The Government Cannot Govern By Polls Alone
China Times News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
December 1, 2009
Since the Wu cabinet took office, it has proposed a number of new concepts, including its "Meat and Potatoes Economics" and its live vote on "Ten Major Public Grievances," which has made quite a splash. Premier Wu has unquestionably demonstrated his own personal style. His "Man of the People" political style works for him on a certain level. But on the other hand, as a future cabinet policy strategy, it leaves much to be desired.
The Wu cabinet is hardly the first to "govern by slogans." During President Lee Teng-hui's administration his slogans were "The people's grievances are forever etched in my heart," and "The common man's little problems are the government's big problems." When James Soong was provincial governor he bandied about the expression, "the common man" even more freely. If we look at these examples, we realize the key to success when "governing by slogans" is follow through. If Premier Wu is worried about bureacratic indifference and bureaucratic inertia, he can indeed use political gestures such as opinion polls and live votes to mobilize and awaken the executive branch. No matter how grand its goal, the government must put public sentiment first.
Policy slogans, however, are not policy objectives. If the Wu Cabinet uses a live vote on the Internet to determine policy direction, it will encounter problems, both in principle and in practice.
First take methodological problems. Even assuming the Ten Major Public Grievances can be taken as a reference point for governmental policy, the Wu Cabinet's live Internet vote made a number of serious mistakes. City folk use the Internet far more than country folk. Younger folk use the Internet far more than older folk. Therefore if one has gathered only 4000 votes, they cannot be considered a cross-section of public discontent. The number one grievance basically affects only cities in the north. Therefore many grievances were not even listed. The live vote did not reflect problems in rural villages. Out of every eight newborns on Taiwan, one is born to a foreign spouse. The live vote did not give voice to the grievances of foreign spouses either. The live vote did not reflect their voices and their problems. Can we conclude therefore that their problems are non-existent or unworthy of our concern?
Even more serious than problems with polling methods, is the nature of the polling process. Some may say that governing means holding a referendum on a daily basis. But experienced leaders know that a nation cannot be governed by means of polls. We can tell this merely by examining the list of "Ten Major Public Grievances." The most obvious example is "Traffic fines and towing fees are too high." This was public grievance number seven. Whether such complaints are reasonable can be debated. The paradox is that complaints about "Illegal occupation of pedestrian arcades, roadsides, and parking spaces," was public grievance number ten. When public grievances contradict each other and clash, how can the administration govern by listening to public opinion polls?
Also, some grievances are not the result of opinion polls. Nevertheless they are issues the government must address. For example, number two on the Top Ten List was telephone and Internet fraud. Even without polls, the government must realize the seriousness of the problem, based purely on the crime statistics alone. Even Minister of the Interior Chiang Yi-hua has received phone calls from con artists. How can the public not be aggrieved? Telephone fraud and ninth ranked lax food inspection are the result of government indifference. If the government must resort to opinion polls to learn what the public is unhappy about, then it is insensitive beyond belief.
Public grievance number three was difficulty in finding employment. The unemployment rate is close to 6% this year, highest among the four little dragons. Unemployment has long been a serious economic problem. Up to 600,000 people are unemployed. That means 600,000 families affected. This is no longer a public grievance. A better term would be "public tragedy." Why does the government need polls to understand the seriousness of unemployment?
Of course there are some problems that may be counterproductive for the government to tackle. For example, excessively high housing prices in metropolitan areas is basically a problem of supply and demand. It is a problem common to urban regions throughout the world. But on Taiwan there is a serious gap between urban and rural regions. If the pressure is intensified, it may spread to other regions. Even assuming Premier Wu wants to intervene, he may not be able to. Interest-rate policy is set by the central bank. Premier Wu may not understand this. He may propose increasing the housing supply. But even if Premier Wu builds affordable housing next to the subway, he cannot escape the laws of supply and demand. Can he really provide affordable housing in metropolitan areas? It is highly unlikely.
Most importantly, polls may help the government understand today's grievances. But the nation's future development requires capable administrators with elevated perspectives and broad visions. They must be forward-looking, able to set medium and long-term goals. As Premier Wu said, a national leader must be forward-looking, organized, and innovative. These three abilities are not something one can obtain from the Internet by conducting live votes on "Ten Major Public Grievances."