[Viewpoint] More debate on welfare neededRecently, Grand National Party lawmakers agreed to avoid the debate of choosing between selective and universal welfare to pursue welfare for low-income citizens more aggressively. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party declared that it would pursue universal welfare by allocating 33 trillion won ($30.9 billion) every year through reforms in government spending, welfare and taxation policies. The Democratic Party implied that its objective is to provide more benefits without additional tax burdens.
No Korean citizen would oppose the idea of expanding welfare. Nevertheless, Korean society has yet to reach an agreement on the approach and method. Both the ruling and opposition parties may have the universal welfare model of Sweden in mind. But it is risky to argue that Korea can also succeed with the Swedish approach based solely on its accomplishments. We need to study the course that the Swedish model has taken in order to get the wisdom to build a Korean-style welfare system.
Recently, I attended a northern European political conference held in Finland, and scholars and experts attending the seminar advised on the ongoing controversy over welfare in Korea.
Firstly, the discussions about welfare should be encouraged more intensely through elections. In Sweden’s case, the Social Democratic Party, which came into power in the 1930s, formed a coalition with the conservative Farmers’ League and proposed a welfare model. It could only complete the universal welfare system in the 1970s. We need to pay attention to the fact that Sweden held over 10 national elections in the process to allow voters to constantly verify the welfare models proposed by each party.
What about Korea? People seem to think that the single referendum on free school lunches in Seoul has ended the controversy over welfare. The controversy does not end just because the Grand National Party lost the referendum and changed the slogan of its welfare policy to “popular welfare.” Each political party needs to present its welfare vision and policy to bring hope to citizens based on the values each party pursues, competing with one another earnestly.
Park Geun-hye, the former chairwoman of the Grand National Party, said that it was important to make welfare priorities based on available funding, and only then would we be able to build a Korean-style welfare system. How should we define what a priority in welfare is? An election is the best way to get approval from the voters, confirming the public opinion on what to prioritize.
Secondly, promoting society’s welfare cannot be accomplished by reforming just the welfare system. It should be pursued in conjunction with reforms in taxation, central and local administration and education. In Sweden, the roles and jurisdictions of the central, metropolitan and regional government agencies are clearly defined.
The main actor in the Swedish welfare system is the local government, not the central government. Universal welfare is pursued by expanding the jurisdiction of the local and metropolitan government agencies and the role of public service. The structure of local administrations was reformed to integrate the 2,500 small government agencies into some 800 offices to enhance efficiency.
Each local administration reviews its financial situation and drafts an original welfare policy based on its circumstances. In Korea, for instance, just because one region provides free meals does not mean another should also offer school meals at no cost.
We must also recognize that a productive welfare model does not come from unilateral pursuance of a certain political ideology. It can only be reached through negotiation, compromise and agreement between different parties. We should not fail to mention Harpsundsdemokrati, or Harpsund Democracy, when discussing the Swedish social model. Harpsund is a summer estate for the prime minister of Sweden. The prime minister had invited the representatives of workers and management there every Thursday to promote cooperation on social and economic policies.
Korean lawmakers should engage in intense discussions while realizing the politics of compromise to set priorities in welfare, based on an agreement that welfare does not rely on debt in the long term. Only then can the ruling and opposition parties have productive discussions over welfare.
*The writer is a professor of political science at Myongji University.
By Kim Hyung-joon