Adam Smith and Dasan got it

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Adam Smith and Dasan got it

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Kim Young-hie

In “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759), Adam Smith, the author of “The Wealth of Nations (1776),” argued that people who suffer bad fortune expect other people to feel levels of anger and grief similar to what they experience. “If you have either no fellow-feeling for the misfortune I have met with or none that bears any proportion to the grief which distracts me … we can no longer converse upon these subjects. You are confounded at my violence and passion, and I am enraged at your cold insensibility and want of feeling.” Smith stressed that a person who suffers misfortune finds consolation when other people share what he is feeling. Adam Smith’s theory succinctly represents how Koreans share the grief and anger of the victims of the absurd tragedy that happened 255 years later.

The causes and course of the sinking of the Sewol ferry have been exhaustively revealed. The greed of the executives of ferry operator Chonghaejin Marine Company and the family behind the Semo Group, and the collusion of the Coast Guard have been laid bare. The corrupt officials of the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries had collusive ties, or at least condoned their violations. The “bureaucratic mafia” is linked to all of the irregularities. “Blinded by greed, the safety measures that must be followed were not observed,” said an angry President Park Geun-hye, “and the irresponsible acts that condone injustice came back as tragic deaths.”

What the victims’ families and Korean people want the most is to rescue all the remaining missing passengers - mostly high school students - and to resolve the situation in a way that the victims’ families can reach closure. However, the responses of the president and government have been disappointing. The president is still reluctant to directly apologize to the victims’ families and the public. How can the victims’ families believe that the president and government empathize with them when it delays reprimanding those responsible and the resignation of the prime minister until after the search and rescue operation is completed? The communion victims’ families feel with the government also will be a foundation for understanding and consensus when the time comes to discuss salvaging the sunken ship.

What role can the virtually “vegetative” prime minister play? When the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries and the Coast Guard are busy covering up and downsizing the accident and avoiding responsibility, how can the ministry and the Coast Guard function properly when the executives and officials remain in their positions? The former minister of security and public administration who resigned a month before the tragedy to run in the upcoming regional election should not feel relieved from accountability.

President Park postponed acceptance of the prime minister’s resignation and the punishment of related officials until “after the situation is under control,” but when will that be? While the censuring of the executives in private companies should wait for the judgment of the law, why delay reprimanding officials? The distrust of the government cannot be cleared without punishing the officials in charge.

The president, related agencies and Blue House aides have a misguided understanding of the priority of their jobs. The president talks about reforming the nation as a bigger frame for settling the situation. For instance, the government would create a “national safety board.” While national reform is necessary, it is a long-term process that cannot be accomplished under the short-term policies of a particular administration. Behind the tragedy lies the gigantic bureaucratic mafia growing like poisonous mushrooms, connecting the private and public sectors. What’s more urgent than the national safety board is an apparatus to eradicate the source of all evils - the bureaucratic mafia - directly under the president. When the role of the prime minister does not go beyond protocol, the national safety board under his control is not likely to make Korea any safer. When it is pressing to comfort grieving families of the victims and citizens in agony to recover trust in the government, pursuing national reform can be misunderstood as a tactic to disperse responsibility to the entire citizenry.

We should learn from the wisdom of the scholar-official Jeong Yak-yong (Dasan). In 1817, Dasan began writing “The Design for Good Government,” which is equivalent to today’s master plan for national reform. However, he was more concerned with the struggles of people exploited by corrupt officials, and he wrote “The Mind of Governing the People,” leaving “The Design for Good Government” unfinished. Park Seok-moo, director of Dasan Institute and an authority on Jeong Yak-yong, said, “Dasan tried to root out corruption and narrow the gap between the rich and poor by reforming the legal system and administration, especially involving land. But the grand causes may not save the people from immediate poverty and oppression. That’s what inspired Dasan to write ‘The Mind of Governing the People.’ Dasan addressed the realistic and urgent issues first, leaving national reform as his dying wish.”

The insightful philosopher had a pragmatic and precise understanding of the prioritization of objectives.

The government must listen to Smith’s insightful theory to approach the victims’ families and empathize with their grief, as well as learn from Dasan’s wisdom of adjusting priorities in executing policies.


JoongAng Ilbo, May 9, Page 31

*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

BY Kim Young-hie



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