[Viewpoint] The Swedish way

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[Viewpoint] The Swedish way

In August 2006, the Roh Moo-hyun administration presented Vision 2030, its national strategy for the years leading to the year 2030. Let’s remind ourselves of what that strategy entailed.

- “Instead of free benefits, we will create jobs to realize productive participatory welfare and support steady growth based on social integration.”

- “We will create a stable society where the country, market and civil society will resolve social conflicts practically through dialogue, compromise, participation and cooperation.”

- “We need a national discussion on how to come up with financial resources. By 2010, we will raise the necessary funds through expenditure reform and reduction of tax exemptions and tax cuts as well as tax reform and improved transparency. Starting in 2011, we will need a discussion to decide how much the people will pay for what levels of welfare programs.”

Those statements sound remarkably carefree these days as election season approaches and the Democratic United Party promotes “universal” welfare and the Saenuri Party is promising “lifetime tailor-made” welfare to attract votes. The promises of five and a half years ago sound modest and prudent in comparison. Do you see any promises of 50 percent tuition cuts? Free meals for all school kids? More princely salaries for our young men doing their military duties?

The Korean society was split between pro-Roh and anti-Roh sentiment following the Grand National Party’s impeachment attempt of the president in 2005. At the time, it was probably not ready to have a serious discussion on the country’s future from the perspective of the balance between growth and welfare. And we forgot about the matter.

The Roh administration ended and the Lee Myung-bak administration took over. Now it’s facing a pretty ignominious end. One of the things that will wash it away is the tsunami of welfare promises from both sides of the ideological divide.

As the tsunami rears, everyone talks about welfare, and many are paying attention to Sweden and the northern European welfare models.

But what we need to understand right now is not the details of the Swedish welfare model as it exists today, but how it came about. The Swedish model is a product of a social consensus in the country over a long period of time. It is not a political product born overnight of a campaign pledge or two (or more).

Sweden’s system of kommittee is the key to its social consensuses. Some may argue that we also have many committees to come to social consensuses, but it’s important to understand the Swedish process. The differences between the two countries are many.

Let us imagine how we would have used the Swedish model to create Roh’s Vision 2030. An issue about growth and welfare would have been raised by the Roh government or the opposition GNP. A committee would have been created by representatives of the political parties, experts and civic groups. And without any government intervention, the committee would work for one or two years. Its conclusions would be published as a national policy report, and more than three months would be spent listening to public opinion.

Those who would be affected, along with experts, would present written opinions. Based on those opinions, the government would create a bill and send it to the legislature. A decision would be made after discussions. All procedures would be public, and everything would be documented. After the legislature made a decision, all the people would follow it.

The government is small, but the committees will reinforce the policy. Democracy is not just casting ballots in elections. About 300 committees work every year, and the Swedish people are always participating in their democracy.

Many will wonder if the Swedish model can work in Korea, where issues are fade, then explode and emergencies are common. But what if we had formally discussed the growth and welfare issues since 2006 over the following five years? What if the “sunshine policy” of engaging the North was discussed for five years since the Kim Dae-jung administration, based on the Swedish model? What if the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement was discussed for years?

Then, we would have a national consensus and consistency in our growth, welfare and North Korea policies, regardless of the presidential election outcomes. We wouldn’t have to hear the rants of the liberals that they want to scrap the Korea-U.S. FTA if they win the next election.

Sweden is very different from us. Their nights are boring from our perspective and their lives center around homes and families. It is a major exporter of vodka, but the sale of alcohol is strictly restricted and their bar culture is much quieter. There are no street vendors or mom-and-pop stores in neighborhoods. The genders are equal, and there’s little corruption.

When the country was poor, many people migrated and labor conflicts were severe due do the confrontation between the extreme left and right, but they managed to achieve a grand compromise. They created a social consensus in which there were no conglomerates or powerful labor unions.

Why can’t we do that?

*The author is the editor in chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Su-gil

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