[Viewpoint] Snatch welfare from their handsAll countries face two crucial turning points during their histories. The first is democratization, and the second is what to do about welfare. Only after passing the second milestone can a country become a stable, advanced country. Of course, welfare is never an issue that goes away or is overcome, even for an advanced country, because of the gap between desires and reality.
Most advanced countries seek a practical compromise by using their parliamentary systems. In some countries, welfare is a priority over democracy. However, when we look back on history, those countries failed in both democracy and welfare. Many countries in South America failed to overcome the challenge of welfare policies. Failing to become advanced economies, their growth stopped for more than 50 years. Some Southern European countries such as Greece are also on the brink of fiscal crises because of excessive welfare spending. If Korea fails to handle welfare wisely, it will face a similar destiny.
In democracies, significant policies are realized through the initiative of political parties in legislatures. To this end, welfare issues here also need to be led by political parties and the National Assembly. The problem, however, is whether or not the political parties and the legislature play their role properly. Let’s say that a democratic country with separated powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches has an independent opposition party and a legislature, but they are extremely ineffective and retrogressive. Then what will happen?
An easy example is a confirmation hearing. The procedure is aimed at checking and monitoring an administration’s personnel appointments. After it was introduced to our National Assembly, we have seen how badly it can be used. In Korea, the true meaning of confirmation hearings has long faded, and it has become an arena for fights between political parties.
The real problem, however, is when such immature entities are handling welfare policy, which will decide the nation’s destiny. They have brought up the welfare issue with ulterior motives. After enjoying victories in the last local elections thanks to a pledge of free school lunches for students, the opposition Democratic Party promised a slew of new welfare benefits in time for the next election.
The Grand National Party’s reaction was pathetic. A conservative party must approach welfare with conservative principles. Conservatives support a society where individuals take the lead and assume responsibility for themselves. To put it simply, the citizens shouldn’t depend on the state for handouts because labor is sacred and their products are precious. That’s why conservative welfare is called “workfare.” Instead of distributing crumbs, conservatives value the kind of growth that will make the bread rise and give society more to share. And instead of creating a large government that will be responsible for all state affairs, conservatives seek a small yet dynamic one.
The GNP, however, is oblivious to such a philosophy and is chasing the opposition DP’s pledges by presenting their own versions, such as welfare benefits for 70 percent of the population.
When the ultimate goal of a country is prosperity for its people, welfare is a main ingredient for all parties, including conservatives.
But the welfare system has to be managed reasonably, without deficits, and can’t dole out benefits unconditionally. To this end, a recent remark by Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon is worth contemplating: “The free lunch program is like the Nakdong River front [during the Korean War], and if we are pushed down from here, we will have to retreat to Busan.”
Mayor Oh is a politician, but he understands the allure and consequences of welfare benefits because he is in charge of a local government. In other words, he expressed concerns about the pork-barrel pledges made by political parties that turn a blind eye to the government’s abilities and responsibilities. Those who have never earned money do not understand its preciousness. As politicians rely on other people’s money, they tend to pay more attention on how to spend it, not on how to earn it.
Another serious issue in the welfare debate is its role in worsening divisions in our society. The basic idea of welfare is harmony in society. But the current proposals force the rich to pay more, while the poor have the right to receive. If this sentiment continues, some will feel that they are being deprived of their fair shares, while others will become more brazen, feeling no shame about depending on others to live their lives.
More than just taking away the joy of helping and receiving help, the current sentiment will only fuel the feeling of losing and being extorted in our society. In such a society, who would want to work hard? And what will happen when no one works, while more and more sit back, receive welfare, and then go out and spend? That’s why we can’t allow irresponsible political parties and ambitious politicians to drive the welfare debate.
It will be no use crying after the country faces a fiscal crisis and divisions in our society grow deeper. Pre-emptive action by the government is crucial, and the government should present a blueprint for our future and implement it fast.
A good law is a law that we can respect. Child care to improve the falling birthrate and education subsidies that will improve our competitiveness should be the focus of our welfare programs.
We must remember that the trap of populism is in our path, waiting for us to miss our step.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Moon Chang-keuk