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.
Freedom is the most cherished ideal for Hungarians, and the struggle for achieving national independence characterized a large part of our history. The years 1989 and 1990 have extraordinary significance in Hungarian history, since freedom from Soviet oppression was gained without bloodshed. After throwing off the shackles of communism, Hungarians were free to govern themselves through democratic institutions. Now, after a quarter of century in a democratic society based on liberal democratic principles, the Hungarian people face new struggles. The political upheavals and economic stalemate of the last decade have tarnished what liberty and economic freedom – the very values we sorely missed under communism – mean to average Hungarians and challenged their desire to preserve these ideals.
Contrary to what is often suggested, the root problem of modern Hungarian democracy has not been too much freedom; the problem is that civic liberties could not properly take effect because of a constantly high level of corruption, state favoritism, and political and economic intermingling. As long as political power and economic advantages cannot be separated from each other by the rule of law under civil control, politics will tend to blur moral standards and be regarded with cynicism and contempt. In the end, the political process becomes disappointing in that it fails to secure the equal liberties of the people.
While the political right in Hungary pursues a protectionist national agenda, its economic policy undermines the free-market mechanisms and creates state monopolies or artificially restricts markets. Though some of the recent measures seem to favor disadvantaged classes (pensioners, the poor, large families, the Roma, etc.), these benefits are ineffective as long as social benefits are not paired with measures that provide opportunities for social mobility, such as quality education and a fair playing field in the market. The political left on the other hand seems to lack a real national character and, when in power, pursued measures most favorable for corporate interests without considerable investment into education and health care. The pro-free market liberal party (SZDSZ) coalesced with socialists three times over the past 25 years and was highly influential on the economic and social policy of the governments they formed (compared to their actual electoral support, their systemic influence was disproportionately high). Therefore, the concepts of liberty and liberalism were effectively monopolized and put into a framework that is not conducive to fair debate about Hungary’s centuries-old traditions. Although in 2010 the liberal party lost its place in the Hungarian Parliament, the word “liberalism” is still associated with their unsatisfactory performance. If we accept that a society based on fundamental liberties is the most desirable and viable to other alternatives, we still have to evoke the historical origins of liberty, lest we allow it to become an alien abstraction, far removed from the society in which it is practiced. For many Hungarians, the name of “liberalism” used by previous parties simply justified inequitable politics that failed to address actual social needs.
The idea of basic liberties is no novelty to contemporary Hungary. While human and civic freedoms date as early as the eighteenth century, most of the nineteenth century was characterized by a struggle to implement them in the context of the Habsburg Empire. Against the backdrop of a feudal imperial absolutism, the ideas of classical liberalism were in no way a “foreign import”, but rooted in the realities, dreams, and aspirations of Hungary’s struggle for national independence. The vindications of the revolutionaries in 1848 and 1849 and the so called April Laws were pursued in the spirit of classical liberalism—a desire to govern themselves democratically by rule of law. Following the Compromise between Austria and Hungary right up until the First World War it may be said that a liberal spirit was dominant in the politics of Hungarians (this may be done without idealizing the “Blissful Times of Peace”). A fact demonstrated by Hungarian poets and artists as much as political figures. Moreover, since the struggle to achieve basic and civic freedoms coupled with a struggle against the Habsburg Empire, Hungarian classical liberalism gained a clearly nationalist character. Freedom of speech, the abolition of censorship, religious freedoms (including the emancipation of Jews), separation of church and state, and the establishment of a free market economy – while not without its shortcomings – were the foundations of a time of prosperity, modernization and peace. Hungarians are rightly proud of the achievements of this period (just think of the emergence of beautiful cities and towns or the countless innovations discovered in that time), which would not have been possible without the ideas of private property, a market economy, and an entrepreneurial spirit.
It is essential however, to differentiate between principles of liberty on the one hand and progressive or social liberal dogmatism on the other hand. The idea that individuals have a right to property does not imply that there is only one form of property ownership. While other forms of property coexist (state or community), the rule of law can ensure fair transactions and proper execution of laws. The politicized transfer of former state-owned property after the transition from communist rule led many to assume that market transactions cannot but be corrupt. As political consolidation never really occurred, trust in governments and in fair market transactions evaporated. The rule of law should ensure a safe setting for a healthy economy and a fair market where innovation can take wing.
The socialist command economy collapsed because it was incapable of renewal and innovation. It has rightly been pointed out that free markets do not always create optimal outcomes, especially in Eastern-European countries that have not had the physical and technological capacities or sufficient knowledge to compete in European and international markets. But the question is not whether free markets are efficient or desirable (they clearly are, compared to a command economy that we know all too well) but it is rather whether we are able to develop the capacity to create value for markets. Because the success of a nation’s economy lies ultimately not in the number of cars produced on the assembly line but in human ingenuity and entrepreneurship – something that Hungarians definitely possess.
The same applies for other types of institutions. Democratic procedures may be painstaking and time consuming and people may act irresponsibly. But the slow self-governance of cultural and social institutions (universities, academies, cultural and civil funds, schools, chambers, associations, etc.) is by all means preferable to state-management, since it enables free participation of all citizens in the processes of civil society and gives full meaning to the concept of. Civically engaged people are more willing to devote their energies to useful goals. The fine balance between individual freedom and the responsibility that comes with living in a community can be established through the right incentives, proper legal framework, and governmental checks and balances. And rest assured, it will always be in motion, balancing the social landscape of any democratic state.
This type of system requires a respectful but still vigorous discourse that does not malign the intensions of opposing arguments. On this point, all modern Hungarians could take a lesson from Ferenc Deák who said: “I assume that not a single son of this nation would not desire the happiness, freedom and progress of his own country. And if, along the way, one or another from among us would deem one way more desirable than another and would give dissenting advice as a warning, we shall not regard his good will with suspicion or skepticism, but judge it from the point of view of patriotism and fraternity, even if in our view that advice is not right.”
The time has come to put Hungary’s social and political dialogue on a new track and to disentangle the confusions pertaining to classical liberal ideals – replacing dogmatism with an appreciation for a system of liberty. What do basic liberties and freedom mean to us today? How can this heritage—which draws from Hungary’s own past as well as the broader western tradition—be carried on to present times? Ideas matter, and bold declarations of freedom will not ensure that the right ideas find life in a vibrant civil society; indeed, this is a long and hard task which takes the efforts of both government and private actors. Individuals as well as legislators bear responsibility for ensuring that we Hungarians maintain both a culture and a government that protects the liberties of the people and fosters prosperity. To begin that conversation, we must start taking ideas seriously again and take the time to engage and persuade our fellow citizens.
–Orsolya Ujj and Sándor Udvary are Pannonius Fellows of the Common Sense Society. Ms. Ujj holds a degree in political science and in environmental sciences and policy from Central European University in Budapest. Dr. Udvary teaches law at the Károli Reformed University, School of Law in Budapest and is a chief counselor to the Hungarian Constitutional Court.