Victims are the new powerbrokers

By Liu Ching-yi 劉靜怡  / 

Mon, Nov 18, 2013 - Page 8

This semester, National Taiwan University has been teaching a class which focused on food and drug safety regulations. Every week so far, there has been a new food and drug safety incident to use as topics for discussions of legislation and the long-standing shortcomings of the authorities. The wave of recent food safety scares has provided an excellent study environment.

With the edible oil scandal, both the government and companies have begun to present themselves as victims.

Not everyone is capable of easily overcoming the knowledge barrier to understanding the food and drug components that affect our health and safety. Still, it is inescapable that people cannot get away from decisions about food and drugs. This is a typical example of “information asymmetry,” a phenomenon that causes failures in free markets, and which almost everyone thinks justifies government intervention.

This is why the government uses the law to force food and drug manufacturers to follow regulations controlling the manufacturing process, components, usage, time limits, advertising, marketing and warnings of side effects in order to help consumers obtain the information required to make independent and informed decisions and to protect their interests. These controls are necessary to protect the welfare of consumers in free and competitive markets.

It is a basic tenet of administrative law that a government should use administrative inspections to supervise companies and prevent corporate deception.

Therefore it is worrying that the government has begun to call itself a victim — because of what it said was a company involved in the incident refusing to be investigated — and then uses that “victim status” to absolve itself of any responsibility. It even asked the company at issue to provide an affidavit saying that it was willing to take full responsibility.

The food and drugs industries are no different from other industries. They have to deal with complex vertical and horizontal labor division issues. Each link in the production management and marketing processes differ in importance.

However, every one of them should be controlled — there should always be someone in charge, so that there will not always be people saying that “the manufacturer is also a victim” or that “the government did not know what was going on” in an attempt to gain sympathy or shirk responsibility.

When dealing with complicated food and drug safety and health issues, consumers have a right to demand that the government and manufacturers stop acting like victims and take on a shared responsibility for a thorough review of the laws, regulations and systems operations.

In addition, they should also consider if they have completely ignored the problems involved in selling low-cost and low-quality products as high-priced, high-quality products as well as their responsibility as perpetrators.

If the exposure of most irregularities must rely on the perseverance of whistle-blowers or media revelations, and if there is no systematic handling and follow-up even of notifications of concerns over the quality of oil products from foreign governments, then who is the real victim?

We are unfortunate enough to live in a society governed by a politics of victims, and this culture is so strong that everyone is taking after our leaders.

For example, the Mainland Affairs Council misused the Freedom of Government Information Act (政府資訊公開法) and to define the records of 60 rounds of talks with China as drafts intended for internal use or other preparatory work to be used prior to the agency’s decisionmaking. It then used this definition as the basis for its refusal to submit the documentation to the legislature, while it ignored the material’s importance to the public interest.

The president then played the innocent victim and demanded that the legislature pass the service trade agreement despite a lack of adequate information.

It should not be a great surprise, then, when we see that the government is always friendly and polite toward big business while showing no concern or tolerance toward the average citizen with concerns over food safety or toward members of disadvantaged groups who see no other way out than to end their lives.

This politics of victims is creating a public tragedy where no one cares about anything and where everyone goes to extremes to get what they can.

To avoid paying the price for this tragedy, the first thing to do is to cast off this politics of victims.

For the young generation, there are of course many things in life that are more important than to throw shoes at protests, but throwing shoes to express their opposition and challenge these false victims may be their way of highlighting the significance of the film Beyond Beauty: Taiwan From Above (看見台灣).

Liu Ching-yi is a professor at National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of National Development.

Translated by Perry Svensson