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).”

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“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.