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[Op-Ed] Tougher Punishment for the Rich

Posted August. 05, 2009 07:33,   


Why do the rich look worse if they commit the same mistake as laypeople? Alison Fragale, a professor at the University of North Carolina, conducted an experiment to find out why. What if a white woman with a high social and economic status and a Mexican immigrant woman evaded the same amount of tax? The majority of people surveyed said the white woman committed a more severe crime. People often say the rich are rarely punished while the poor always get punished in Korea, but the reality is the opposite.

President Lee Myung-bak told a Cabinet meeting at the end of last month, “Can’t we make the rich pay more fines for traffic violations or speeding and make the poor pay a little?” He meant to say it is unfair that people who drive daily for a living and people who go driving to hang out because they are wealthy pay the same fines. Justice Minister Kim Kyung-han said he will keep this in mind. Will a time ever come when the rich are punished more?

The fine system disproportionately metes out financial penalties given the level of income of offenders. This idea stems from the logic that when the rich and the poor pay the same amount of fines, the poor suffer more. Nokia Vice President Anssi Vanjoki is known to have received a fine of 116,000 euros when he exceeded 50 kilometers per hour on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. This system was first adopted by Finland in 1921, and was later instituted by Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France, Hungary and Portugal.

The system has not caught on in Asia, however. The U.K. tested the system first in 1992 but later abolished it. The U.S. has tested the system on a limited basis since 1988. Myongji University professor Lee Ji-heon said in a paper that the success of the system depends on public trust of the government’s accurate survey of income levels. In Korea, where measuring individual incomes are far from transparent, the system’s introduction could undermine public trust of the justice system. The system could even violate the principle of equality and rule of law. Policies meant to help the poor might distort basic laws at a heavy cost to the government. Many people are expressing doubts over the president’s tendency toward populism.

Editorial Writer Kim Sun-deok (yuri@donga.com)