters overlooked one important point. A plan to feed the public with goodies should be accompanied by the capacity to make the food. Who produces the food? Farmers, of course. To farm, one needs to develop the soil, quarantine and dredge to secure water. One must build strong fences to prevent predators from ruining crops and deal with vicious neighbors who threaten to sabotage their rival’s land. Sometimes sons can die in the sea from getting hit by a torpedo, and farmlands and fishing villages can be devastated by sudden shelling. But all of these not-so-extraordinary variables are wished away by a logic that says everything will be alright if the public is well-fed.

Progressive ideals are always alluring. They cannot understand why the conservatives provoke North Korea and test the peace when North Koreans can be won over and cajoled to open up through conciliatory gestures and engagement. The easiest and fastest way for North Korea to attack is the use of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. Would North Korea really relinquish their prized arms if we continue to give and give?

Cooperation and reconciliation with North Korea is possible when we stand on the stable ground of strong security. We once believed that rice, fertilizer, dollar-making businesses like Mount Kumgang tours and the Kaesong Industrial Complex would work. But a decade of engagement ended in vain. Now we are left with the quid pro quo of nukes-for-nukes, our missiles for theirs. We must hasten efforts to end the limit on our missile development and secure the authority to reprocess used nuclear fuel when the current Korea-U.S. atomic energy agreement ends in 2014.

The ideals sought by liberals are romantic, and the realities faced by conservatives are not easy. In the real world, leaders must buy new weapons to protect the land and the people against enemy attack and build stronger fences. Rice farming alone cannot feed the people. They must develop new crops and seek new engines to power the economy.

Instead of handouts and goodies, the government must create new jobs and boost competitiveness so that local brands can stretch out to the world markets. These policies may be unpopular with the public, but they are the “bigger and broader welfare,” according to Prof. Park Se-il.

George Lakoff, who later served as an adviser to the Democratic Party in the U.S,, wrote a book about conservatives called “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” and advised that in order to regain power, the left wing must not touch the elephant, the Republican’s symbol. The more they get involved in the right wing’s strategies, the more likely they are to lose.

Liberals are trying to seek greater state subsidization for schooling, medical services and housing to take back power. The conservatives should not be swept up by such talk. They should not be tempted to join the bandwagon of profligacy. When liberals emphasize their liberal identity, the conservative should stick to their conservative values and roots.

The liberals at least are doing some soul-searching and making plans for the future. But where are the conservatives? They are either on the sidelines or joining the liberal chorus.

Conservatives must be conservative. They must present a plan for the next administration that emphasizes security and the economy regardless of how boring that comes across. People will be well-fed and secure when the economy runs well. The conservatives must sell this simple but irrefutable principle to the public.

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

By Kwon Young-bin
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