Four conceptions of statism
The author is a columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.
Statism has many faces. Sometimes, it is disguised as nationalism. Sometimes, it is socialism or communism. It can also take the form of totalitarianism. Because of this, people can interpret statism as against free-market principles. Four recent events, though, provide us with different examples of the nanny state. What kind of statist are you?
The first example comes from “Mr. Sunshine,” a popular Korean television drama. The protagonist, Eugene Choi, is the son of slaves who are killed by their masters during the Joseon Dynasty. At age nine, he escapes to the United States and later returns to Korea as the acting consul of the American mission.
Choi’s lover, Go Ae-shin, comes from Joseon nobility. She learns how to use guns and later works as an assassin in the name of country.
“Why are you doing this to save Joseon?” Choi asks her. “It is a country that has lasted for 500 years,” she replies. “During those years, it has suffered many wars. Every time, someone risks their life to protect it.
“And yet, this country is being destroyed peacefully. First, the Qing arrived, and then Russia and now Japan and the United States. This is the current state of our country. Don’t you think someone needs to fight?”
“Why does it have to be you?” Choi asks. “Why not me?” she replies.
Choi then asks her a more fundamental question: “Who will live in Joseon, the country you are trying to protect? Can a butcher have a life here? Can a slave have a life here?”
Go goes silent. Her conception of statism does not have the answer.
My second example is a column by Rafael Reif, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a foremost expert on semiconductors. Earlier this month, The New York Times ran an article in which he analyzed the trade war between the United States and China from the perspectives of states and technology.
China, he argued, is making national investments not only in quantum computing but also in fields like mobile payments, facial recognition, language recognition, biotechnology and space.
“Unless America responds urgently and deliberately to the scale and intensity of this challenge, we should expect that, in fields from personal communications to business, health and security, China is likely to become the world’s most advanced technological nation and the source of the most cutting-edge technological products in not much more than a decade,” he wrote.
The United States does have three strengths: the best universities, federal government support and an immigration system that welcomes the world’s best and brightest. If the United States wants to remain the world’s most technologically advanced nation, it must double down on its strengths, he wrote.
The third conception of statism is in the commencement speech of Li Xiao, a leading economics professor. In his lengthy address to graduates of Jilin University on June 30, he touches on the U.S.-China trade war, and the Chinese internet reacted enthusiastically to it. More than 50,000 keywords from the speech appeared on Baidu, China’s Google, and last week, it became popular on Korean social media.
In his speech, Lee said China must escape from the arrogance of its rise and return to a state of quietly strengthening its power and biding its time. China, he said, is no match for the United States yet, so the only way forward is to build an innovative country.
An innovative country, he said, will come when every individual in China has six abilities: the ability to study, think independently, make their own choices, appreciate beauty, overcome challenges and have a sense of duty. Only then will Chinese people have true hope, he said.
My final example of statism comes from Kim Byung-joon, the interim leader of the Liberty Korea Party. He started Korea’s debate on statism by criticizing the Moon Jae-in administration for failing to go beyond government-led policies. He identified plans to ban coffee vending machines in schools and make raw material prices public as examples of statism.
The Democratic Party said he was trying to use the image of an authoritarian government to attack the administration, but Kim is raising a valid question: Is it normal for the government to decide wages, work hours and prices for people? What is your opinion on this?
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 17, Page 28