Good intentions, bad results

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Good intentions, bad results

Yeom Jae-ho
The author, a former president of Korea University, is an emeritus professor.

It was only a matter of time. The case of a mother who had adopted a child to offer her biological daughter a playmate made news headlines in Korea last month after the mother turned out to have abused the adoptee, who eventually died.

The mother probably received child care support from the government for adoptive parents — something I pointed out several years ago as I was serving as a member of the Government Performance Evaluation Committee. At the time, each ministry was required to present what it regarded as its best policy of the year to the committee for an assessment. The Ministry of Health and Welfare chose to submit its measure to give financial benefits to parents adopting children. The ministry explained that the monthly allowance would help boost domestic adoption in a country famous for sending children to foreign countries for adoption.

In the past in Korea, adoptive parents used to pay millions of won, or thousands of dollars, to the government as adoption commission fees. Now, the government not only pays those fees but also offers child care benefits to adoptive parents each month. I personally believe adoption should be considered noblesse oblige, something that only families with an ability to take good care of their adoptive children can take. But the government is trying to shoulder that burden as a result of welfare expansion. What began as a well-intentioned gesture can end up yielding bad results when ill-intentioned parents take advantage of the policy simply to take money.

Another critical issue with Korean adoption is that by law, single mothers have to register their newborns with the government to put them up for adoption, which in many cases hinders them from registering their babies for fear of the exposure of their identity. Such babies go to the so-called “baby box,” where single parents can leave unwanted babies anonymously.

There was a time when the government used to dole out coupons for elders and teenagers from low-income families to use at restaurants and convenience stores. The government meant well, but the teens felt embarrassed to use the coupons in restaurants, while the elders were too feeble to even physically reach those places. Many teens ended up selling their coupons on discounts or using them to buy alcohol and cigarettes in convenience stores. The Happiness Foundation, a civic group, solved this problem by delivering lunch boxes to their front doors — nearly four million of them each year. The government asked social enterprises to make the food for them.

Policies are not just about having good intentions; they must show good results. In his recent book “Do Morals Matter?” Joseph S. Nye Jr., a university distinguished service professor and former dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote that diplomatic policies usually place great emphasis on morals even though people think they only serve a country’s interests. Nye highlighted that a good policy is one whose intentions, means and consequences are all morally sound.

A good intention alone cannot result in a good policy. If the consequences are bad, all blame will invariably go toward the policy’s masterminds for failing to predict those outcomes. Even a well-intentioned welfare program can turn out to be ineffective. That’s why they should be meticulously examined from the planning stage.

The Moon Jae-in administration’s well-intentioned policy aimed at protecting contract workers sparked controversy at the Incheon International Airport, while another well-intentioned policy aiming to protect college lecturers led to thousands of part-time lecturers losing their jobs. The government’s real estate policies may have been driven by good intentions, but they turned out to be bad policies that artificially shook the balance of the housing market.

The liberal administration’s arrogant approach to policy making — based on President Moon’s inauguration promise to “create a country no one has ever experienced” — has led to surging house prices, an ever-worsening jeonse (long-term rents) crisis and higher punitive taxes on those who own multiple homes, putting everyone in distress. The government blames former President Lee Myung-bak’s Four Rivers Project for having destroyed the environment by artificially blocking the natural flow of water. But the Moon administration’s real estate policies are doing the exact same thing to the housing market.

Policies should be devised based on reality and a thorough simulation of every possible outcome. That is why the government must hire policy experts for the job, not politician-turned-bureaucrats. It is time the administration realize policy reform is more difficult than political reform.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff. 
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