firmly in place has been confirmed through an abundance of historical evidence.
Incompetence of the National Assembly and Restructuring Its Tasks
Habitual Criticism on Incompetence of the National Assembly
More than at any other time, Koreans have important political decisions to make with regard to such things as the North Korean nuclear problem and the request of the United States to dispatch Korean troops to Iraq. Amidst all of this, political struggles to seize the hegemony becomes ever more intense. What is called the Consolidated New Party has split from the old ruling party as a de facto ruling party. Within the opposition party there arose conflicting voices demanding changes of the candidates into a younger generation for the coming General Elections next April.
Disappointed with the political parties, not so attendant on either those urgent problems or the lively concerns of the ordinary citizens, originating mainly from the sluggish Korean economy, the presses are criticizing politicians and the National Assembly for their neglect and inability to address important problems. Although such criticisms are not without justification, we seem in the habit of reproaching politicians than thoughtfully reflecting on reasons why they are not competent up to our expectation. It is indeed very rare to hear about such an assessment.
One of those concerns of ordinary citizens is high unemployment especially of their children freshly graduated from the universities is. This problem has been worsened by the inflexibility of the labor market. Other concerns are price hikes of leasing or buying apartments, providing education to their children in the private market because of the public school failure, and so on. We may point as the causes of all these pains to the economic recession the Korean economy is now experiencing. However, the economic difficulties have been exacerbated due to the egalitarian approach of both the government and the general public.
The new government tends to emphasize redistribution than growth. The labor unions make the labor market more inflexible. The exodus of manufacturing industries abroad and the decline of foreign direct investment are considered as one of major culprits for current economic difficulties in Korea. They resulted partly from foreign competition especially from China with better business environment of lower wages. They resulted also partly from hostile business environment in Korea; where labor unions are striking for political power of managerial participation, and even the freight truck owners are striking for increasing prices of their services and other benefits at the expense of others. It seems that by reproaching politicians and the National Assembly, the press is revealing the underlying idea that better politicians would suggest better policies, among which they will reach an agreement over the best policy.
If that is so then what kind of political reform is needed? The answer will be the political reform that will facilitate to find better political leaders. Objectives, ordinarily presented as required to achieve for the political reforms, are democracy within the party, elections without too much campaign money, and overthrow of regional segmentation of party support. These objectives will, of course, facilitate finding excellent leaders. We witness that in countries with the presidential system including Korea, it is of grave importance to have what type of President. The same thing will apply to other political leaders. In this sense, those political reform measures for such objectives have an important meaning.
However, there are scholars who see this problem from an angle a bit different from finding a good leader. One is Friedrich Hayek. He traces the incompetence of the National Assembly from the nature of its tasks generally expected rather than inability of its individual members. Once the nature of the task is such that coming to agreement is inherently almost impossible, then no matter how capable the individual members may be, the National Assembly will still be inefficient. This viewpoint sheds a new light on the necessary political reform. Finding adequate political leaders without wasting a great part of scare resources of our society is important. Yet that is not the end of the story. The tasks assigned on their shoulder should be what they are apt to do and to contribute to the thriving of the people and the economy.
In his book The Road to Serfdom Hayek summarizes his point in the following way: "When going into the details of the economic problems of a country, the deficiency of the legislature that becomes a bulging authority is not the individual representatives of the legislature or the problems of the legislative system itself, but a flaw in the work itself that is imposed on the legislature."
Why the National Assembly Is So Incompetent?
Hayek explains about why the planned economy of socialism cannot harmonize with democracy in his book The Road to Serfdom in the following way: Agreeing on very abstract objectives and plans in a parliament is easy. However, it becomes nearly impossible to arrive at an agreement so that it is possible to go forward in making those abstract objectives concrete reality. Reaching an agreement in a parliament on a vague objective like increasing "public welfare" may be easy. It is so because it amounts to agreeing on "lets do some good things for everybody." Yet agreement gradually becomes more difficult as they have to decide more concretely on "how much" of "what kind" of public welfare, for "whom", and "who" will provide. If we borrow Hayek's simile, this is similar to agreeing on having a nice journey although everyone has different destination in mind. It is not difficult to imagine what will result in as a more concrete plan needs to be agreed or as more people are involved or a someone with absolute power wants to coerce one course of journey.
Whatever concrete plan the National Assembly may be able to decide in the name of "public welfare", it is not possible not to pass judgment wittingly or unwittingly on which groups' vales are more important than those of other groups. Some groups may value a public fitness center than public libraries. Other groups may value the opposite way. Deciding to build a public fitness center implies favoring values of the former groups. If there were common absolute value standards for all people, and it were possible to agree on them, such decisions could be made without much difficulty by setting priorities based on those absolute value standards. However, as no such perfect common value standards exist, the National Assembly is likely to be a place where disputes over the concrete plans go on without many actual conclusions, a mere "talking shop". In this environment, people may come to hate the mere talking democratic government and prefer a dictatorship that can put an end to this mere talking and at least do something by strongly enforcing an agreement on a comprehensive plan and implementing it by silencing opposing voices.
Some people may think that since the Korean people as of now have not selected socialism, the problems Hayek raises have no real significance in Korea. This is not the case. Though in an attenuated form, those problems still are so real. The well-known Hayekian knowledge problem tells us that socialist economic planning based on the abolishment of market prices cannot succeed since information dispersed to individual market participants cannot be consolidated in a Central Planning Board. This Hayekian knowledge problem is still as real as in the past whenever the government tries to intervene in the market economy. In the same way, the problem of the National Assembly also applies to the current democratic political system. We should not confine the issue of reform only to the election of better political leaders. We should broaden our eyes to the restructuring of the tasks of the National Assembly. Otherwise, the inability of the National Assembly cannot be corrected. Furthermore, it will not be able to do even the proper tasks within its capability due to the loss of the focus.
When Hayek viewed it impossible to draw an overall economic plan by the majority in a parliament, he did not mean that no individual economic case can be decided in a parliament. It is possible for the majority to pass legislation on an individual case. In relation to this Frederick Bastiat, a French economist and a member of the parliament, said that most legislation in the parliament had the nature of a "legal plunder". It is so because for him by passing a "law" the parliament as the third party wittingly or unwittingly transfers the property rights of some citizens to other citizens with no voluntary expression of the former group.
"Lease-Fee Regulation Law", for example, for him is a legal plunder because the National Assembly as the third party infringes on the property rights of building owners to give favorable terms of lease to those leasing the building without any consent of the building owners. (This legislation has been known as the main culprit of worsening residential environment of the poor in the big cities.) If we confer name and dignity of the law to whatever legislation that acquires a majority vote in the parliament, it turns into the place of struggle for legislation of a plundering nature at the expense of others, although usually disguised under the name of public welfare. In this kind of environment where legislation can easily infringe on the property rights with the false dignity of the law, entrepreneurship loses its vitality and consequently the economic difficulties of that country will have no good chance of improvement.
Restructuring of the National Assembly's Tasks
Only when the National Assembly's tasks are boldly restructured, it can avoid being either a mere talking shop or a place for legal plunder. It must rid itself of the workload of legislating bills of a despoiling nature. Instead, the National Assembly must carry out a positive role so that individual property rights are not infringed upon either by other foreign countries, or by their own Government, or by other citizens. The National Assembly, along with the government, must actively discuss the lingering problems of our lives and property rights, like the North Korea nuclear problem, dispatching troops to Iraq, and illegal strikes. It must not become a rubber stamp office that passes any government-submitting bill since such regulation-minded bill is likely to infringe individual property rights.
To the contrary, the National Assembly must become the apparatus that watches and checks the government so that all of the regulations and efficacy of "laws" made in each of the committees entrusted to the government or quasi-government do not infringe upon the property rights of the individual. It should be the place where such problems are actively and continuously raised. Once this restructuring is done, although it may be still a talking shop with a lot of arguments and counter-arguments, such talks will function to remind us the fundamental principle of the Rule of the Law and the property rights.
It needs to be clearly understood that the emphasis on the need for restructuring the National Assembly's tasks is not meant that the National Assembly should turn away from economic concerns of ordinary citizens. To the contrary, the suggested restructuring is based on the conviction that ordinary citizens' economic concerns are most effectively attended when property rights are securely protected from illegal infringes. Sacrificing one class to protect another class under the name of the law can never be a real solution. When the market prices faithfully deliver information under the proper protection of property rights, entrepreneurship will become most active and the economic concerns of ordinary citizens will eventually be solved. For example, proper property protection can be an effective means for high education costs for children. Property rights means rights to experiment one's ideas to use his property. Then hundreds of regulations on education as to establishing schools, choosing schools, and so many others, are in fact infringing property rights for experimenting various ideas about education. By boldly recovering property rights related to education, various domestic and foreign educational institutions will be established and compete in the education market. Competition among them is expected to enhance actual quality of education since better ways of educating children will be discovered through the process. It will also give much wider choices to the parents. It will also reduce education costs of ordinary citizens since public schools can now use more public fund, a great part of which now goes to private schools without any real managerial freedom including deciding school fees.
Recently a new party has emerged, and nomination processes are under way for the next General election. Indeed it is the season of busy politics although economic situations are not satisfactory at all. It has been somewhat habitual to heap ridicules on politicians whom we ourselves elected and to criticize their inability. This may give some self-consolidation, it is not desirable at all. We must not simply criticize them but contemplate over what political reforms are necessary. Although it seems well recognized that we need political reforms in order to find more capable politicians in an economical way, the other even more important reform does not seem to get attention it deserves, that is the need for restructuring the National Assembly's tasks. These reforms, not the struggle to legislate for benefits of any one group at the expense of other groups, are where we want to see the exercise of genuine political visions and leadership.
Kim, Yisok (Senior Researcher, The Research Institute for International Affairs, (firstname.lastname@example.org)