The wages of populism

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The wages of populism

Reward and punishment dominate the populist agendas of the snap Korean presidential election. Populist platforms always come up on campaign trails, but are in particularly full swing in Korea as politicians rush to compete in an extraordinary timetable following the first-ever removal of the president by the Constitutional Court.

The May 9 election was scheduled after the impeachment verdict on March 10, sending contenders scurrying through party primaries. Main and splinter opposition parties trotted out one populist policy after another to impress voters. Rewards include free allowances and hiring quotas for unemployed youths, basic income welfare payments, reductions of military service by a year, write-offs of household debt, and a hike in the minimum wage to 10,000 won ($9) per hour. None of the promises are fiscally feasible in the least.

Penal populism usually means toughness on crime. John Pratt, criminologist, claimed that the pursuit of harsh penal policies as a means of deterrence against crime is more designed to win votes than reduce crimes or promote justice.

Political appeals to penal populism tap into an innate human desire to see others punished, to take revenge and are a moralistic justification to enforce fairness norms. They often target the elite, rich and powerful. Votes become a strong tool to relieve frustrations, envy, and resentment. Politicians are experts in whetting public thirst for retaliation and retributive impulses in voters.

The Financial Times last week portrayed U.S. President Donald Trump as an expert in penal populism. He more or less labeled Mexicans criminals and Muslim immigrants as potential terrorists. The mainstream elite in Washington and Wall Street also became targets for punishment. Yet Americans voted him in as president and they are paying the price with Washington undergoing upheaval, controversy and stalemate ever since he took office. In just two months in office, Trump has made America more divided than ever.

When the two populist themes combine, they have a powerful destructive effect. Yet our leading candidates are carefree about their effects. Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party, the frontrunner in the polls, is most skilled. He floats penal populism freely under the slogan of “eliminating past ills.”

Moon is out to punish the chaebol, elite high schools, and big earners by doing away with the performance-based pay system. He vows to create 810,000 jobs and write down household debt through the people’s tax money. What’s worrisome is that he is most likely to become the next president.

Along with radical platforms like eliminating financial regulations and levying a so-called border tax on cheap imports, Trump also promised growth by bringing jobs back to America. But in Moon’s agenda, nothing promotes growth. If there is little to share, competition could become fierce over the limited resources.

Such destructive populism must be stamped out. But that is easier said than done. Former Strategy and Finance Minister Park Jae-wan proposed a Dutch-style mechanism. When a party registers its election platform, the finance ministry calculates the cost and publishes it before the election. The figures can be reliable as they comes from the ministry in charge of ensuring fiscal integrity.

Park tried it out. While in office five years ago, he formed a team in the finance ministry to audit election platforms. The ministry issued a rounded estimate of a maximum 340 trillion won ($304.2 billion) to fulfill the welfare agenda of both the ruling and opposition parties. It had detailed figures per party and category, but could not publicize them because of the danger of violating the election rule demanding neutrality from public officials. The ministry received a warning from the National Election Commission at the time.

Since there is no ruling party after removal of the de facto party head, the president, the finance ministry and legislative could join forces to set up an independent review board that examines election platforms. The five parties could agree to tweak the election law. The election commission also advised that there should be a system to calculate the cost of election platforms. It recommends that so the media could use the data to compare and analyze the election platforms.

But there is no solution to penal populism. Once public retributive impulse is triggered, the media hypes it up, and politicians capitalize on it.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 30, Page 34

*The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Yi Jung-jae
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