On January 7 only a few people, mostly bloggers who spend a lot of time on the Internet, especially on Facebook, noticed that the Budapest section of the Association of Young Christian Democrats (Ifjú Kereszténydemokraták Szövetsége / IKSZ) was planning to gather to discuss Hungary’s demographic woes and possible remedies, like extra levies on single adults over the age of 24 or barring women with fewer than three children from important positions in the public sphere. That would mean, for instance, that “underperforming” women in healthcare and education could not become department heads, principals, or full professors. As it turned out, the Young Christian Democrats were inspired by a newly published book, At the Edge of the Precipice, written by József Benda.
To me József Benda is something of a mystery. In an article on him that appeared in Magyar Nemzet he is described as a sociologist. In another article he is said to run a private, experimental school based on a teaching method called “humanistic cooperative teaching.” Apparently Benda started his school, the Humánus Alapítványi Általános Iskola, in Újpest in 1982. Elsewhere Benda is presented as a university professor at the Budapest Metropolitan University, the largest private university in Hungary with master’s programs in communication and media studies, management and leadership, tourism management, and graphic design. In the last few years Benda seems to have devoted his time and energy to the study of demography. He is trying to find answers to the dwindling Hungarian population.
József Benda is no stranger to KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party). In fact it was the party’s foundation, the Barankovics István Alapítvány, that supported his book’s publication, which approaches Hungary’s demographic problem from an entirely new angle. If I understand it correctly, in Benda’s opinion the reason today’s adults don’t want to have children is because in their childhood they missed a close and loving relationship with their mother due to the mother’s role as a wage earner. Well, I for one don’t buy Benda’s hypothesis, but if he had been satisfied with proposing a theoretical explanation for the low birth rate, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Unfortunately, he has scores of “suggestions” for how to remedy the situation. And the vehicle for his thoughts is the Christian Democratic Party.
The idea of a debate on Benda’s ideas organized by the Young Christian Democrats was quickly abandoned. As Népszabadság noted, they got scared by the vehemence of the negative reaction all around. As soon as the paper reported on the forthcoming debate, the chairman of IKSZ phoned. He denied that he himself had anything to do with the gathering and later announced that the group “supports the government, whose policy is to lower taxes” and therefore it doesn’t support any punitive tax on childless women.
Benda’s ideas are truly outlandish, as we will see a bit later, but the problem is that some of them have been circulating in Fidesz circles for a number of years. As early as 2006 Fidesz talked about an extra tax on childless people. In fact, during the campaign Orbán promised that if Fidesz wins the election they will introduce a tax policy where childless people will pay three times more taxes than those with three children. Luckily for people without children Viktor Orbán lost the election.
In June 2010, however, the topic surfaced again. Peter Boross, former prime minister and now an adviser to Orbán, suggested the introduction of an extra levy on childless people. At the same time an association established to represent the interests of large families suggested a 10% surcharge “to put an end to individual selfishness.” So, although Benda’s ideas might be outlandish, it is not outside the realm of possibilities that the Orbán government is seriously thinking about introducing some kind of punitive taxation on couples without children despite the fact that the Young Christian Democrats retreated.
Today HVG’s print edition reported that KDNP not only subsidized Benda’s book but most likely also asked him to develop an “action plan.” This action plan is truly outlandish. First of all, most of the suggestions are highly discriminatory. For example, Benda recommends an extra levy only on single women over the age of thirty, as if women alone were responsible for bringing a child into the world. These women would have to contribute financially to families with many children. Benda recommends limitations on abortions for women between the ages of 35 and 40. Infertile women may hire surrogates, something that is currently illegal in Hungary. Benda suggests easier adoption of infants, even from war-torn areas outside of Hungary. Placing babies before the age of one in day care or a nursery school should be forbidden. College students should receive stipends if they are ready to produce children during their college years. Every workplace with ten or more employees, including private companies, should hire a “demographic commissioner” who would be responsible for limiting the workload of women between the ages of 35 and 42. The government should launch a media campaign showing the success stories of women who gave birth at the age of 40. The government should financially support people’s dating, their weddings, the birth of their children, etc.
Hungarians by now know only too well that once these kinds of stories circulate, regardless of how crazy they sound, the government will eventually come up with something that it deems essential for its plans. Since traditional methods for boosting the Hungarian birthrate haven’t worked, they are willing to try unconventional ideas.
The kind of demographic change Viktor Orbán is dreaming about did happen in the early 1950s during the Rákosi period, when the government forbade the performance of abortions and levied extra taxes on childless men between the ages of 20 and 50 and childless women between the ages of 20 and 45. As a result, in 1952 the birth rate spiked: 250,000 babies were born. These people, now in their sixties, are called the Ratkó babies, after Anna Ratkó, who was the minister of health at the time. But then there was no pill and the borders were sealed.
Reading Benda’s wish list, one has the distinct feeling that he wants a dramatic change in the next year or two because otherwise the problem cannot be remedied. But without another set of “Ratkó babies” it cannot be done, and I very much doubt that the Orbán government would dare to cut back on the availability of abortions. Such a move could be suicidal.
In any case, Zita Gurmai (MSZP), former EP member, wants to know the truth: what Viktor Orbán is contemplating. She suspects that if Hungarians are not watchful, the same thing will happen to them that happened when the Christian Democrats insisted on closing stores on Sunday. First the government denies any such plans and then one day they become reality.