Getting to grips with freedom

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Getting to grips with freedom

Choi Hoon
The author is the executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

President Yoon Suk-yeol gave an inaugural address stressing the concepts of freedom, free markets, fairness and communication. Freedom was his core concept. Greater freedom for the private sector from government restrictions is urgently needed in our society. It is the source of energy for future growth. Under the traditional meaning of freedom, society cannot make demands on individuals in areas that only affect the individual, as the individual has the absolute right to self-will. Individual aspirations to liberation and independence from monarchy, imperialistic powers, violence and forces of ideology and dictatorship have been a kind of evolution for mankind and will never cease.

A presidential inaugural address reflects the zeitgeist of the times. Our presidents mostly equated the state with their governments. As a result, people’s cooperation with the government was believed to benefit the nation. Founding President Syngman Rhee demanded patriotism from the people in his inaugural speech in 1948 when Korea’s per capita income was $67 and its illiteracy rate 22.3 percent. “We should be born again as a sovereign nation after getting back the country we lost 40 years ago. All citizens must forget their selves and commit to their sacred duty to the nation,” he said. The call for selflessness and devotion to the country was emphasized even more in his inaugural address for a second term in 1952 amid the Korean War.

“Our lives are not ours alone. We cannot dare to desire comforts of the body and wishes of the heart. We must all sacrifice,” Rhee pleaded.
President Yoon Suk-yeol makes his inaugural speech in the National Assembly, May 10. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

In his inaugural speech in 1963, President Park Chung Hee urged individual awakenings and dedication to the national goal of achieving per capita income of $100. “Civilians must do their duty before expecting order and benefits from the government,” said the general-turned-president. “Each individual must become a foot soldier in the march without falling behind or going astray.” After extending his presidential term through a constitutional amendment, Park went on to say, “Without love for the nation and loyalty to the state, family affinity and friendship cannot be achieved.”

Even after presidential elections were restored in 1987, individual freedoms were not emphasized. Leaders mostly asked people to willingly cooperate in their government’s direction. “Top-down reform will start. Our freedom must be the freedom for the community,” said President Kim Young-sam. His successor Kim Dae-jung, who took office when the country sought an international bailout to overcome the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, pleaded “for help as the country is at the cliff. I will stand at the forefront.”

Former President Kim Dae-jung promised a “small yet strong government” for the first time. But the government’s role inevitably had to become mighty to enforce corporate restructurings during the crisis. His successor Roh Moo-hyun finally pledged a type of politics in which “the people will be the master.” But amid a heated ideological battle to “end the distorted habitat where foul play and privileges and opportunists overrule,” his endeavors to enhance ordinary people’s freedom achieved little. The next president, Lee Myung-bak, also pledged to remove unnecessary regulations and lessen the government’s role, but his leadership gained little traction amid poor approval ratings. His successor President Park Geun-hye vowed to wipe out public distrust in the government and have the government and civilians walk the same path. But Park was impeached and removed from office, a true trust crisis.

President Moon Jae-in delivered the most touching inaugural speech, but turned out to be most contradictory. He promised to be a “president for all.” He offered to communicate directly with the people. But Moon’s words evaporated after his inauguration. He forced his beliefs and ideology on the people. He acted in a royal way: “I am the state.” Moon did not humble himself by serving the people.

Freedom is the very source of creativity and challenges. The private sector, open markets, corporate vision, competitiveness, creativity and passion are what we need. Being bureaucratic is the reverse. The semiconductor, IT, communication and bio sectors blossomed when there was little government intervention. The government’s role must stop at supervising fair opportunities and trade. It must stop interfering in the realm of the private sector.

163 years ago, John Stuart Mill advised that an individual knows his work best and should be left to do that work. If the state role grows, people will become dependent on the government. He said a government office with lifetime guarantees paid by taxes cannot draw talent. Relying on the government cannot enhance individual freedoms, he argued.
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