[Viewpoint] Don’t jeopardize democracy

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[Viewpoint] Don’t jeopardize democracy

“Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build bridges even when there are no rivers,” First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev famously said in sarcastic mockery of candidates in countries with free elections, known for their vain campaign promises to win votes.

In our country, parties and politicians competed eagerly with grandiose promises during last April’s general election. They are elaborately repackaging those promises ahead of the presidential election in December. While sidestepping the backfiring concepts of free schooling and day-care for toddlers, politicians continue to trot out ideas for social welfare experiments that may win votes today, but are guaranteed to cost a lot tomorrow. They are playing up vaguely-phrased but hifalutin slogans of “economic democratization” to better justify their undoubtedly costly, yet still popular, campaign platforms.

The term “economic democratization” ended up in the constitution without much study when it was rewritten in 1987 after the government surrendered to public demands for enhanced civilian rights and direct presidential elections in the wake of the nationwide democracy movement. In a country where democratization carries noble connotations, its economic adaptation has been upheld as a rhetorical and figurative value that the society unquestionably needs to follow.

But the phrase “economic democracy” isn’t really used by economists. It’s not in textbooks. Wikidepia defines it as “a socioeconomic philosophy that promises to shift decision-making power from corporate shareholders to a larger group of public stakeholders that includes workers, customers, suppliers, neighbors and the broader public.” It adds that no single definition or approach encompasses economic democracy. Some progressive scholars sell the theory as an alternative model to capitalism, similar to the former Yugoslavia’s working-class democracy, or say it denotes workers’ participation or decision-making in market and corporate governance.

A concept with ideological connotations contradicting our free market and capitalist economy should not be taken lightly. But politicians on both the ruling and opposition sides, infatuated with the positive tone of the term, are taking full liberty with it as a campaign slogan without any thought of the repercussions and misconceptions it can produce at home and abroad.

The term is largely used by politicians to attack big business and the family-owned chaebol. The chaebol and big corporate sector should take this opportunity for a little self-reflection as they would not have been targeted had they not provided reasons for bashing in the election season.

We live in a transitional period, swept up in the current of accelerated globalization and an intelligence-based economy. As result, a gap in education, income, experience and training, wealth and other privileges are ever widening. In a competitive, commercial world, size has become the winning point, making it tough for smaller and weaker players to survive. In such an environment, it’s natural for politicians to take aim at chaebol and large enterprises as being responsible for the polarization of income, wealth and power.

But the problem is that banging away at large, family-run companies, which manage to keep up in the intensely competitive global market, could end up costing our economy. Authorities should enhance oversight over unfair trade practices by big corporate players and promote transparency in corporate governance.

More importantly, large companies should restore their own reputation. They must endeavor to connect with ordinary consumers as well as small and mid-sized companies. They should end preferential business ties with affiliated companies, attacks on mom-and-pop businesses and their domineering, unfair trade practices toward their suppliers.

They should voluntarily come up with actions to cooperate with smaller companies for symbiotic prosperity and development. They should ask smaller companies and partners how they can help one another. Upon signs of these changes, the people will ease their knee-jerk resentment toward the too-big-to-fail enterprises and politicians won’t be able to use them as bashing targets. As a result, our free market and capitalist system could be modified for the better and sustained.

Politicians should stop the word play and instead focus on detailed plans to improve income inequalities and stimulate growth to generate jobs and income. They must concoct plans for broad education reform and training programs and opportunities for workers to boost the country’s potential to grow.

Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.” To uphold the merits of its legacy, we must use the upcoming presidential election to bring to maturity - not jeopardize - our democratic system.

*The author is a former finance minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Sakong Il
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