Yesterday I mentioned two fundamental differences in the outlook of the Hungarian Left and the Right. Both concern history. The first is the way people look at the recent past, the Kádár regime, and the second is their response to the Treaty of Trianon.
Today I'm moving on to a much thornier problem: what does social democracy mean? What should the modern Left be like today? Ferenc Gyurcsány goes back to the nineteenth century when workers demanded work and bread. Today some people in Hungary think that the state should provide much more than bread without work. High living standards without much effort. Gyurcsány doesn't subscribe to that view. Just the opposite. Yes, the Left should help the poor, should fight against injustice, but there must be some effort by the individual.
Gyurcsány tells one of his favorite stories about individual effort and the common good. When modern supermarkets were introduced in Hungary, complete with shopping carts and parking lots, people left their carts wherever it was convenient. No one paid any attention to the signs asking people to return the carts to designated places. Then the stores introduced a new regimen. They put a lock on each cart that could be opened only by inserting a coin. Shoppers got the money back when they returned the cart. Behold, the new system was instantaneously successful because it was in people's interest to walk a few meters. Was it worth the extra effort? Yes, says Gyurcsány, it was.
His personal experience and public opinion polls tell him that there are two conflicting patterns of behavior in Hungary. A lot of people are looking for more and more work, more and more opportunity, more and more effort. But there are those who are only looking forward to retirement, to getting money on the side in the grey economy and perhaps some state assistance in addition. "The essence of the Left is work, study, and accomplishment." But, Gyurcsány continues, for a lot of people the Left became synonymous with assistance and subsidies. "I must repeat, being Left also includes a positive relationship to work."
According to Gyurcsány one must stand by the worker but one should not provide for those who avoid work. One mustn't spend the hard earned money of the taxpayers on those who refuse to make an effort on their own and their family's behalf. Gyurcsány asks: "Do I then talk against solidarity? Of course not! But one must feel solidarity only with those who are willing to make an effort." One must judge the cases individually and not give assistance as an entitlement.
Now, mind you, some people would say that this is not a socialist attitude. This is more typical of the exponents of liberalism. For instance, Hungarian liberals argued against giving child support to all families regardless of income, including those of Gyurcsány or Viktor Orbán. They also opposed the blanket rule that each child in families with more than three children can have free lunches at school and free textbooks. Both the Orbán and the Gyurcsány families' children were entitled to free lunches, though I know for a fact that the Gyurcsánys didn't take advantage of it.
But to change this attitude one needs time and reeducation. And Hungarians are very resistant to change. I'm watching with great interest the reactions in my hometown to the very positive changes that have been taking place. Pécs was chosen to be one of the cultural capitals of Europe for 2010. A lot of money came their way for projects that of course involved construction and some inconvenience for the inhabitants. But the overall results should be welcome. For instance, the city's library buildings were totally inadequate. None of them were built to store books. One of the more important projects is building a library center to which the books of all the libraries, including the university library, will be transferred.
The response? The library will be too far! Too far from what? Well, of course, from the house of the individual who is complaining. Does the complainer actually use the library? No, but others do and they complain. In brief, a lot of people are stuck in a rut in Hungary. They complain a lot and refuse to put any effort into anything. Every time I hear people complaining about this or that I ask why they don't do something about it. If they don't like Fidesz or don't like MSZP why don't they get engaged? Oh, no, they don't want to do that. They just keep complaining instead.
Gyurcsány is a frustrated educator. He knows that the country must change but the people don't want to make those fundamental changes necessary for renewal. And that is undoubtedly the case with the renewal of the socialist party as well. Whoever heads this effort will have a heck of a time of it.