Democracy in crisisThe representative democracy, which has become a political system employed in many countries around the world, has a relatively short history. It has been only about 200 years since the system was established. And the history of democracy through popular election - giving one vote to every voter regardless of class, wealth or gender - is even shorter than 90 years.
But representative democracy is in crisis today. Concerns about its viability are not coming from newly founded or developing economies alone but also from Europe and the United States, the home of democratic systems. And the alarm only grows louder as the innate weaknesses of democracy are aggravated by such factors as globalization, aging societies and “informatization,” the three largest trends of our time.
The global economy has become an almost single market, while the world develops as a community with revolutionary communication technologies. No country, no economy and no society can be free from what happens in other parts of the globe. The 2008 financial crisis started by the United States brought about a tsunami of repercussions around the world almost overnight, and so did the European fiscal crisis of 2010. Although Greece is a small country, it drove the eurozone into a crisis and that, in rapid order, shook the global economy. No country is an island.
The system of sovereign countries and democracy within the confinement of sovereignty has failed to produce proper resolutions to global economic problems. While economic problems are global, leaders have “national” authorities and responsibilities. Although many people said today’s global economic troubles were caused by a lack of leadership, the actual cause is the narrowness of leaders’ vision.
Greece only comprises 2 percent of the eurozone economy, but European leaders can barely address the Greek threat to the eurozone as a whole. Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Francois Hollande were each elected by voters in their own countries, Germany and France. They cannot push forward any policy that will not be endorsed by their citizens. That is why it is practically impossible for them to act as European leaders.
Today, no national leader elected in a democracy can resolve a global issue with effective leadership. The problem has grown even more serious as the era of a sole superpower, America, has passed, and we now live in a multipolar world. Although the Group of 20 was launched to promote cooperation and coordination among countries, it becomes powerless in the absence of a crisis. As the deterioration of a global government and limits of domestic democratic systems overlap, the risks in today’s global economy grow higher.
Aging societies is a phenomenon taking place in many countries around the world. With advances in birth control and medicine, birth rates have dropped while life expectancy grows longer. Throughout human history, there never was a time with such a large elderly population, and the trend will only deepen.
The biggest weakness of democracy is that the welfare of future generations cannot be reflected in a vote taken today. While the number of elderly voters grow, voter turnout among the young remains low and, in many countries, future-oriented policies are in decline. Policies on pensions, taxation, sovereign debt, medical systems, welfare and the real estate market are all issues on which generations disagree. Under today’s representative democracy, policy decisions in those fields tend to be made to protect the current generation’s interests while increasing the burden on future generations.
At the same time, tax hikes and pension reform become more difficult, while welfare expansion is easily adopted by governments. While economic restructuring is delayed, causing much pain to the current generation, we still rely on low interest rates by the central bank and inflation to overcome our crises.
In the long run, such policies will inevitably exhaust the economy, lower the economic growth rate and increase the unemployment rate. That will threaten the existence of democracy and capitalism. With the development of the Internet, the media competes over sensational and evanescent headlines, which restrict the vision of our policy makers and fuel social conflict.
Korea has been proud to achieve industrialization and democratization within a short period. Is Korea’s democracy working well? Since our democratization, the visibility of a policy in a single-term presidency of five years has become shorter and shorter, while the National Assembly Advancement Act, aimed at preventing the ruling party from railroading government-proposed bills, increasingly slowed down the legislature, which already failed to digest future-oriented policies due to political infighting.
The entire society is focused on short-sighted, temporary issues, while important tasks are left unresolved and systemic vulnerability continues to worsen. The crisis of democracy is not just a problem of the world; it is our problem, too. How can we modify this and find a breakthrough? Korea is at a crossroads.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of economics at Sogang University.
by Cho Yoon-je