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Populist campaign pledges are never free of charge

Posted March. 14, 2014 06:31,   


Kim Sang-gon, the former superintendent of Gyeonggi Province, announced on Wednesday that he will run for the Gyeonggi governor’s office. One of his major campaign pledges is to “implement the free bus service system step by step and take the first step for free public transportation” in Gyeonggi Province. Simply speaking, his pledge is too risky and irresponsible. Prior to the superintendent election four years ago, he got some benefits from the “full-fledged free school meal service.” This time, he has taken a step further and made a pledge of making bus rides free, which may cause more serious consequences. Whether it is a “free school meal” or “free bus ride,” it is not actually free, but paid by taxpayers. To make the bus service free of charge, people should pay more taxes or taxes that could have been allocated for other projects should be used.

Under the free bus service system, all bus companies in Gyeonggi will have to be converted into public enterprises under the provincial office and all bus drivers have to become employees of local public organizations. This may be a possible scenario in a small remote village. But at the level of municipal government, none of the cities in advanced market economies or even in China under socialism has adopted such a reckless system. An official from the Gyeonggi Provincial Office said, “Even when Gyeonggi adopts a half free bus service system like Seoul where the city government compensates for half of the deficits made by private bus companies, the province has to allocate about 500 billion won (46.8 million dollars) a year for the service. If we make the system full-fledged, the cost will be trillions of won.”

“Although many people were concerned when Gyeonggi first started the free school meal system, it spread nationwide and universal welfare has become the zeitgeist,” argued the former superintendent. After starting the free meal service, however, Gyeonggi Province had to reduce its budgets for school maintenance and English teachers, which are directly related to education, to handle the increasing cost for free school meals. In addition, as local tax revenues have plunged due to economic recessions, the provincial government has reduced its budget for free school meals to 57.2 billion won (53.6 million dollars) this year from 87.4 billion won (81.6 million dollars) last year. If this money came out of his pocket, could he make such an irresponsible campaign pledge?

In the early 20th century, Argentina ranked in the top 10 wealthy countries in the world. However, it has fallen into a swamp of populism, the so-called Peronism that recklessly sought the expansion of nationalization and welfare and is still suffering the consequences. The Democratic Party of Japan succeeded in taking power in the 2009 general election by appealing to the public with populist pledges such as the elimination of highway tolls and free medical services. But it gave up on its pledges because of difficulties in securing finances and had to make an apology to the Japanese people. The party’s disastrous defeat in the following general election three years later is largely due to such a failure, which conveyed the image of “irresponsible and incompetent party.” Kim’s campaign pledge looks like an attempt to generate publicity only to win the election, regardless of criticisms by some people.

If a free bus service system is introduced in Gyeonggi as he promised, the provincial government will have to cut investments in other areas unless it raises local tax rates remarkably. And this may lead to a financial catastrophe for the province. Kim should think of detailed measures for financing ahead of making such a pledge. Most of all, voters should awaken to prevent candidates’ reliance on populism to win the election. This applies not just to people in Gyeonggi but also to all the Korean people to vote in the upcoming local election. People should make a right judgment by distinguishing populist candidates who can aggravate national and local finances and shift burdens to future generations.