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Column on More Foibles of Unlimited Democracy

More Foibles of Unlimited Democracy

Tibor R. Machan

It is certainly no secret that while democracy has certain merits as a method for reaching political decisions, it is liable to be abused without those limits. American democracy was always feared, even by the framers, and unless it is restrained by a good, just constitution, it can get way out of hand. It can turn into mobocracy, nearly as bad as an out and out dictatorship.

Unfortunately many who desire serious political change stop at democracy and do not proceed to consider its proper limits. This is what afflicts many countries across the globe, including most of those in the Middle East just now in upheaval. The countries that used to be Soviet colonies as recently as the 1980s are also struggling with just what kind of democracy should be adopted for them. Not very surprisingly while a good many embrace the democratic process, very often when this yields exactly the results one would expect–namely, produces public policies that the majority (more or less) wants–complaints are voiced about these results as if it weren’t crystal clear that the process will often yield something many citizens do not want. But if one really just wants pure democracy, no constitutional restraints with it, how can one complain? It makes no sense. That is just what a limitless democracy will yield, policies that most but definitely not all support. It is a bit like a jury driven courts system–whatever the jury decides has to be deemed acceptable (yes, even when the defendant is one O. J. Simpson).

In Hungary, for example a recent constitutional upheaval involves the democratically elected Fidesz Party which is changing the constitution in ways many are protesting. The size of the national debt is now limited, which of course doesn’t sit well with those who have dreams as their guide for public policy, kind of like our own liberal democrats. When one wants to base policies on fantasies like unlimited, costless indebtedness, ignoring the burdens of nonvoting future generations, constitutional limits on the debt will be upsetting.

Yet if that is what the democratic processes yields, how can champions of unlimited democracy protest? The Hungarians are also facing numerous other measures, such as officially stressing Hungary’s Christian roots (which of course doesn’t sit well with quite a few Hungarians). With the super-majority, the Fidesz Party is pushing for measures in education and even the media–they have no first amendment there, which would ban using the power of this super-majority from dictating matters in these areas–that limit the liberties of millions of Hungarians. Yet, so long as they simply want majority rule, they have nothing to complain about.

In America, too, there is a lot of fuss about what Republicans and, especially, Tea Party members and supporters want to make into public policy, despite the fact that this is just what is yielded up with the democratic process, one so eagerly embraced precisely by those who don’t like what the Republicans and Tea Party folks propose for the country. Well, sorry about that but you cannot have it both way–unlimited democracy with restrictions on what may be enacted. You have to take your pick. Will democracy be limited in its scope, in what may come under majority rule, or will it be the bloated kind which can extend to regimenting virtually everything in the country? When a party enjoys strong support, big numbers, the latter tends to be favored by its members; when it doesn’t well then limitations are urged upon it.

The real answer is to have democracy seriously confined to some issues, such as who will administer the laws of the land (but not to what those laws will be, which is supposed to be what the constitution determines). Some minor exceptions would involved the amendment process which would get supervision from the Supreme Court so it doesn’t amount to altering the principles on which he country’s laws rest. But majorities would not be permitted to transform the country into something alien like a socialist of fascist system. For that one would need a revolution, which is not easy to get under way.

It is understandable why elsewhere democracies are highly prized, limits or no limits. That’s because ordinary folks throughout human history have had little say about their political circumstances and with democracy they get some. But that’s just the beginning. The limits on democracy are as important as democracy itself.

Essay on Hungary’s Malaise

Hungary’s Malaise:
(Introduction to A Brief On Business Ethics, Hungarian Edition)

by Tibor R. Machan

Shortly after Hungary set off the fall of Soviet-style socialism in 1989, when that country’s rulers allowed visitors from what then was East Germany to leave without any hindrance for West Germany, my mother, who had lived there for all of her life before being allowed to leave in 1975, made some interesting predictions. The decision by the Hungarian rulers was the first step toward the dismantling of the Soviet Empire. But my mother thought it wouldn’t necessarily lead to panacea.
Her idea came back to me during the last few days when Prime Minister Ference Gyurcsany, identified by some as “the golden boy” of Hungary’s Socialist Party, got himself into serious trouble with many Hungarians for having admitted, in a leaked closed-door party conference speech, that during his two years term as Prime Minister and the Socialist (post-communist) Party leader for the 2006 election which he and his party won, he was lying about the country’s economy “morning, evening and night.” Given that this was said in a recording that captured his own voice, Gyurcsany could not and never did deny that he made that statement.

What my mother said to me back after the fall of the Soviet-style socialists was that unless all those who were part of the old, communist regime were put in jail, the country would eventually be retaken by the former bosses because there was no group of classical liberal leaders ready to lead the country away from its dismal socialist past. She was confident that without such a group of new leaders, with genuinely new ideas, Hungary would slowly return to its old socialist ways.
What my mother said seemed to me to echo the more scholarly reflections of Professor Janos Kornai, in his book Road to the Free Market Economy: Shifting from a Socialist System the Example of Hungary (Viking, 1990).

What Kornai focused on, in particular, is the temptation faced by the newly reconstituted but unreconstructed socialists — who were welcomed by the post-Soviet regime to take part in Hungary’s political affairs — to produce a nominal free market system that is, in reality, merely a bit different from the old socialist economy. In short, they would attempt to forge a powerful welfare state, promising to provide all the impossible perks of the old regime, only without the accompanying totalitarian politics. Kornai warned that this is going to be impossible and will simply lead to economic collapse. As the saying goes, you cannot squeeze blood out of a turnip. A broken economy like that produced under Soviet-style socialism simply cannot sustain the burdens of a welfare state. Why?
Because where there is no wealth, one simply cannot steal much. While Kornai was too polite to put it just this way, the plain fact is that a welfare state depends on there being a sufficient number of wealthy enough people from whom the government can steal so as to provide the perks the politicians are always tempted to promise to the voters.

Hungarians are arguably experiencing the consequences of not heeding Kornai’s advice, and of failing to come up with a genuine free market political leadership. Instead, for more than two decades, the country has been trying to make do with a hodge-podge post-Soviet regime that fails to actually give up the socialist dream. Most recently a new tax was voted in on banks, never mind that taxes are, as in most places, choking the country already and the credit crunch is killing economic growth.

While a country such as the United States of America can get away with such a hodge-podge system, since its basic infrastructure has for many decades provided reasonably firm protection to basic classical liberal institutions — e.g., the right to private property, freedom of contract, civil liberties, etc. — in Hungary there is no comparable history to fall back upon. So once the barrel has been scraped, there is nothing more left to steal. There are no rich companies, rich individuals, rich investors and so on who could be conscripted to come up with the funds to sustain the welfare state.

Given this reality, what else can a socialist do but lie, lie and lie some more? And once the citizens of the country discover this — and that’s one benefit of having left the Soviet-style system behind, namely, considerable openness about what politicians are doing — the regime will meet with plenty of opposition. And this is why the PM was urged to resign. He was reluctant to do so but it is difficult to see where he could go after this. The jig is up, as the saying goes.

There is no socialist miracle. Unless the country generates some solid non-socialist leadership and these will persuade the citizenry to have some patience while the economy recovers, prospects for peace and prosperity are dim.

Interview by The Daily Bell (URL)