Lajos Bokros: Is he a liberal-conservative?

Since there seems to be total confusion over Lajos Bokros’s political and economic philosophy, I thought it might be useful to go back to an article he published on January 2, 2014 in Élet és Irodalom. On the one hand, it is a critique of the “lost decade” and, on the other, it is a program. What should a new government do to move Hungary forward in both political and economic terms? All this is enumerated in 140 points. Although Bokros keeps describing himself as a conservative or a liberal-conservative, a careful reading of this article reveals that his ideas are anything but conservative in the ordinary sense of the word. I will not try to cubbyhole him. Instead, I will summarize his ideas, which ought to spark some discussion among us.

Bokros spends 40 points on the “lost decade,” which for him means the period between 2001 and 2010. His critique of the Hungarian economy during this period is practically identical to what other “orthodox” economists say about the economic sins of the successive Hungarian governments. His critique of the second Orbán government is in no way different from what we call a “liberal” interpretation of the Orbán-Matolcsy duo’s economic and financial policies. There is nothing inherently conservative in these first 40 points.

After this section, he explains his ideas about the future. “What kind of Hungary would we like?” Here I will translate certain key passages. “We would like a Hungary where the constitution, inspired by European values, will defend the freedom of individuals, families, small communities, enterprises, churches, cultures, peoples and nations even against the state.  We want a state that guarantees the totality of rights of people and citizens.”

The modernization that began after the regime change, he argues, came to a halt in 2001. For a new government that modernization process must be restored.

What does Bokros understand by “modernization”?  After explaining that modernization is a concept that appeared during the transition period between feudalism and capitalism, he turns to the “societal foundation” of modernization which, in his opinion, is “the market economy’s independence. Its ideological base is the renaissance, the reformation and, above all, the enlightenment…. [From that time on] the economy, the law, culture and science were no longer subordinated to religion or some kind of ideology but followed their own inner logic and lived according to their own laws. In a wider sense modernization means the separateness of society’s activities from the state and becoming self-contained (although not independent).”

liberal conservative

“In a modern society the independent, free, and responsible person can blossom. Individualism is a modern phenomenon…. Individuals build and create society from the bottom up, not the state from the top down. If the key actor of a society is the respected and responsible individual, then these strong, self-respecting individuals are capable of creating a society that is separate from the state. A modern state is increasingly democratic…. A modern democracy is always free-thinking, meaning it is a liberal democracy. Illiberal democracy, meaning a democracy that limits the rights of the individual and minorities is no more than the unlimited rule of the majority, which cannot be the lasting foundation of a modern society.”

Finally, Bokros talks about another important ingredient of a modern society: the market economy. For him the market means freedom of choice. Without the existence of a market economy there can be no democracy or rule of law. Quoting Friedrich Hayek, he warns that the lack of a market leads to servitude. “In a modern economy and society the state is not the opposite of the market but rather is its framework. The state is clever and small, limited and supervised, and not stupid and weak.”

The rest of his treatise deals with some of the tasks a new government should immediately tackle as well as certain long overdue economic reforms that should be introduced. Liberals would agree with most of these recommendations, but there are a few that most likely would be controversial, which should not surprise anyone. Several of the recommendations would hurt certain interest groups, but if Bokros is right without these reforms the Hungarian economy will not be able to crawl out of the hole it found itself in over the last few years.

In any case, Bokros at the moment is running for mayor of Budapest, not to become the next prime minister of Hungary. As mayor he would presumably have to worry more about potholes than political and economic philosophy. Therefore his lengthy list of recommendations is not a campaign platform. I just chose the passages that explain what Bokros means by “modern Hungary” and by “liberal-conservative” so that we can better understand who he is.

John Lukacs on Paks

John Lukacs, the internationally renowned historian, was born in Budapest in 1924 but left Hungary at the age of 22 in 1946 when he foresaw that the Soviets would most likely force Hungary into a Soviet dominated eastern bloc of communist countries. A year later he joined the faculty of Chestnut Hill College where he spent forty-seven years until his retirement in 1994.

It is not easy to write a short introduction to somebody like John Lukacs who has in the last sixty years profoundly influenced historical scholarship on such varied topics as the history of the United States in the twentieth century, history and historiography, Adolf Hitler, George F. Kennan, Winston Churchill, and World War II, just to mention a few themes of his more than thirty books that appeared between 1953 and 2013. The scope of his scholarly interest is so wide that I can’t possibly do justice to it here. I’m sure that one day books will be written about him and his work. As it is, he has already been the subject of several scholarly articles.

John Lukacs is a conservative. In fact, he describes himself as a reactionary in the sense that he favors a return to earlier times. He dislikes mass culture and what goes with it. Lukacs’s bête noire is populism, which he considers to be the greatest threat to civilization; as he said, it gave rise to both national socialism and communism. A large portion of his scholarly works centers on Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. In fact, he wrote a whole book on their struggle, The Duel: 10 May-31 July 1940: The Eighty-Day Struggle between Churchill and Hitler. But he also wrote separate volumes on these two men.

As a conservative he has been a favorite of Viktor Orbán and in general of the Hungarian right. During the first Orbán administration he was awarded the Corvin Chain, a decoration that was given out by Miklós Horthy between 1930 and 1943 to people for their achievement in the fields of science, literature, and the arts. Their number was limited to 12. It was in 2001 that Viktor Orbán revived the tradition. John Lukacs was among the first twelve recipients. But then Orbán lost the election and his successors decided to let the decoration lapse. In 2009 Lukacs received an honorary doctorate from Péter Pázmány University.

"A real Catholics cannot be a nationalist"

“A real Catholic cannot be a nationalist”

Considering that Lukacs finds populism and its practitioners abhorrent, I can’t imagine that he is too keen on what has become of Viktor Orbán. I can’t believe that the radical and abrupt changes that have been introduced into the Hungarian political system in the last four years are to the conservative Lukacs’s liking. But, as he says in his open letter translated and published here, it is not his task to comment on Hungarian politics. On the other hand, again as he himself remarks in the letter, even before 1988 he found that Viktor Orbán was no friend of the West. For a man who passionately believes in the mission of Western civilization, as Lukacs does, this attitude must be worrisome.

* * *

It was almost sixty-seven years ago that I left the country of my birth. Since then the fate of my country, my nation has often touched and gripped my heart, but I never dealt with or wrote about Hungarian politics.

Today, at the age of ninety, it is still not becoming. Yet something induces me to do it. I thought about this for two long nights.

The Russian-Hungarian agreement on Paks has been haunting me.

I don’t receive Hungarian newspapers. And only rarely Hungarian periodicals. In the mornings I click on Népszabadság for a few minutes. As far as I know, many Hungarians read this paper. That’s why I’m sending my letter there. Perhaps my words will reach a few hundred readers.

The present prime minister has honored me for many years with his attention and friendship. Still, I feel it my duty to address my opinion contained in this letter to him as well.  I have known his ideological inclinations for a long time, more than twenty years. The way I see it, even before 1989 he had a certain aversion to the so-called “West,” Western Europe and England.

But now he has reached a demarcation line. I don’t agree with those who talk and speculate about the economic consequences of the agreement on Paks. Will electricity be cheaper or more expensive in ten years when this project is completed (if at all)? My dear Hungarians, we have no way of knowing this, but even if we knew it, it is unimportant. The essence of a country, its fate is not an economic statistic. The essence of a country is who we are and where we belong.

History doesn’t repeat itself. That of nations rarely and only in small measure. The character of a man changes the least.  In the future perhaps this is the most profound question for Hungarians. Not just the dearth of Hungarian self-confidence. (Although that too!) But who we are, where we belong, which way to go.

Our St. Stephen wasn’t only a saint without peers but also a great founder of a state. At the time, more than a thousand years ago, the vast Greek Orthodox Byzantium almost completely surrounded the Carpathian Mountains. If Stephen had chosen accommodation with them he would have secured enormous advantages in the short run. But he didn’t choose that road. He chose Roman Christianity, papal legate, western wife, “Europe” (although that concept did not exist yet). It was this choice that shaped the faith, the character of Hungarian Christianity over the next one thousand years.

Western powers often did nothing or very little for us. And yet when Hungarian leaders a few times chose the “East” these ventures always ended in catastrophe. In the recent past the essence and origin of the tyranny that subjugated Hungary wasn’t communism but Russian occupation. At the end of the Second World War the great Churchill, who already knew that the Russians would occupy the whole of Hungary, repeatedly told Roosevelt (unfortunately in vain) that Hungary belongs not to Eastern but to Central Europe. The Hungarian masses rejected the East in 1956 and also in 1989.

What can we expect, what kind of reward from the Great Russian Empire? Nothing. Széchenyi and Kossuth already saw that. One must acknowledge and respect the Russians just as our distant relatives, the wise Finns, do. But we don’t have a place there. Accommodations with them cannot be the centerpiece of our endeavors. We honor their achievements, their great artists. But the spirit of the Hungarian mentality, the Hungarian intellect, Hungarian art and culture is western. Not Russian, not even American. Those who speak to us—in spite of all their greatness—are not so much Tolstoy or Dostoevsky as Dante, Shakespeare, Pascal, Goethe, and Tocqueville. The West was often our cross, but we must take it up because it is also our star. We should value our Russian neighbors but we must not accommodate them or fawn upon them because close association might be a lasting burden and a detriment to the Hungarian people for a long time to come.

Since 1989 we have been responsible for what we choose, what we do, and what we think. The Hungarian character and spirit are not eastern. Pax Vobiscum! These are the last words of the old Latin mass. Go in peace! But now Pax Nobis! Peace be with us!

Back to the Middle Ages: Viktor Orbán at the Christian Democratic International

I have been wondering for some time when it is that the media “experts” in the Prime Minister’s Office decide to publish his speeches in full on his own website and when they are satisfied with only a summary. Lately I’m coming to the conclusion that they opt for a summary when the exact words that were uttered are not really suitable for a wider audience. Or perhaps when the prime minister’s speech was delivered at a conference where others also had a chance to talk and might have voiced opinions that are not in line with those of Hungary’s prime minister.

I suspect the latter may have been the case with the speech delivered by Orbán at the conference (“On the Road to a Stronger Europe”) of the Christian Democratic International held in Budapest on October 11. At the core of the speech was Orbán’s belief that “the denial of work and prayer is the reason for the decline of Europe.” Or at least this is what the Prime Minister’s Office decided was worth promulgating.

According to the prime minister, Europe will be strong again if Europeans return to the path of Christianity and work. In fact, he talked about St. Benedict’s dictum “ora et labora” upon which medieval monasticism was based. In the early Middle Ages the Benedictine monasteries were indeed key centers of cultural life, perhaps the only centers. Church and state were one and the same, and the king, for example, Orbán’s idol, King Stephen I, could force his people to attend church every Sunday. But many centuries have passed since then and the world has changed a bit. Orbán, however, longs for the days of “ora et labora.” He went so far in this speech as to claim that the economic crisis that befell the world was caused by modern man’s abandonment of his inherited faith, which is the basis of all good in life: human dignity, freedom, duty, work, family, and nation. Including nation on this list is truly odd because, after all, the Catholic Church stands for universality as opposed to particularism.

The Rules of Saint Benedict /

The Rules of Saint Benedict /

Not only is it the case that Europeans in the western half of the continent are faithless but there is “today a veritable manhunt against those, mostly central-European politicians who dare to talk about the values of Christian Europe.” Surely, Orbán here is talking about himself. In this connection he mentioned the fact and called it a “gross falsification of history” that the European Constitution make no reference to the Christian heritage of Europe. But as Ferenc L. Lendvai, a philosopher, rightly pointed out, the EU Constitution doesn’t mention the humanism of antiquity either, although it is equally part of Europe’s heritage.

Orbán’s other complaint was that European countries, including naturally the European Union’s superstructure, have no leaders of quality. The institutions they head run on autopilot or, as he put it, they “resemble computers which work very nicely as long as the programs are good.” The world is still “waiting for the mathematicians with their new programs.” I suspect he now thinks of himself as a computer scientist of great mathematical skill. Europe needs leaders who can make brave decisions and who exhibit real commitment. He concluded with the pronouncement that “Europe must be liberated from the mistrust of the liberals and from the grips of greed.”

It looks as if other speakers didn’t quite agree with this not at all Christian Democratic speech. How could they when it is a commonplace by now that in Western European countries there is little difference between the left and the right when it comes to social policy? In this respect both the socialists and the Christian Democrats are “liberals.” So, attacking liberalism is not necessarily popular in parts west of Hungary.

Moreover, Viktor Orbán’s “teachings” have nothing to do with conservatism. He offers up hard right-national talk masked with fake religiosity in the belief that this will be enough for him (and Fidesz) to be accepted in the family of conservative European parties.

I’m almost certain that the majority of European politicians, including those sitting in the European People’s Party’s caucus, are sick and tired of the lectures Orbán frequently delivers. I also wonder what they think of his ill-disguised self-praise of his political abilities and the sharpness of his vision. As if he had the answers to all of today’s economic and social problems which others lack. This must be especially annoying to those who are familiar with the meager achievements of Orbán’s government. Starting with an inherited 1.5 percent economic growth, he led the country back into recession by 2012. Admittedly, if he keeps lying about economic figures abroad, just as he did in London only a few days ago, perhaps the truth can be hidden for a while. But not for ever.