Monday, January 16, 2012

Welfare in Korea: the debate (or lack of)

In today's Korea Herald: "Should Korea adopt a welfare state?", and my take on the issue ("On welfare...", and below):

Welfare will probably be a key issue in this year's elections in Korea, and it should: particularly in these extremely challenging times, it's not only a matter of social security, but a matter of national security, about the social and financial sustainability of a nation.

If Korea is not the only country facing similar challenges in this electoral year, it must also cope with rather depressing demographic trends, and an utterly polarized political landscape. Last year, even the tragicomic budget debate in the States paled in comparison with Seoul's surreal war about free lunches at school. I can't even use the word "debate", which implies the existence of a two-way communication, for a farce that resulted in the ultimate denial of democracy: the boycott of a referendum intended to settle the case.

All parties share the blame, but the irony of it is that Oh Se-hoon lost his seat with the support of conservatives for a cause that would have been carried by the left in such welfare states as France. I supported Oh Se-hoon on this very cause because it was just, and truly progressive.

And I bet that his successor Park Won-soon, also a good person who genuinely cares for the community, will eventually realize that he'll be able to do much more if he drops the free-for-all system he fought for. Anyway, both shared a sensible vision: Korea needs to do more, and better for welfare.

"More and better" requires common sense as much as good will. Regardless of which areas and how deep it reaches, a good welfare system is a sustainable welfare system. And since it's designed to fix complex problems that constantly evolve, it must always remain fit and reactive. Thus, a good welfare system should be both transparent and fair.

Transparency? A lot of money is at stake, and the system should be closely but openly monitored. In every country, billions are lost in corruption, abuse, waste or fraud from all areas of the spectrum. They cripple the system, and even when they represent only a tiny fraction of the total, they undermine the cause.

Transparency also allows the detection of early signals, the anticipation of disruptions in the environment, the adjustment of policies ahead of troubles.

Fairness? "Universal coverage", "equal rights" or "equal access" doesn't mean everybody should pay the same. No welfare system is sustainable if the richer don't pay for the poorer.

That's not socialism but good governance, and history teaches us all too often what happens when governments fail to accept this evidence.

In Korea like everywhere, the time has come for politicians to do their job. To govern is to foresee, and politics is not about partisanship but about reaching for the best common good with ambitious but wise policies.


More common sense and less ideology in 2012? A rather long shot, judging by the US primaries.

Seoul Village 2012
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