The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Yoon Seok-youl, former chief prosecutor and front-runner in polls as a presidential candidate from the opposition front, has been under fire for a streak of gaffes that seemed to demonstrate political inexperience. He raised an uproar after proposing to allow start-ups to work as long as 120 hours a week if necessary. He said that Daegu residents could have started an uprising when the government floated the idea of a lockdown of the city in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic last year. Now, Yoon has once again stirred controversy by saying poor people should be able to choose to eat some adulterated food, a criticism of overly strict regulations on food safety that restrict consumers’ choices. He claims to have lifted the idea from “Free to Choose,” the bestseller by free-market champion and economist Milton Friedman. Yoon should be thankful that his remark didn’t cause more of an uproar, as quoting Friedman could be highly dangerous in Korea due to his extreme ideas.
The late Nobel laureate and guru to conservatives was far more progressive than thought. He argued for liberalization of high-interest lenders as restriction only hardens the lives of the poor, who are turned away by legitimate lenders. He also implied prostitution should be legal. “You put a willing buyer with a willing seller, and it’s up to them … I don’t see justification for bringing the police into it,” he said in 2006. On the same grounds, he thought marijuana should become legal as the black-market trade only increases crime and social inefficiency. He also regarded illegal immigration as a necessary evil for the economy.
Quoting Friedman in Korea, therefore, requires discretion. Then, why has Yoon chosen the Friedman quote? He has been touring the country to appeal to centrists and liberals who have turned their backs on President Moon Jae-in and the Democratic Party (DP). Upon finally joining the main opposition People Power Party (PPP), he vowed to attract centrists to the conservative party. But Yoon should not borrow ideas from Friedman if he wishes to attract centrists on economic affairs. It is as treacherous as a leftist candidate quoting Karl Marx on capitalism to a centrist audience. Friedman stands at the far-right among economists, along with Friedrich Hayek. He advocated absolute free markets entirely based on free competition and efficiency.
Yoon promised to be “more careful” after admitting to having caused “misunderstanding.” Still, his explanation is not convincing as he quoted a wrong person and reasoned in the wrong direction. It would have been wiser to quote more dovish conservative economists like John Maynard Keynes or Paul Samuelson.
PPP chief Lee Jun-seok is finding the ground shaky too. His biggest folly was an agreement with DP counterpart Song Young-gil over a universal handout of relief funds. He said he agreed with the idea because of Song’s argument about hefty administrative costs to select the lower 80 percent income level for handout. Lee proved to be too naïve in politicking. The liberals argue for a blanket handout by hyping administrative costs or complaints from those who are excluded. But Korea is a powerhouse in IT and big data. It costs just 4.2 billion won ($3.7 million) in picking out those eligible for the 8.6-trillion-won handouts. Lee fell into Song’s trap unwittingly.
The idea of doling out checks to households whose assets actually increased during the Covid-19 crisis is unfair and unjust. Lee should have argued that more money should go to small merchants and the self-employed. It is a matter of upholding conservative values and principles.
Presidential hopefuls from the PPP are waging a dangerous gamble by pitching a negative income tax to compete against those campaigning for basic incomes from the ruling front. The idea from Friedman argues that a state should provide money to people below a certain income level instead of collecting taxes from them. Friedman thought the system could replace an array of welfare benefits. If all the existing welfare systems like basic livelihood allowances, the minimum wage and pensions are scrapped, the administrative organizations also would have to be restructured. Could the conservative front be bold enough to push ahead with such a risky plan?
All candidates from the DP promise an extension of the politics of Moon Jae-in. They are trying to buy votes from Moon loyalists. No one promises a divorce from the policies that torture the self-employed. The conservative front is no different. Only two minors, Rep. Yoon Hee-sook and Yoo Seung-min, a former lawmaker, compete with reasonable economic platforms.
Moon’s income-led growth and real estate policies weren’t questioned in the last election campaign, which came in the wake of a presidential impeachment and removal. When Moon was questioned in a TV debate, he just said, “I explained earlier.” As a result, the country has been paying a dire price. This time, we have time to scrutinize candidates’ platforms. We must shift attention to their platforms and away from their scandalous pasts.