Impromptus

Freedom Fighter, Part IV

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: In recent weeks, Jay Nordlinger sat down with János Horváth, a distinguished Hungarian: a fighter against the Nazis, and a prisoner of them; a fighter against the Communists, and a prisoner of them; a leader of the 1956 revolution; an economist and free-marketeer; an exile in the United States for more than 40 years; now the oldest member of the Hungarian parliament, as he was the youngest after World War II. The preceding parts of this interview series are at the following links: I, II, and III. The series concludes today.

You will recall that we were talking about President Obama. I had asked Horváth about him — “What is he?” — and he replied, “I think he is a curious man trying to understand himself. I’m a man of good will, and I like to think that he, too, is a man of good will. But he is stumbling, and he is doing certain things in areas that he doesn’t know enough about.”

Then I ask Horváth, “Do you think he’s a victim, in a sense, of a left-wing education” (the kind of education many of us had)? I’m thinking of what he learned about economics. I’m also thinking of what he learned about the Middle East. Frankly, I’m thinking of what he learned about nearly everything.

Horváth says, “Yes, probably.” He goes on to say something playful, but serious. “When you’re a surgeon or a pilot, you have to be precise. You have to know what you’re doing. But the realm of law or politics is much different. In these fields, the performance indicators are looser,” to put it mildly. There is “a more roundabout complexity.”

He further says he can understand the happiness America felt when it elected a black president. He remembers the happiness people felt when they elected a Catholic president in 1960. And so it will be with a woman president, a Hispanic president, a Jewish president (maybe), an Asian president . . . “America feels she lives up to her own image in this process.”

Well, what does Horváth think of America’s new health law, “Obamacare”? He says that politics and economics are in conflict. Political needs or desires have won out over sound economics.

“There are several ways to do health care well,” he says. You can have private enterprise, which is best. Or you can have “the social medicine of Sweden or Canada.” Even this is better than what the U.S. currently has, says Horváth. He says we spend a great deal on health care and get outcomes not much better, if better at all, than those of countries that spend a lot less.

“A country that prides itself on economic success should not be doing this badly,” says Horváth. “If I were an American prophet, I would stand on every street corner and say, ‘We ought to spread ashes on our heads. We should be ashamed at what is happening to us.’ One could understand how it happened to the stupid Soviet Union. But for the U.S. to go bankrupt?”

Horváth hastens to say that the U.S. is not bankrupt. Still, we are in a terrible predicament.

I like to ask people who love America — foreigners who love America — “Tell us our faults. What’s wrong with America? I know you love the place, but friends can point out friends’ faults.”

Like everybody else (in my experience), Horváth hesitates. Then he says, “Americans should know better the assets they have. I’m not talking about petroleum or gold or whatever. I’m talking about institutions. In all of world history, the American institutional framework is the best that has ever been. Representative government. You can elect someone, reelect someone, and unelect someone. It is very rare in the world to unelect someone.

“This is being done in a humane, civilized fashion. We don’t go around hitting or kicking or murdering one another. The mechanism works.”

Then there is the free market. “America doesn’t know how important this is, what a blessing it is. You have a choice of shoes, a choice of homes, a choice of almost everything. The free market is frequently viewed as exploitation, and some of Mr. Obama’s people are inclined to think this way.” But, allowed to function properly, the free market is a great “blessing.”

Horváth continues, “Monopolistic and oligarchic processes must not be allowed to prevail. In recent decades, competitiveness has been slipping. In the 1950s and ’60s, the economy was more competitive than it is today. The anti-trust laws were taken seriously. Today there is more monopoly, and that restrains economic activity. The monopolist is better off producing less, not more.

“Some Americans don’t know this, and some politicians make accommodations with the monopolists. America must watch this.”

Let’s talk about decline. Give it to me straight. Are we going downhill? Is America in decline?

Horváth takes a deep breath and says, “America is declining, but when I say ‘declining,’ I say it very cautiously. By what measures is America declining? By the measures of her potential. America is not at her potential, so, compared with where she could be, she is in decline. She is behind her own capabilities. We might say that this is a sin of omission. A sin of omission is when you could be doing something good but aren’t.

“America has tremendous human resources. Democracy, the free market, an institutional framework. In light of these God-given assets, America is not where she could be.”

I ask Horváth about great men and women he has known. Whom has he really admired? I’m sure there are many, but can he give me just one name, right off the bat? He names Ferenc Nagy, the prime minister of Hungary in that brief, brief period after the war when Hungary was free and democratic. (Horváth, remember, served as an economic adviser to Nagy.)

We talk a bit about Reagan. “Was he smart?” I say. “Oh, yes, very,” replies Horváth. Horváth got to know him through Indiana politics, and it happened this way: Reagan campaigned all over the state for Ed Whitcomb, the former governor. Whitcomb was running for the Republican Senate nomination. (He would lose it to Richard Lugar.) Horváth joined Whitcomb and Reagan on the campaign trail. He was economic adviser to the former (as to Nagy!).

Horváth would talk to Reagan about economics. Reagan would say, “János, you know my attention span for economics: I can listen for eight or ten minutes, but you’ve gone on for twelve. Tell me about the Hungarian Revolution!” He took a very great interest in these events, and knew a lot about them.

Horváth has written a paper on this — a little remembrance — here.

I can’t help saying to Horváth, “Hungary is such a little country, in population. Why have so many great musicians come out of there? Composers, pianists, violinists, everybody.” He says, “God is good to us.” He says that Hungary is way out of proportion in physicists, too.

About the people at large, he says, “They like to like what they do. They are talented. They like to work and they like to feel good about what they’re doing.”

He recalls an American businessman who had invested in Hungary. One night, in Hungary, he was driving back to the airport when he realized he had forgotten some blueprints. So, he drove back to the plant. It was midnight when he got there — and he was astonished to find a group of his engineers and technicians, still hard at work. They were puzzling something out. They weren’t getting paid overtime or anything — they were just carried away in the excitement of solving a problem.

Do you want more János Horváth? So do I, but that will be it, for this series. Thanks for joining me — us — and I’ll see you soon.

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