Jake's View

Business is city's biggest welfare recipient

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 2:46am

[Federation of Hong Kong Industries chairman Stanley Lau Chin-ho] said that only by sending its own representatives to Legco could the business sector truly express its views.

"It is very hard for businessmen to run in a direct election, as they do not support welfarism, which attracts votes," he told the South China Morning Post.

South China Morning Post,
August 15

I have my reservations about giving names that end in ism to abstract concepts. Too often they indicate that the speaker does not like something but has not thought about it closely enough to give it an exact definition.

Perhaps Mr Lau knows exactly what he means by "welfarism", but he did not grace us with this knowledge and all I can do is fall back on the dictionary, which defines welfarism as the principles or policies associated with a welfare state.

The dictionary also defines welfare state but we won't bother. I ask you only to imagine what would be the result in this town of a referendum that poses the question: "Do you favour the adoption of a welfare state?"

Yes, I know that you can say we already have one with half the population in public housing (whether rented or bought), effectively free medical care, free education and HK$46 billion a year spent on social welfare.

But I also think I know my Hong Kong middle class. What this referendum will actually be taken as asking is: "Do you think people should leech from others rather than working hard to make their own living?"

So if Mr Lau says welfarism attracts votes from the general public, well, I would like to see him try. There are undoubtedly some accomplished singers in this town of The world owes me a living but they are a minority, and he would appeal to most of the general public in vain.

I speak of the general public, however, because one sector of it does actually believe in welfare. This sector believes government has an unvarying obligation to relieve its members of disadvantageous conditions. It also sees nothing wrong in leeching all it can get from government.

I refer, of course, to the business sector.

I have yet to find the businessman who objects to a rigged market if that market is rigged in his favour. Invariably he finds reasons to argue that it is done in the public good and should be continued.

I have also yet to find the businessman who thinks that government hand-outs and contracts in his industry are not always a good idea. They are happy welfare recipients, every one of them. They like their money to come easy. The last thing a real capitalist wants is capitalism.

What is more, they have not only been given extra votes in what passes for elections, but a big chunk of the Legislative Council is carved out for these extra votes as functional constituency seats. Instead of resisting industry lobbies, our system encourages them.

The idea was that Legco would do its work better if it had direct advice from representatives of all walks of industry, which entirely ignores the fact that people have always been happy to offer Legco their advice without sitting on it. Someone got advice and influence mixed up.

The result is that we now have a legislature largely composed of barristers, who plague such assemblies everywhere with their conceit that courtroom argument and public policy are identical, plus industry lobbyists who horse-trade their votes to squeeze out more public money their way.

This is usually done through lucrative big infrastructure projects, whether needed or not (mostly not in recent years), and restrictive trade practices, which the barristers in particular rely on but all the other functional constituencies relish as well.

Mr Lau is entirely right in saying that it is very hard for businessmen to run in a direct election. The reason, however, is not that they spurn welfarism but that they practice it and that the electorate recognises this.

The biggest single reason that the concept of functional constituencies is seriously flawed is that it fosters greater disbursements of corporate welfare than single mums and indigent oldies have ever taken in personal welfare.