Our tragic loss of trust

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Our tragic loss of trust

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Oh Se-Jung

As we learn the details of the Sewol ferry tragedy, the trust in our society is crumbling. Crew members who were supposed to be responsible for the safety of the passengers remained incompetent and irresponsible, and the high school students who innocently followed their misleading directions lost their lives. We entrust our safety to professionals whenever we ride on a boat, airplane or even a bus. We trust that those who are in charge are able to safely operate the vehicle and act responsibly with professionalism. However, our belief has been shattered because of what happened with the Sewol. The accident occurred when the situation wasn’t so desperate, and crew members abandoned the passengers to save themselves.

The government’s response after the accident completely shook our trust in public officials. Early on, even the authorities were confused about the number of passengers aboard. As time went by, the confusion was not resolved, and they seemed to care more about how high-ranking officials were feeling. How can citizens trust the government, feel safe and enjoy everyday life? Allegations surrounding the safety check before the incident and approval of the ship’s refurbishment seem to be related to the “parachute” appointment of the civil servants, so the citizens’ distrust is on the verge of explosion.

In fact, the distrust of so-called power agencies in Korean society has reached a dangerous level. In the past, the judiciary used to make decisions that pleased those in power, and lately, some puzzling rulings have made citizens furious and confused. Prosecutors have lost their authority, and citizens are cynical - and nearly indifferent - toward the National Assembly and politicians. The media, which is considered the fourth branch after the legislature, the executive and the judiciary, is not free from criticism, either. They created confusion by broadcasting an interview with a fake diver, and some reports that went against healthy common sense and media ethics made viewers frown.

In the 1996 publication “Trust,” American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama argued that the development of a healthy liberal democratic market economy should be based on the trust among members of the society. The more social trust we have, the less the transaction costs of economic activities, resulting in greater efficiency. Professor Fukuyama classified Korea as a country with low social trust.

Nearly 20 years later, we suspect that the trust of the Korean society has been aggravated. As we lack trust among members of the society, the transaction cost goes up, and the cost of mediating social discord grows astronomically. The dispute over the high voltage tower in Miryang and the dispute between the government and the medical industry over telemedicine service are notable examples. Only when we build trust to resolve inefficiency can Korea enter the developed world.

Korea has become such a low-trust society largely because of the growth-driven culture. Attaining the goal is celebrated, even when the procedure and proper course are ignored, and dirty success is considered better than clean failure. The only solution is to go back to the basics. Of course, those who are responsible for the disaster must be punished, and the outdated practices of the past must be cleaned up. But the more fundamental solution is to inspire healthy citizenship through education. Instead of competing to get ahead of others, students in elementary and secondary schools should learn to share and live together in a community. Universities also must break out of materialism and be faithful to their duty to educate.

In Confucius’s “The Analects,” Tsze-kung asks the master about government. Confucius says, “The requisites of government are that there be sufficiency of food, sufficiency of military equipment and the confidence of the people in their ruler.” Tsze-kung then asks, “If one of these must be dispensed with, which of the three should be foregone first?” Confucius responds by saying military equipment and food, adding, “If the people have no faith in their rulers, there is no standing for the state.” Thousands of years ago, Confucius already emphasized that social trust is an absolute value for the existence of a state. But we may have been paying too much attention to other things.


Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.


JoongAng Ilbo, April 24, Page 27

*The author is a professor of physics at Seoul National University.

BY Oh Se-Jung




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