The art of association

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The art of association


Kim Eui-young
The author is a professor of political science and foreign policy at Seoul National University.

Art of association or mischiefs of faction? There are two contrasting views on the politics of interest groups. French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville first used the expression, “art of association” in “Democracy in America,” which he wrote upon visiting the United States in 1831. “Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States… Thus the most democratic country on earth is found to be, above all, the one where men in our day have most perfected the art of pursuing the object of their common desires in common and have applied this new science to the most objects.” Meanwhile, James Madison warned of “mischiefs of faction” in the “The Federalist Papers,” which became the foundation for the U.S. Constitution. He wrote that it was part of human nature to be “more disposed to vex and oppress each other than cooperate for their common good” and it was necessary “to break and control the violence of faction.”

The current state in Korea gives hope for “art of association” as interest groups attempt to resolve discord through dialogue and negotiation in the name of social compromise. The Economic, Social and Labor Council, a newly formed labor-management-government apparatus in the current administration, has attempted the politics of negotiation in expanding flexible working hours. The social consultative group of the Minjoo Party and the government, taxi industry and Kakao Mobility produced an agreement on carpooling during rush hour. The Gwangju-type job model led to a joint investment agreement from Gwangju City and Hyundai Motor through dialogue and compromise by labor, management, civil and government entities.

But if you look inside, the “mischiefs of faction” become more evident. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions did not participate in the consultation for flexible work hours in the Economic, Social and Labor Council, and the general meeting for the final agreement was canceled twice as representatives for women, the youth and irregular employees did not attend. On the carpool agreement, mobility companies other than Kakao Mobility and some taxi businesses expressed discontent. The Gwangju-type job model is considered a successful mutually-beneficial model that made a soft landing, but questions on competitiveness, sustainability and the subsidizing of low wages with taxpayer money are raised.

It is a confusing situation where the “art of association” meets the “mischiefs of factions.” Interest groups have two faces by nature, and the key is to minimize adverse effects and maximize good ones. What should we do?

Firstly, it is important to have an awareness that social compromise is useful. Some conservatives claim that social compromise interrupts the natural ecosystem of the market and violates the legislative right of the National Assembly, arguing that social dialogue is useless. But this is a biased view. Social compromise does not harm the market mechanism and prerogative of the National Assembly. Social values that cannot be converted to market value must not be missed, and the politics of social dialogue and compromise need to be utilized in addition to representative politics.

Secondly, it is a matter of systems. The current experiments of social compromise are shaky because of the representativeness of the social dialogue apparatus. Interested parties do not want to acknowledge the agreement when their representation is not secured. Different groups oppose the Economic, Social and Labor Council dominated by major labor and employer groups, and mobility companies not invited to the carpooling talk process oppose it. Meanwhile, the Gwangju-type job model, which included 22 labor, employer, civil and government groups, could reach a meaningful agreement thanks to the inclusive and extensive representation.

Thirdly, politics of skillful management is important. Some say that one of the causes that crippled the flexible working hour talks was the government and ruling party’s approach of treating social compromise as a formality. Without sufficient discussion, predesigned agreements were pushed in a few months. There was a political mistake of calling representatives a “supplementary axis for social dialogue” while operating the committee.

In contrast, the Gwangju-type job model went through a relatively longer process of compromise since 2014. On the carpooling agreement, the National Assembly member said that talks only began when he visited taxi driver protests more than 150 times and had received unbearable insults and curses. Political persuasion and mediation efforts are very important. There is no fast track in the politics of social compromise. Unlike Europe, Korea does not have the legacy of trust among labor, employers and the government. It does not have party politics of compromise and a special political caliber to approach compromise with persuasion and pressure if demanded. It is not easy. But politics is an art of the possible.

I hope to see politics of social compromise that turn the “mischiefs of faction” into the “art of association.”

JoongAng Ilbo, March 22, Page 31
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