The author is a senior editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
“There are still 30 more months to endure,” those who are upset about the Moon Jae-in administration often say. “Already 30 months have passed,” say those who are supporting the liberal administration. The public is sharply split, and the Moon Jae-in administration’s midpoint in the five-year term recently passed.
As newspaper editorials often use the term “deplorable” to describe the situation, it is time for the administration to look back on its midterm performance quietly.
It is at a check point.
Around this time, the Moon administration, or the Democratic Party, or the liberal politics in a larger sense, is facing the challenge of self-introspection and reform. The challenge is more important than winning the next year’s general election, as it is about the survival of liberal politics in Korea – before they are labeled as an example of anachronistic incompetence.
“Ever since the human spirit started to move forward, no invasion by outsiders, no alliance of oppressors and no prejudice could make man walk backward,” Benjamin Constant said 222 years ago. It has often been quoted as one of the strongest beliefs about liberal values such as liberty, equality and human rights. History has always walked the path of liberalism to win liberty, equality and human rights against the privileged class. We all know that a clock never goes backward.
The ability of liberalism to advance despite colonialism and military dictatorships after World War II and the capitalist monopoly is vital. And liberals have always promoted equality, fairness and justice — the slogans that make your heart beat fast.
But the liberals are facing a new, grand enemy. That is the change of times not anticipated. Not Karl Marx, not John Maynard Keynes and not even god were able to predict the change. It is a world where human intelligence will be replaced by artificial intelligence and where cars will run without drivers.
Markets will dominate the mechanism, and innovative entrepreneurs will start creative destruction by mixing new technologies with the classic production factors of labor and capital. The millennials demand all powers be handed over to individuals. On top of that, extreme nationalism is sweeping the world, promoting pragmatism, prosperity and strong military.
As a result, the liberal politics of Korea — such as minimum wage hikes, the 52-hour workweek, the nuclear phase-out and converting contract workers to the permanent payroll — all ended up nothing more than faith and hope. The Moon administration’s incompetence comes from its unwillingness to change, not from its policy failures.
All successful liberal politics started by changing its soul to meet the challenges of the time. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Germany and the Labour Party of Britain are some examples. Sixty years ago, the SPD ratified the Godesberg Program, promoting the slogan, “geh mit der zeit” or “go with the time.” The SPD, which failed to win in an election in the 84 years since it was established, severed its tie to Marxism. It also declared that a totalitarian economy destroys liberty, advocating for a free market, where competition effectively rules.
The SPD also dropped its outdated ideology by saying that it will not declare an absolute truth because it respects the people’s right to make their own decisions on their beliefs, which must not be defined by a political party or the state. It also accepted the church based on the belief that mutual tolerance will only offer prosperous foundation for the life of a community. The change created a breakthrough for coalitions with Christian Democratic Union of Germany and Christian Social Party. The program also allowed the peaceful use of nuclear energy, a long-held curse of the liberals.
Ten years later, Willy Brandt became the first SPD chancellor, and the party became a true liberal party of the country. The DNAs of reform - such as a flexible labor market and a reduction of the social security system – continued in Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s Agenda 2010, contributing to liberal politics that built today’s Germany.
The Labour Party, after its campaign of lifelong welfare pledges, lost power for 18 years since its crushing defeat to the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher. The Labour Party overhauled its soul and managed to rebound. It removed the Clause 4 of its constitution, which called for common ownership of industry, and accommodated the changes of the time to promote growth, investment and productive welfare programs. Tony Blair’s victory in 1997 and its years-long governance were the reward.
French President Emmanuel Macron, once a member of the Socialist Party, recently adopted reform measures such as corporate tax cuts, flexible labor policies and massive deregulation, heralding the revival of France.
Korean liberal politics — which has had no history of introspection, learning and reform — is facing a critical moment. Failure of President Moon after his midpoint will leave a scarlet letter to the liberal politics of Korea. The midpoint is an opportunity. He must abandon the obsession with ideology and regulation, and declare the era of new liberalism which values markets, openness and pragmatism.