Thursday, October 13, 2016

Private Think Tanks Are NOT Ruining Policy-Making in South Korea

Yesterday, Emanuel Pastreich published a column/op-ed in Korea Exposé, which was titled “Tanks of Destruction: Private Think Tanks Are Ruining Policy-Making in South Korea.”

I don’t know if Pastreich came up with the title himself, or if it was created by the site’s editor and founder, Se-Woong Koo. Either way, it was a catchy title and it caught my attention. And not for the first time, I disagreed with yet another op-ed that was posted on that website.

Basically, Pastreich’s point was that a lot of think tanks in Korea, particularly the mainstream ones, are not worthy of the prestige they possess. The following are a summary of Pastreich’s main complaints regarding think tanks:
  • Much of the content produced by think tanks are banal, dishonest, superficial and ritualistic.
  • Think tanks are ranked according to the amount of funding received, but such funding means they are not independent as think tanks cannot risk upsetting their patrons.
  • Think tanks are not accessible to the public and they represent the interests of a small group who fund the think tanks.
  • Think tanks seek to privatize the work that should be carried out by a government official, a staff member of a government research institute or a professor at a university and set long-term national agenda. But think tanks’ purposes are short-terms gains.
Rubbish Thinking
Image Source

One could say that Pastreich may be throwing stones while living in a glass house. After all, he is the director of The Asia Institute, which is also a think tank. However, I must confess that I am not at all familiar with The Asia Institute or the work that it has produced. So that’s neither here nor there.

Regardless of that fact, however, the fact that he is the director of a different think tank and the other think tanks that he excoriated are basically his competitors is, I think, the weakest rebuttal that can be summoned against Pastreich’s points.

My first point of contention after reading Pastreich’s op-ed was that think tanks are supposed to be exclusive. They are supposed to represent the opinions, thoughts, and research by the elites who have spent a long time studying those subjects they pontificate on.

Back in early 2014, right about the time when Ahn Cheol-soo had just started to seriously begin his foray into politics, one of the first things he did was to establish his own think tank - the oddly-named Policy Network Tomorrow (정책네트워크 내일). I looked at his think tank’s mission statement and it sounded a lot like the kind of think tank that Pastreich is looking for (at least in think tanks that he is not a part of) - a think tank that is accessible to the public and one that doesn’t put too much focus on the “banal and dishonest” experts, but rather, in the words of Policy Network Tomorrow, on “the problems that the people face in their lives.”

I wrote about Ahn Cheol-soo’s think tank before and the unfortunate reality seems to be that if Pastreich’s suggestions regarding accessibility is given serious consideration, it would lead to think tanks that don’t do a lot of thinking.

Pastreich is not wrong when he argued that the opinions and research data that think tanks advocate can be (and often are) hijacked by people with vested interests. That is not in dispute. But the notion that think tanks are supposed to be open to the public or somehow responsive to what the public thinks is wrong. For one thing, all you need to do is speak to one of the unwashed masses who has never thought much about a given topic to know that you shouldn't pay attention to everyone. After all, the direct result of paying too much attention to the opinions of the masses is the rise of Donald Trump!

Besides, if we are looking for people who will better reflect the wishes of the public, those people already exist. They
re called elected officials. I wont hold my breath waiting for people to shower them with glory and praise.

Obligatory mention of the fact that he also said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
Image Source

Another point that I strongly disagreed with Pastreich was his opinion that massive corporate funding makes a think tank less trustworthy and reliable.

There was a think tank that I really liked. It was Freedom Factory, a libertarian think tank that advocated limited government and free market solutions to many of society’s ills.

(Disclaimer: I was never formally employed by Freedom Factory, but I did a number of freelance work for them - mostly Korean-to-English translation services. I also edited their English-language biweekly online news magazine, Freedom Voice.)

Did you notice the use of past tense? That
s because Freedom Factory went out of business a couple of months ago. I recognize that “capitalism” is often used as an epithet and there are even fewer fans of libertarianism. So I understand that some of you may disagree with what Freedom Factory stood for and argue til youre blue in the face that it was evil or throw whatever epithets you can think of. I won’t argue; this post is not meant to serve as a defense of libertarianism.

(And in case any of you are wondering, no, I have never thought of myself as a libertarian. I think of myself as an ally to libertarians, but never one of them.)

However, no matter what kinds of clever curses you can throw at it, it doesn
t change the fact that Freedom Factory produced a good number of studies, surveys, op-ed pieces, translations, media appearances, and helped to spread awareness of the problems of over-regulating businesses and the history of the South Korean economy to the masses. It was a great think tank that saw a great vision for itself. But it went out of business because it couldnt turn a profit.

Pastreich can argue that corporate funding makes think tanks less independent, but not having enough money means that you go out of business. I wish Freedom Factory had the luxury of worrying about a lack of independence. It never even got that chance.

Though I don’t know for certain, I imagine there are many think tanks of various political affiliations that have met and will continue to meet a similar fate.

Regardless of how much people think of the corrupting nature of money, it doesn’t change the fact that corporate funding helps think tanks to do their work. It may not be a perfect solution, but its the best there is. Why is it the best? It’s the best because, going back to my earlier point, the vast majority of the unwashed masses have never even heard of many of the subjects a lot of think tanks and their employees have dedicated themselves to studying; and they dont care for them.

If you think money is the root of all evil, try not having enough of it.
Image Source

The last thing about Pastreich’s op-ed I disagreed with was his argument that think tanks undermine the work that is better done by government officials, government research institutes, and professors at universities. He says that unlike government institutions, think tanks seek short-term gains and this is particularly dangerous when we think about long-term problems such as North Korea.

s a wonderful thought that government leaders and bureaucrats are more dedicated to long-term goals than think tanks. Unfortunately, however, reality says otherwise. Case in point, South Koreas policy toward North Korea has changed from administration to administration. Whereas Kim Dae-jung (and Roh Moo-hyun) sought engagement with the North via the Sunshine Policy, Lee Myung-bak immediately pursued a hawkish policy. Park Geun-hye wasn’t nearly as hawkish as Lee Myung-bak (at least initially) or as dovish as Kim Dae-jung as she was an advocate of trustpolitik” during the early days of her administration and she only became hawkish after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test.

If you read any of my columns at NK News, it won’t take you long to know what I think is the proper way of dealing with North Korea. Again, however, this post is not meant to defend or attack one idea or another. The point is that the notion that government officials are somehow more dedicated to pursuing long-term goals than people in the private sector is utter nonsense. It is a praise that government officials and their research institutes clearly do not deserve.

(Whether this is a virtue or a vice of the democratic process is another matter entirely.)

In fact, the only things that the government has insisted on taking the long-term view, regardless of who has been 
in charge, are looking out for their own interests. Even the country’s progressive leaders never abolished the National Security Law or hesitated from using defamation laws to silence their critics in the media.

Also, is there anyone who can say with a straight face that professors are any more virtuous than those who work at think tanks? At the end of the day, to one degree or another, everyone is a whore. The only thing that’s different is whom he sells his soul to and for how much and how happily he does so.

One thing that Pastreich does get right is his comparison of think tanks to hagwons, though certainly not for the reasons he stated. The comparison is valid because, like the hagwon industry, the ideas that are espoused by many think tanks do not seem that different from each other and there does appear to be a strong herd mentality that is defined by an unhealthy dose of 
“follow the leader mentality. There does need to be an infusion of new ideas (not that being new by itself is a virtue) and healthy debate among think tanks and universities and government research institutes. That is how we make sure that we do not fall victims to our own filth.

So, yes, there is a feeling of staleness when it comes to private think tanks in Korea. But are they ruining policy-making? That hardly seems to be the case. Although some of Pastreich’s criticisms may be valid, he does not seem to have really thought through on the subject of private think tanks as much as he seems to think he has.

No comments:

Post a Comment