Gov’t isn’t responsible for everything
In separate cases, courts this week ruled that the state was not responsible for the death of a Christian proselytizer killed by Islamic militants in Afghanistan or for distress caused by the president’s position on Dokdo.
In the first case, the court rejected the family’s argument that the government was responsible for saving the man and his 22 companions after they were kidnapped by Taliban in 2007. One other man was killed before the rest were released. All were from the same church in Bundang, near Seoul.
Despite the tragic circumstances, which make us, of course, sympathetic to the family, there is a level of absurdity in the suggestion that their beloved son was not wholly responsible for his plight. When a Christian enters a terrorist country and the God-loves-you message doesn’t work, he can’t expect compensation from home country taxpayers. With all due respect to believers, it would have made more sense to file suit against God in Kabul.
In the second case, a court rejected a collective suit by 730 people against President Lee Myung-bak and the government following having allegedly been soft on Dokdo in a meeting with the Japanese prime minister. Each demanded 3 million won in compensation for this violation of their dignity and right to happiness.
Again, there is serious wackiness at play here. How’s about we sue the state because we have to pay taxes? Talk about distress. Or more appropriately, let’s sue the foreign ministry every time an ambassador fails to slap a foreign counterpart when they’re discussing an issue we care about.
But, there is a more serious point that these cases have in common and which explains why the courts were prepared to hear them. That is, they help delineate what government is and isn’t responsible for.
This is not a simple matter. When a country is poor, it can’t afford to take care of its people. But in the developed world, where people pay an enormous proportion of their personal and business earnings to their government, it’s reasonable to expect something back apart from free street lighting and school lunches.
But how far does this go? My government has the means to invade countries to rescue citizens. So, if the North Koreans occupy Seoul, should I expect the SAS to abseil down the side of my villa-apartment block and whisk me to safety?
There’s more to this question than money. Modern governments coddle their citizens. Most so-called developed countries, for example, put all kinds of pressure on their people not to smoke, short of declaring tobacco illegal. Why? Because it’s bad for health. So is stress, but… whatever. They also force parents to send children to school. Why? So all children can grow into citizens who understand how to read tax forms and can do the math on how much they have to pay (except in America where you need a Ph. D to do it without a tax consultant).
If government postures as matron, can it complain when some citizens behave like thumb-suckers? Case in point: Australian tourists stranded in New Orleans in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina lambasted their own government for failing to procure choppers to fly them out of the beleaguered city. Were they right or wrong? You tell me.
In Korea, though, there is an additional twist. Rich governments can argue that they serve their people. Korea, however, even when it was poor, treated its people like children, ordering, spanking and hugging them. It hugged in selective ways. In the 1970s, for example, the government didn’t provide any significant welfare, but it did use housewives associations to teach women things like turning taps off when they washed the vegetables (instead of letting them learn through hefty water bills).
The lingering effect of such empty-handed paternalism is to convince people that government will always be there for them ― and, guess what? ― now it has money.
The fact is, though, that the civilized world operates on a principle of individual responsibility.
Your government, which consists after all of individuals some of whom are willing to risk danger to help you, may help, may advise. But ultimately, you are responsible for your actions. It can be a tough lesson to learn.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at email@example.com.