[Viewpoint] The ‘freebies’ epidemicThe public disclosure of improper behavior of an individual or institution is called a scandal. Every society produces scandals. A high-profile politician tumbles into disgrace because of a sexual impropriety, or a promising government official’s future is ruined by disclosures of sticky-fingered corruption. Scandals are normally brought about by individual misconduct.
But if the president proclaims, “The entire country smells of corruption,” impropriety may have spilled out of the realm of the individual and become fundamental to how a society functions.
Korean corruption is typically connected with power. It is the powerful elite who are corrupt, not ordinary people. Politicians and government officials abuse and exploit state power. Why do they work so hard to secure public office? Their strenuous efforts suggest they’re motivated by the wages of power rather than the idea of performing a service for their country.
Ordinary people turn wary in a country where power is thoroughly corrupted. They lose the will to work hard. The main feature of the late Joseon Dynasty was corruption. Money bought public office and the funds were raised by exploiting and taxing ordinary folk. Corrupt administrators used all types of tricks to steal grain stocks from the common man.
As result, the people lost motivation and any sense of hope for a better future. They shunned work - a life of poverty meant less hassle from corrupt officials. That is the effect of rampant, institutionalized corruption on the state of a nation’s mind. Joseon eventually went under.
Corruption is curable if someone has the will. The contaminated area can be extracted and tossed away if the people in power take the initiative to do some cleaning up.
Because everyone agrees corruption is evil, it should be easy to fix. But sometimes it’s hard to discern the bad signs from the good. When signs of sickness are masked by a benign appearance, people are unaware of any danger until they are infected and fatally stricken.
Our society has caught an epidemic called “welfare mania.” Once contaminated, people want more and eventually turn numb to the need to work for their comforts. Who would want to work hard when the state provides for everything? Dependence would become a habit and lives would shrink in direct proportion to the amount of handouts they accept.
In the final days of the Joseon Dynasty, people lost the will to work because of the corrupted elites. In today’s democracy, wrongheaded politicking has sapped our independence and work spirit. The Joseon Dynasty was corrupted by shady deals and payoffs. In our electoral democracy, politicians are promising all kinds of favors we taxpayers would end up paying for. But the promises sound so good. The politicians will get their power - by endangering the country’s fiscal health and future.
We should not turn a blind eye to the needy and sick. We should not neglect a child who can’t afford a school lunch. Of course we need social security. But we should provide the welfare we can afford. We must lay out the balance sheet, tally up both income and expenditure, and then design our welfare system. Germany and Northern Europe planned their welfare well, but Greece and Spain did a poor job and they’re on the brink of national bankruptcy.
On the topic of college tuition, we must set some ground rules. The benefits should be for those who want to pursue higher education. Not everyone should go to college. In Germany, students in high school decide on their future: whether to attend vocational schools or academic universities.
People are talented in different ways. Politicians should first say that college education is not a must for everyone. But they won’t do that in fear of losing a few votes. What they should promise is a country that has decent jobs for all, regardless of college degrees.
A country powered by a diligent and responsible workforce would flourish. A society brimming with procrastinators waiting for welfare checks will sink. Our country has become a prosperous nation thanks to decades of hard work and a strong sense of individual independence. Just as we are finally seeing the fruits of our efforts, we fall to the temptation of abandoning our better characteristics - all for a welfare check.
At the beginning of their democracies, Europe and the United States only allowed the wealthy to vote. They didn’t fear that the poor would steal away wealth from the rich. They worried that the rich would buy the votes of the poor. That’s exactly what our politicians are doing right now.
Our country is in jeopardy from two sides: politicians promising vast new welfare benefits in order to get votes, and lazy people who want more freebies.
The middle-class, educated people should stand up to these traitors. People with sense aren’t fooled by such dangerous temptations.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Moon Chang-keuk