Lee the populistFormer Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung, the presidential candidate for the ruling Democratic Party (DP), has made a shocking remark again. On a trip to a traditional market in Seoul Wednesday, he mentioned the need for the government to “put a cap on the total number of restaurants” in Korea. The following day, he back-pedalled and said, “I just talked about the need to think about it.” His comparison of mom-and-pop store owners to a “group of moths heading to a flame” also stirred controversy.
Lee’s comments are full of fundamental flaws. It is true that a number of the self-employed in Korea are being pushed over the edge because of excessive competition. So they need some kind of restructuring. But they started businesses to survive — sometimes out of desperation and sometimes after retirement. If the government introduces a system to restrict their entry into one field, existing restaurant owners could benefit, but it discriminates against new entrants. It also deprives consumers of the right to choose. A renowned online pundit wondered if the people really should get approval from a government to open restaurants. The way Lee thinks is a serious challenge to democracy and the market economy, not to mention a critical violation of our Constitution, which guarantees the freedom to choose an occupation.
Lee said that well-intended regulations by a warm-hearted state are necessary. That’s sheer sophistry. No regulation is well-intended from the beginning. The well-intended real estate policies by the Moon Jae-in administration only ended up escalating housing prices. Restrictions not rooted in reality only backfire.
It seems that Lee would make the totalitarian idea one of his campaign promises but not implement it. That is not a responsible attitude for the presidential candidate of the ruling party. Lee is famous for his catchphrase of “Lee can do it!” He excused himself for the comment by implying he just wanted to help the self-employed.
Lee is trying to be a populist. After the explosive Daejang-dong development scandal broke, he came up with the idea of the government retrieving 100 percent of gains from public-private joint development projects. If so, why would private developers participate in them? His signature promise is a “basic income.” Even the DP chairman questioned that. Lee needs some deep soul searching.