Democracy for sinners

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Democracy for sinners

 Kim Byung-yeon
The author is a professor of economics at Seoul National University.


“Go away from me Lord; I am a sinful man!” Peter confessed as he realized his sins and feebleness upon meeting Jesus Christ. These may also be the shared confessions of us as we realize the insignificance of our existence and nature in front of an enlightened one. This is why Christianity seeks salvation from God, and Buddhism and Confucianism desire man’s elevation through awakening and self-cultivation. One’s will to maintain modesty and moderation — and openly accept criticism — originates with that mind, as does the spirit of democracy embedded in the values of checks and balances, tolerance and self-reflection.

Democracy could be a system for sinners. If there is a person who can always put public interest before private interest and also has the wisdom and knowledge, a dictatorship could be a better option. But there are few with such qualities. And there is no guarantee that such high-minded people would not change their mind after taking power. Even if such a person rules, it is still questionable whether the average citizens would recognize his merits. As Adam Smith said, capitalism is a system for ordinary citizens, not for great men. Likewise, democracy is not for the self-righteous but for the common people. The simultaneous development of democracy and capitalism owes much to people’s recognition of their self-centeredness — and finiteness — as well as to a societal balance achieved through fair competition.

Politics that divide the world into the good and the evil destroys such checks and balances. Democracy for sinners is founded on the spirit that we are all mortal and flawed. Rulers also accept institutions and systems that check their powers as they realize they also can become slaves to personal desires. However, a ruler who regards himself as the good and his opponents the evil puts democracy in peril. If such a group of people seize power, they can bring about a tyranny of the majority and destroy democracy.

In this respect, some members of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and avid followers of President Moon Jae-in are extremely dangerous. The checks on the executive branch by the judiciary, state prosecution system and the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) are vital to preserving democracy. No matter how noble of a cause they have, they must not harm the checks and balances ensured by the Constitution. But a DP lawmaker put pressure on the BAI and pro-Moon forces demand impeaching judges just because they don’t like their rulings. The Moon aficionados act similarly toward the prosecutor general. They act as if they were the justice, handing down judgements to sinners. I wonder who made them behave like that.

As seen in its habitual flip-flops in the past, the DP can hardly define itself as a just group in the political stages. For instance, the ruling party broke a promise not to create a satellite party to push a new proportional representative system ahead of the April 15 parliamentary elections last year. Even more ugly is the revision of their party Constitution to field candidates for the upcoming mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan despite its earlier vow to not field candidates when its members committed grave mistakes. By reversing its own decision, the DP has taken an uncharted path for the sake of its own political gain. Harvard University Law Professor Michael Sandel said democracy can only be preserved if rules are put before economic gains, but the ruling party is selling out its moral values for its own gain.

The DP most likely acted in such ways thanks to the existence of the enthusiastic pro-Moon forces inside and out. It is natural for a citizen to have political preferences. But a political group that acts as if it is the ultimate good is an enemy of society. The damage inflicted by such actions fuels political and social conflict and triggers a spike in wrong prescriptions for our democracy and the market economy.

Democracy is not a battlefield with just wins and losses. Are we cultivating our democracy through the humble self-reflection and moderation of sinners or are we eating away at it with the arrogance of the people who believe they only are just?

Alexis de Tocqueville asked in his book, “Democracy in America, “How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie be not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?” If we lose the idea that we are a union of ordinary sinners, what would be left in our democracy? In the new year, we all need to be humble.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

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