Magazine | October 20, 2014, Issue

When Liberalisms Collide

What the Hungarian prime minister meant by “liberal democracy”

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s thrice-elected prime minister, dominates his country’s politics. Recently reelected with a two-thirds parliamentary majority (for the second time), he has a claim to be the most successful conservative leader in Europe. Outside Hungary, however, he is portrayed — usually but not solely by politicians and media of the Left — as a Putin-style authoritarian who is demolishing democracy right by right; a poster child for populist authoritarianism in civilian mufti.

My skeptical take on this can be found in the current Hungarian Review. It was uphill work, however, not least because Orban recently delivered a speech in which he seemingly repudiated liberal democracy and embraced “illiberal democracy” instead. That was interpreted, not unreasonably, as a confirmation of the Left’s hostile critique from the horse’s mouth.

My own reaction? I was overcome by a feeling of déjà vu. I remembered the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s famous remark — “There is no such thing as society.”

She would never escape from that remark, or, rather, from a serious misinterpretation of it. For it really meant the opposite of what it seemed to say when wrenched from context. Her full answer argued that society was not a “thing” — an abstract entity out there — but was composed of ordinary men and women, their families, and their associations, from churches to tennis clubs. We all had to earn any resources needed to provide for ourselves and for those less fortunate. That was all laid out quite explicitly in the few sentences that followed. But they were almost never quoted. Her apparent denial of society’s existence was all people heard. And that played into the left-wing caricature of her as a heartless, antisocial individualist.

At the time, I recalled Willmoore Kendall on Barry Goldwater’s declaration “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Kendall, a distinguished philosopher who admired Goldwater, said wryly: “There’s nothing wrong with that statement that couldn’t be put right by a hundred thousand well-chosen words.”

Somewhat fewer words are needed to correct any misunderstanding of Viktor Orban’s remarks on liberal democracy. The key is that he used the term — and in particular the “liberal” half of it — in a special sense unfamiliar to people outside Hungary. He was not attacking liberalism in the sense either of the traditional freedoms of speech, inquiry, association, etc., or of their constitutional protections. He specified this clearly by saying that “an illiberal state, a non-liberal state” would not “deny the foundational values of liberalism, as freedom, etc.” Orban might have said that more often and more forcefully, but he did say it. As with Mrs. Thatcher, however, that crucial qualification has rarely been quoted in reports of the speech or in commentaries on it. In other words, Orban’s remark was a critique of ideas that have come to be described as liberalism in the Hungarian political context.

Liberalism is, of course, a protean set of ideas. Its three most common meanings are (1) the broad tradition of constitutional liberty summarized in the above paragraph; (2) classical liberalism (a.k.a. neoliberalism), or a broad reliance on free-market economics; and (3) “progressive” state intervention, initially in economic policy, more recently in education and social mores, sometimes enforced by cultural coercion, a.k.a. “political correctness.” We are all liberals in the sense of (1), including Orban; most conservatives and a few in other parties are liberals (2); and the Left parties on both sides of the Atlantic are liberals (3), though many Christian Democrats are also drifting idly in that direction. So what did Orban mean by the word?

An exasperated Milton Friedman once remarked that in Britain in the 1980s, monetarism was “whatever Margaret Thatcher did.” An irritated member of Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour cabinet defined British socialism in the 1940s as “whatever the Labour government does.” And in present-day Hungary, “liberalism” is whatever the neo-socialist governments of 1994–98 and 2002–10 did.

There is a modicum of justification for this definition. Self-described liberals were in those governments; they pursued policies that they called liberal or neoliberal; it is even true that some of their policies were liberal in the sense of liberalism (3). Not all their policies, of course. “Liberalism” and “neoliberalism” are very bad shorthand for borrowing money from abroad, using it unproductively to bribe the voters, and handing the resulting indebtedness on to the next government. Margaret Thatcher’s definition of socialism — “running out of other people’s money” — would seem to fit the policy better. In the event, however, when this neo-socialist policy was abandoned in 2010, the good name of liberalism was among the collateral damage.

#page#There are dangers for the Right in embracing this definition of liberalism. One danger — which plainly tempts Hungary’s conservative nationalists — is to confuse state ownership with national control. With a few narrow “strategic” exceptions, this is almost always a mistake. When a government owns an industry, the industry owns the government. A state airline losing money will press the government to protect it with subsidies, barriers to entry, and costly regulations on low-cost competitors. Prices then rise (or fail to fall as they otherwise would), innovation declines, and the state carrier faces bankruptcy anyway. When enough industries are on the state payroll, you eventually reach the public/private reality described by the English economist Arthur Shenfield: “The private sector is controlled by the government, and the public sector isn’t controlled by anyone.” That’s not Hungary today. The country has one of the smallest public sectors in Europe. But conservative attacks on neoliberalism point that way.

If Orban was not attacking traditional liberalism in his speech, however, what was he attacking? The answer to that question lies in the tension between liberalism and democracy. Democracy is about who exercises power and how they get to exercise it; liberalism is about the limits on their exercise of power. In principle, the dividing line between these two is simple: A constitution establishes rules restraining the government (it can’t cancel elections; it can’t imprison people without due legal process; etc.), and a constitutional court interprets these rules, sometimes overriding laws or government regulations. A constitutional court cannot lawfully rewrite the rules; and a government can do so only if it is given a supermajority by the electorate.

Clashes arise in two circumstances. The first is when an elected government rejects constitutional limits on its authority — which Orban never needed to do, since his supermajority enabled him to rewrite the constitution legally. The second is when a constitutional court exceeds its authority by making laws rather than interpreting them. Both sets of clashes are increasingly driven by a third factor: the growing tension between liberalism (1) and liberalism (3).

Traditional liberalism assumed that people would differ in various ways — rich vs. poor, religious vs. secular, enlightened vs. custom-bound — and drew up laws intended to minimize and arbitrate the conflicts between them. Liberalism (3), however, thinks that whole classes of people — the religious, the custom-bound, the narrowly patriotic, the sexually conservative, adherents and members of the traditional family — are the prisoners of their own prejudices and the unwitting oppressors of those with opposing beliefs. Both groups should therefore be liberated from the prejudices of the former.

Because all the prejudiced might well amount to an electoral majority if they were added up, however, liberals (3) cannot trust democracy to pass the laws that would achieve universal liberation. So they seek to “constitutionalize” the rights of oppressed minorities and to limit the power of democratic majorities to object to the consequences. As rights multiply, democracy exercises less and less control over government and law. Liberalism is transformed from procedural rules into substantive policies enforced by courts, treaties, and international agencies. And the voters lose all influence over how they are governed — or indeed oppressed.

That is what Orban attacked when he attacked “liberal democracy.” Oddly enough, it is what modern liberal elites in Europe and America mean when they talk of liberal democracy too. But it is liberal only by a recent and very questionable definition of liberalism that rests uneasily on Rousseau’s notion that democratic citizens can be “forced to be free,” and it is democratic only insofar as it holds elections (from which its managers seek to drain all significance).

If we have to yoke these two words together to describe the political system of modern Europe, “undemocratic liberalism” would be the least bad coinage. Orban is right to reject the thing and to search for a better thing with a better name. To propose “illiberal democracy” for either, however, risks losing too much that is valuable — notably liberalisms (1), the great 19th-century tradition of constitutional liberty he explicitly endorsed, and (2), the classical-liberal tradition in economics that has lifted the world from near-universal poverty to mass prosperity.

Besides, I see no good reason to surrender liberal democracy, either as a term or as a system, to the Sixty-Eighters, nomenklaturas, and apparatchiks who have stolen and degraded it. Orban is a fighter; I trust he will come to see it that way.

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