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The sacrifice factor

Nov 08,2019
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Kim Byung-yeon
The author is an economics professor at Seoul National University.

I feel most solemn at the University of Oxford when I look at a wall at the college entrance. Countless names are engraved as if guarding the medieval structure, shining eternal lights. They are not the names of college deans or great scholars but the names of the students and graduates who died fighting during World War I and II. At the time, the 30 colleges at Oxford were similar. Most of their students were from high-class families and studied at private schools. They were the pride and symbols of Britain’s tradition of noblesse oblige.

Conservative values cannot be protected without sacrifice. Diligence, moderation and common good are the virtues that conservatives stress. But these are qualities that human instinct often rejects. Therefore, leading by example is needed. When the ruling class demands average people live by these values without embodying them first, the health of society is damaged. People grow discontented about inequality, especially if they are asked to compete on a patently unlevel playing field. Such fake conservatives can ruin a nation.

The Moon Jae-in administration tried to fix an unlevel playing field with its ill-conceived “income-led” growth policy. As experts warned, however, our economic growth stopped and inequality was only aggravated. It was an experiment that deserves to be recorded as a failure, however noble, in economics textbooks. The government took recommendations from the unions but did not listen to the true experts’ advice. Minimum wage increases and funding for job stability failed to improve distribution of wealth — not to mention the deleterious impact it had on economic growth.

The conservatives seem to think their chance has finally come. But they must understand that they cannot take power without self-sacrifice, and even if they do, they won’t produce the achievements that past conservative administrations did. The most important task for the economy is to reform the labor market and corporate ecosystem. Unless labor and business become more flexible, long-term growth cannot go up. That is only possible when society is integrated and people get united. Without integration and unity, it would be very difficult to address the conflict between the conservatives and liberals.

The opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) has presented its theory of “wealth of the people” to revive the economy. But it missed a very important value — self-sacrifice by the vested interests starting with politicians. So it has sparked little interest. It has basically recycled a set of old policies with a bit of fourth industrial revolution-related spin put on them. While it is theoretically better than Moon’s income-led growth policies, it won’t work in the end. We are not living in the 1970s or 80s. We are living in an age marked by a very dangerous combination of polarized politics and globalized economics. Waves of populism are sweeping the world. At this critical juncture, there are no ideas about how to mitigate polarization to bring our society together. I doubt if the conservative LKP ever thought about income or education inequality of the vulnerable class or empowerment of their political voice.

The LKP’s “wealth of the people” seems to mimic Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.” But Korea’s conservatives should read Smith again. Smith discussed economic development in “The Wealth of Nations,” but emphasized social integration in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Without self-control and benevolence, social integration cannot be attained. Without integration, economic development would be difficult, he argued. At the time, businessmen colluded with politicians and enjoyed monopolies through trade protectionism. Smith criticized them as a group of sneaky monopolists and advocated relinquishment of the privileges of the elite. Are Korean conservatives reformists with the virtue of self-control or pursuers of their own dirty personal interests? If they are the latter, their “wealth of the people” theory will only harm the nation.

Integrity of the conservatives comes from self-sacrifice. Without it, there is no future for them. The future of Korea also would be gloomy. Without self-sacrifice, Korea cannot be saved from the crisis of the sharp division between fake conservatives and sham liberals.

The conservatives should step down if their existence does not bring joy and benefit to the community. They must retire if they don’t have the heart to serve those who are underprivileged. They should leave politics if they don’t have the calling to offer themselves to save the nation. These are the voices of the people looking for someone to support before the general election.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 6, Page 31