firmly in place has been confirmed through an abundance of historical evidence.
No: Subsidizing everyone wastes tax money (Korea Herald debate)
By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
The more Seoul superintendent Kwak No-hyun and his allies talk, the more they strengthen my opposition to their grandiose plans. In an interview earlier this year with Michael Alison Chandler of the Washington Post, Kwak justified suspicions that advocates are using the free lunch program as a proxy for a larger agenda.
Kwak begins: "If we harbor the idea of universal welfare ..."
This justifies suspicions that the goal is to establish a universal welfare program, not just to help poor kids. "Welfare populism" has defined the current election cycle, with Korean politicians pushing and shoving each other out of the way to announce the latest "free" or "half-free" proposal: "Free" school lunches, "free" medical services, "half-tuition," "free" childcare.
Leading the opposition is Seoul Metropolitan City Mayor Oh Se-hoon. He has dubbed himself the "antipopulism warrior," arguing that the referendum "will be a watershed to decide whether to expand or put an end to welfare populism." I doubt the referendum will end such appeals from those who harbor the idea of universal welfare. Such advocates will be back with more "free" initiatives, regardless of the outcome of the vote.
A common political strategy is to highlight beneficiaries while ignoring or underestimating costs. Korea's national pension fund is now 1.3 trillion won in debt ― did advocates mention this when the program was created and later expanded?
Highlighting benefits while ignoring costs works in tandem with the "stalking horse" approach. That is, hide your agenda behind sympathetic figures, the way bad guys hid behind horses in the old Hollywood Western movies. Kwak and his allies have the "perfect" strategy to implement universal welfare ― free meals for kids to soften opposition.
He concludes his justification for a universal program with "... in contrast to selective welfare which tends to be accompanied by stigma and discrimination." That appeal to kids tugs at the heartstrings, but decision-makers must make sound decisions that don't burden those same kids in the future.
David Boaz, of the Cato Institute, recently said that ending the stigma of welfare is a mistake.
"We need to re-establish that stigma," Boaz said, not only for food stamp recipients, but also for corporate CEOs and farmers receiving subsidies from the government. "People should be embarrassed about being on the public dole."
Boaz was responding to a New York Times article reporting that the stigma of welfare in America has disappeared, mainly due to the government allowing the use of debit cards rather than food stamps.
Aristides Hatzis, a professor at the University of Athens who recently spoke at a Center for Free Enterprise forum and to National Assembly members, warned against South Korea following Greece's path to welfare populism and government overspending. To an overflow crowd at the Plaza Hotel on Aug. 9, Hatzis asked why Seoul taxpayers should be forced to feed wealthy and middle-class children.
That's a good question. Currently, about 11 percent of children in Seoul get free lunches. If the goal is to help the poor, why not focus on them rather than expanding to a universal program? Many government programs do more harm than good, but it makes more sense to focus on people in need. If stigma is a reason to expand the program, then would Kwak cut back to a targeted program if poor kids could receive assistance that isn't transparent to others ― or is the real goal a universal program, with stigma being an excuse?
Democratic Party spokesperson Lee Yong-seop has even asserted that the free school meal program "is the state's duty and the people's rights. So not only would taxpayers be forced to pay for yet another large program, but opposing the program allegedly violates the right to have free food at taxpayer's expense. The demand for other rights at taxpayer expense is sure to increase if the "freesomething" policies are implemented.
The larger agenda, the lack of concern about costs, and the effort to turn charity into a right ― the more Kwak and his allies talk, the easier it is for me to oppose their grandiose plans.
Casey Lartigue, Jr. is director of international relations at the Center for Free Enterprise in Seoul. ― Ed.
This article orginally appeared in the August 23, 2011 edition of the Korea Herald.