Political Versus Economic Sovereignty

            In a speech before a youth group on July 26, Viktor Orbán, the popularly elected Prime Minister of Hungary, a state freed from the yoke of 40 years of autocracy in 1989, offered the following analysis of what he today understands to be the fatal frailties of liberal democratic regimes:

As the state is nothing else but a method of organizing a community, a community that in our case sometimes coincides with our country’s borders, sometimes not, but I will get back to that, the defining aspect of today’s world can be articulated as a race to figure out a way of organizing communities, a state that is most capable of making a nation competitive. This is why, Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen, a trending topic in thinking is understanding systems that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies, and yet making nations successful. Today, the stars of international analyses are Singapore, China, India, Turkey, Russia. And I believe that our political community rightly anticipated this challenge, and if we think back on what we did in the last four years, and what we are going to do in the following four years, than it really can be interpreted from this angle. We are searching for and we are doing our best to find – parting ways with Western European dogmas, making ourselves independent from them – the form of organizing a community, that is capable of making us competitive in this great world-race. … In order to be able to do this in 2010, and especially these days, we needed to courageously state a sentence, a sentence that similarly to the ones enumerated here was considered to be a sacrilege in the liberal world order. We needed to state that a democracy is not necessarily liberal. Just because something is not liberal, it still can be a democracy. Moreover, it could be and needed to be expressed, that probably societies founded upon the principle of the liberal way to organize a state will not be able to sustain their world-competitiveness in the following years, and more likely they will suffer a setback, unless they will be able to substantially reform themselves (http://hungarianspectrum.wordpress.com/2014/07/31/viktor-orbans-speech-atthe-xxv-balvanyos-free-summer-university-and-youth-camp-july-26-2014-baile-tusnad-tusnadfurdo/).

            In Orbán’s view, decentralized democratic liberal regimes that enshrine individual freedom as their highest aim are not growing economically as quickly now (and since the financial crisis of 2008) and are unlikely to do so again in the future due to the inequality, oligarchy, moral crisis and corruption they, in his view, now evidence (especially America). Meanwhile, the Hungarian leader argued those illiberal regimes that place the objective of securing economic growth for their nations above individual freedom, including those listed in the quotation above, are to be emulated, precisely because their recent growth rates have been robust. The Prime Minister’s argument has drawn wide attention since Hungary is a member of both NATO and the European Union and a previously Soviet-orbit socialist state whose population lacked individual liberty for several decades.

            Indeed, David Brooks of the New York Times recently used Orbán’s speech to contend that it suggests, for Africa especially, that the continent needs more self-grown billionaires to demonstrate the power of the liberal model so as to counter the Hungarian leader’s claims (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/05/opinion/david-brooks-the-battle-of-the-regimes.html?emc=edit_th_20140805&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=40087534). Otherwise, he argued, Africa will go the autocratic route as its nations grow economically.

            I want to argue that both Orbán and Brooks embrace a constricted and wrong-headed view of the aims of democratic governance and that their basic assumption that the appropriate yardstick for governance is economic growth ensures that the populations whose freedom and prosperity they seek to advance will enjoy neither in the long-term. As a corollary, I want also to contend that these authors’ assumption in favor of the market as appropriate arbiter of self-governance is not new, but when absolutized and accorded primary standing, as both seem willing to do, is nonetheless dangerous for freedom.

            Brooks and the Prime Minister alike, and not entirely implausibly, assumed that individuals will not support democracy and freedom unless they perceive that liberty will provide them ever higher levels of economic and material well-being. Both also posited that citizens will willingly trade a share of their personal freedom for additional prosperity—Orbán explicitly and Brooks implicitly. Indeed, the Hungarian leader forthrightly embraced that view in his speech and seems quite prepared to have his nation’s citizens enjoy less individual freedom if they can access more material bounty thereby.

            This sort of argument, if not its explicit acceptance of a tradeoff between consumer goods and advancement and freedom, is well worn. The United States government, for example, committed itself in the Employment Act of 1946 to create “conditions under which there will be afforded useful employment for those able, willing, and seeking work, and to promote maximum, production, and purchasing power.” The nation further specified that responsibility in the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978 (The Humphrey-Hawkins Act) by obligating itself to ensuring that unemployment not exceed 3 percent for those 20 years of age and older and that inflation not exceed 3 percent, too, unless economic conditions dictated otherwise. In short, the United States has long embraced economic prosperity as a central aspiration of democratic governance, if not its highest goal. In this sense, in reminding his audience of a very human electoral reality, Orbán was not offering a new claim. Moreover, history is replete with examples of fearful citizens, who cannot (or fear they will not be able to) feed their families, proving quite willing to embrace choices and leaders who demand a sacrifice of freedom for promises of prosperity. And United States and other Western world leaders have certainly recognized that reality and acted to ensure against it without at the same time being willing, historically at least, to contend that governance is simply about material prosperity.

            Rather, what is new is for Orbán to contend forthrightly that a nation should be willing to reduce the freedom its population enjoys in the name of ensuring prosperity. For the Prime Minister, material advancement has become the highest aspiration for democratic governance. Curiously, this is also true indirectly for Brooks, who chose to defend liberal democracy not by highlighting the wide-ranging personal freedom it ensures, but by suggesting that it soon must produce more very rich folks in Africa or those nations will go the route of autocracy. That is, in this view, freedom is valuable only to the extent that it can provide populations more material goods than other regime forms, since human beings cannot be expected to support it for its own sake. For Brooks, as for Orbán, the market is an appropriate cardinal aim and arbiter for self-governance. Indeed, ultimately material goods eclipse freedom in social significance.

            For the government official and the columnist, freedom and self-governance are yoked to the needs of the market. That is, democratic governance is the handmaiden of the perceived needs of economic growth. For the Prime Minister, the tradeoff is explicit and that fact requires a clearly articulated understanding that, to put the matter crassly, “more goodies may mean less freedom.” Brooks is certainly subtler in his argument, but his vision ultimately is not unlike that of the Hungarian leader. Nonetheless, freedom cannot be the secondary aim of democratic governance if it is to be preserved. Once harnessed to other aims, as Orbán made clear, it can be sacrificed on apparently “practical grounds,” in part or in whole. That possibility should be unacceptable to any friend of individual liberty.

            Human beings will always press their elected leaders to help to ensure their livelihoods and democratic governments may rightly be expected to respond. But that willingness cannot include sacrificing freedom. The desire for material well-being and the obeisance to the market associated with it cannot eclipse freedom as a self-governing people’s primary overarching goal. If it does, one may expect, as Orbán argued (and unfortunately advocated), the withering of freedom and the human possibility it symbolizes. The question that ever confronts democratic peoples and their leaders is whether they can be sufficiently self-disciplined to prevent that eventuality. On the evidence provided recently by the Hungarian Prime Minister and the popular commentator, all who favor freedom’s preservation have a right to be deeply concerned.