This blog is provided by the Common Sense Society of Budapest as an online, English-language platform for the publication and exchange of diverse and differing perspectives about Hungarian politics, economy, and culture. The views represented here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CSS. The Common Sense Society does not receive funding from any government entity or political party.
As New Year’s well-wishes are slowly fading from conversations and as the holiday season of love, peace, and giving is coming to an end, let us contemplate for a moment how fundamentally important it is in Hungary for charity and giving to be neither mandated nor seasonal.
Upon Hungary’s recommendation, the United Nations has recently designated a day for global charity. This came just a year after Europe designated 2011 the ‘Year of Volunteerism.’ While we can agree that charity and volunteerism are noble and socially responsible endeavors, commemorating them once a year or once every decade does nothing to create a deep sense of community service or a culture of giving. Such token signs may have quite the opposite effect, in fact.
In his seminal work, Alexis de Tocqueville described the “habits of the heart” – intangible social aspects of American culture that counterbalance the idea of individualism. Personal commitment to one’s community, family, and church, and a concern for local politics were all part and parcel of the American experience, even as it is most fundamentally based on the freedom of the individual.
One of the most painful legacies of Communism in Hungary – as Anne Applebaum’s latest book, the “Iron Curtain,” so vividly describes – was that political ideology penetrated into the most basic fabric of society. The scouts, women’s clubs, sports associations, and church communities were all infected with Party ideology, creating a sense of distrust, isolation and selfish individualism in regular citizens. Politics replaced independent human association and action in places where they were most needed. And the record shows that when natural human beings are required by the government or any outside entity to be social or charitable they tend to behave less and less so. A Europe-wide survey conducted in 2008 found that Hungarians are on the bottom of the list of member states when it comes to volunteering with only about 10% of the population regularly taking part in organized charitable activities. By contrast, 30% of Americans do so.
Charity, of course has much to do with disposable income and taxation levels. But a culture of giving, whether in Hungary or Europe at large, will never flourish just because the UN dedicates a day on the calendar or the EU designates a whole year to it. Charity, like most virtues, is either a ‘habit of the heart’ or is a self-serving exercise with little real benefit to others. Caring for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the disabled, the lonely, and anyone who needs help is either taken up by the government as a ‘public duty’ or by committed individuals whose characters are positively shaped by such acts.
I have no doubt that we Hungarians are just as much a loving, giving, and charitable people as any other, but we live in a culture where all these virtues are taken up by the government as an official duty in the name of ‘public good.’ But this government activism ends up alienating regular citizens from being involved in solving these problems. If the Hungarian government keeps shoveling money into Hungarian non-profits, if it continues to pride itself on spending billions of forints on helping the homeless while criminalizing their presence on the streets, and if it continues to fund established churches, a healthy culture of charity will never develop in the country.
What is needed is for Hungarians and other Europeans living in the post-Soviet era to shed their history of government-mandated charity and reclaim a self-sufficient spirit of civic responsibility. Hungarians both privileged and underprivileged would be much better served if the state would provide incentives for private charitable acts instead of trying to enforce or subsidize them. As we wrap up our Christmas trees ornaments for next year, let us remember that the real source of charity is the human heart and the genuine kindness of spirit that no government policy should aim to replace.
—Vera Molnár is a political analyst residing in Budapest, Hungary. She holds a degree in political science and international affairs.