Between happiness and constraints
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Instead of a “beep” sound, a voiced order to “wear a mask” appears when one scans a bus pass card upon boarding these days. The absence of “please” can be irritating. The loudspeaker on the streets of Seoul regularly warn that one can face “legal punishment if coronavirus breaks out upon defying the social restriction code by taking part in prohibited social gatherings.” Another alerts that outdoor assemblies are banned under the Level 2 social distancing rule.
We have become used to the everyday inconveniences. Still, the commanding tone and forcible ways can be annoying. We expose our privacy through QR codes wherever we go even without knowing where our private information goes. Cars go through police checks to enter inner Seoul on holidays as if we are living in the days of the military regime.
“It’s my life,” grumbled Lee Yill-byung — an emeritus professor at Yonsei University and husband of Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha — after controversy arose over his yacht-buying trip to the United States. Although his casual comment stoked anger in the general public who had faithfully obliged with a government order to refrain from travels, he is not entirely wrong. The state or society has no right to interfere in individual life and happiness.
The Moon Jae-in administration’s vow to take responsibility for individual well-being is simply political rhetoric. That’s an unrealistic promise for a society complicated with different interests and aspirations of individuals.
Bhutan, a tiny state in the Himalayas, came up with the Gross National Happiness as the goal of its government. But the country ranked 97th in the World Happiness Report of 2017 published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solution Network to measure happiness based on economic power, life expectancy, welfare and social freedom. Regardless of its aspiration, Bhutan can hardly be considered a happy country in international context. In 2011, North Korea also said it was the second in the happiness index after China.
President Moon and his government has repeatedly promised to take responsibility for the well-being of its people. But it is easier said than done. In this year’s World Happiness Report, South Korea ranked 61st among 153 nations. It slipped from 54th in 2019. The national happiness index compiled by the Institute for the Future of State based on its evaluation of economic performance, living standards and social and economic security also fell under the Moon government compared with the past administrations. The government has cut statutory work hours to ensure “quality evening hours at home” and implemented 23 sets of real estate measures to provide better housings for the working people, but livelihood only got harder. State-forced happiness has brought about poor results.
It could be vain to measure happiness as it is a private and subjective emotion. Prof. Suh Eun-kook, who teaches about happiness at Yonsei University, stresses the importance of a state to make subtler efforts to improve social psychology so that a society does not have to worry about basic needs.
Our health authorities have “thanked” the public for cooperating with the restrictions on their basic rights for quarantine. But they have never apologized for forcing inconvenience on the people. The Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights defined by the United Nations — which demands striking a balance with human rights even during public health risk and emergency situations — have long been ignored. The authorities do not even care to add “please” to its orders or advisory notes.
We wonder if all this is necessary when we see police vehicles barricade areas downtown. From the stony face of the president, we cannot expect “subtle” efforts from the government to care for the people’s social happiness.