Perhaps we should blame the politicians

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Perhaps we should blame the politicians

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The word parvenu, which refers to a newcomer who has recently attained a high socioeconomic position, was originally directed at the Bonaparte family. It comes from the French verb parvenir, which means “to reach” or “to succeed.” It was used to deride Napoleon for assuming the position of emperor and giving high positions and vast amounts of land to his family.

Joseph Bonaparte, the elder brother of Napoleon, became king of Naples and king of Spain and was everything that a parvenu is known to be. He was greedy yet incompetent.

Since Napoleon had no children, he intended to make the son of his younger brother his heir. But Joseph insisted that he be the one to assume the crown. When resistance arose in Spain, he ran away.

The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in the United States may be condemning a new generation of parvenus. The protests began in New York and have spread across the country. But it is not just those on Wall Street who should be labeled parvenus, but also those in the White House, including President Barack Obama, who has been criticized for not being able to temper the greed of the financial industry.

Of course, Wall Street may want to defend itself from criticism. As Adam Smith said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

But Wall Street is missing the point. Adam Smith remembered his 10-year tenure as a professor at the University of Glasgow as the happiest and most honorable time of his life. But when he was offered a chance to travel Europe as a tutor to a young aristocrat, he abandoned his position, apologized to his students for resigning mid-semester and returned their tuition.

Obama may have been trying to please the protestors when he compared people who make an honest living but are not properly compensated to others who do not live honorably and are paid in excess.

However, I wonder if Obama understands Adam Smith’s ideas about the social relationship. It may be contrary to the baker’s regard for his own interest, but we need a modern interpretation. We need politicians who can control our selfish pursuits so that the baker is still motivated and provides bread to more people. But if politicians are incompetent and only pursue power, they may be the greedy parvenus who deserve criticism.

*The writer is the J Editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


By Lee Hoon-beom

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