Testing a future president
The author is a professor of economics at Seoul National University.
There is a saying that a person who has reached the summit can hardly be considered normal. That suggests they are extraordinary for enduring the painstaking climb. But the extraordinary person at the top can sometimes hurt the people and rock the nation. In the 21st century, there were a number of cases where political leaders worsened problems and social advance. Some cost many lives by oppressing civilian freedoms or disregarding the danger of a pandemic. In a democracy, such dangerous leaders can be elected. Voters choose the uncommon person in the hope that they can benefit from his or her extraordinary characteristics. But more often than not, greater harm and conflict comes from the wrong choice.
On what grounds should we elect our next president? Well, ordinariness could be better than extraordinariness. A normal president should prioritize public good based on common values and run the nation based on a balanced mind and accurate judgment. But such “common” features can hardly be discerned in the muddy campaign process. So, I ask presidential candidates to answer some questions that can help guide our voters.
The first standard is what they studied at college. Their choice of study can reveal what effort they put into their education. Someone who has not been trained to pose a question of value and seek out an answer through critical thinking cannot be fit to be a leader. A president is like a captain setting sail on an unchartered sea. He could stoke a wave of unpredictable turmoil depending on how he navigates the challenges of hegemonic conflict between the United States and China, North Korean issues, the post-pandemic economy and political and social stability.
If he has not learned to be analytical, he cannot steer the country in the right way against a sea of uncertainties. He could be guided by his aides, but at the end of the day, the president must make the lonely decisions. I personally want to know if any of the candidates studied philosophy and history. As the days of “movement” are gone, the days of “thought” must arrive.
Second is a list of books that touched them. That will show the depth and scope of their thoughts. A book former president Park Geun-hye enjoyed was hardly advisable for a leader. President Moon Jae-in named iconic leftist scholar Ri Young-hee’s controversial essay book “The Logic of Our Changing Times” as his book. Their choice of books remarkably corresponded with their governance. The former president did not know how to govern the country while the latter perceived the county in colonial conditions. Under the Moon administration, a senior member of the presidential staff urged the people to revolt against Japan after it imposed export curbs, and the Supreme Court overturned the lower court rulings to demand compensation for wartime labor. A president’s mind must be focused toward the future to defend and develop the nation amidst the global complexities in politics, diplomacy, security, economy and technology.
Third is where they buy their groceries and where they eat. I hope the next president can communicate with civilians without any formality, understand the common people and have a warm heart to engage the weak. I wish to see a candidate who carries an eco-friendly bag to shop at a town market or grocery store. The incoming government also will have to address social inequalities. Without solving distribution issues, the basic pillars of modern civilization — democracy and a free economy — may decouple.
Fourth is understanding the concept of structure. Social science teaches that a good intention does not always bring good results. A policy with benign design can turn into an unpredictable rugby ball when it butts up against the realities of structure. Public polices under the Moon administration have repeatedly failed because they disregarded the structure taught in economics. When irregular workers were converted to the permanent payroll, jobs for the young shrank. The steep increases in the minimum wage rocked the self-employed accounting for 25 percent of the working population.
Real estate policy flopped because the measures were entirely aimed at containing “human greed and other evils” without understanding the economic structure. If a candidate thinks complex economic problems can be solved by removing past ills, he will make a dangerous leader.
A candidate who cannot give satisfying answers to more than three of the four questions will be a bad choice. The country will fail if it makes the wrong choice. We must study the qualities of each and every candidate to make the best possible choice.