Yesterday U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell gave a speech at the Central European University about American perspectives on migration, security, and foreign policy. There was a lot of talk about the rule of law, democracy, equality, and human rights, and naturally about “the cancer of corruption.” The ambassador highlighted once again the obvious negative effects of corruption. “It hurts economic growth, it alienates and angers citizens. Business owners can’t compete when the rules favor a select few with strong ties to a government. Citizens feel betrayed when their taxes are being used to line the pockets of public servants, elected officials, and their family members, instead of providing the services and security that citizens pay for and require from the state.”
Of course, Colleen Bell’s description of the kind of corruption that exists in Hungary is correct, but I’m afraid that these repeated warnings will have no effect whatsoever on the systemic corruption of the Orbán government–for the simple reason that corruption is the raison d’être of the regime. This opinion doesn’t come from some ill-willed critic of Viktor Orbán’s political system but from the chief ideologist of the regime, András Lánczi, who was just chosen to be the next president of Corvinus University at Viktor Orbán’s request. An odd choice because Lánczi is allegedly a political philosopher and Corvinus is supposed to turn out economists.
Lánczi came late to philosophy. As a student he was a triple major in English, Hungarian, and history, and after graduation he taught high school in Budapest for years. In 1986, however, without any formal training in philosophy, he got a job as an editor of Világosság, a philosophical review which by self-definition was anti-religious. It was József Lukács, the editor-in-chief of Világosság, who invited him to join the staff. Lukács’s own “philosophical training” consisted of finishing the communist party’s Marxist “college” (pártfőiskola) in 1949.
It was only after the regime change that Lánczi’s scholarly career was launched. Attila Ágh, a political scientist today close to MSZP, invited him to teach at the institution now known as Corvinus. His first published works, translations of a couple of books of Leo Strauss, appeared in 1994. A blog writer who is highly critical of Lánczi described him as someone “who before the regime change had carried on about the necessity of communist-Christian dialogue but then quickly switched to the worldview of [the anti-Semitic] István Csurka’s dramas. This is how he became the leader of the half-educated Hungarian elite’s conservative section who now can lay the moral foundations of Viktor Orbán’s new order.” The blog writer compares him to Martin Heidegger, who all his post-war life tried to explain the inexplicable, why he offered his services to Hitler. Heidegger, however, can be understood without Hitler, but “Lánczi doesn’t even exist without Orbán.” After reading some of his “philosophical conversations” that have appeared of late, I have to agree with the blogger.
Lánczi gave a long interview to Magyar Idők, the slavishly pro-government paper, in December, during which he explained that the “alleged corruption” is not corruption in the ordinary meaning of the word.
Was the communist nationalization after 1948 corruption or the privatization of regime change after 1989? What [the critics of the Orbán regime] call corruption in practical terms is the most important policy goal of Fidesz. What do I mean? The government puts forth such goals as the creation of a domestic entrepreneurial class, or the building of the pillars of a strong Hungary in agriculture and industry…. [The critics] call that corruption…. Corruption has thirteen or fourteen different definitions, but among them there is no such thing as corruption when we do something in the interest of the nation. One can call it corruption, but whoever makes that claim is deceiving himself…. That’s why it is a mistake to use the expression “mafia state.” What comes to mind when one hears the word “mafia”? The physical annihilation of one’s enemies. Who got killed here, I ask.
Lánczi is right that the wholesale nationalization of most private property after 1948 cannot be called corruption. It was expropriation, confiscation, stealing. And yes, it was an important part of the regime’s very existence, which strove to bring about blissful communism. We can also go back in time and recall the Horthy regime’s resolve from its inception to curb the “Jewish predominance in industry, commerce, and the so-called free professions.” This resolve was eventually translated into the seizure of all Jewish property. Surely, it was part of the ideology of the regime. Did this make it right or acceptable? Of course not.
Of late Lánczi has been giving one interview after the other. One such outrageous discussion took place in Gábor G. Fodor’s 888.hu. By the way, G. Fodor was Lánczi’s favorite student, with whom he even published a book in 2009. Lánczi outlined his belief that “we,” I guess Viktor Orbán and his followers, are working on “the moral foundations of a new order.” Their “morality” is not, however, what we normally think of. In his radically relativistic opinion, “everybody possesses morality. The only question is what he considers to be such.” Thus in Lánczi’s world, calling corruption part of the moral foundation of Orbán’s system is entirely reasonable and defensible.
Lánczi also has interesting ideas about public and private money. Critics of György Matolcsy are upset about the chairman of the Hungarian National Bank funneling huge sums of public money into private foundations, but Lánczi asks: “What is the money of György Soros? Where does a speculator’s money come from? Let’s say that through shorting one fleeces the British treasury. In that case, one creates private out of public money. Isn’t it so?” Or later on. “I’m no great Soros expert, but it is worth taking a look at his biography. He was a totally average fellow for some time until one day he appeared out of nowhere like a meteor. At that point something must have happened. Somebody for some reason put him in this position. He received such means that he managed to achieve fame and fortune.” What a primitive conspiracy theory, and what ignorance of the financial world. And this man is the chief ideologist of Orbán. We shouldn’t be surprised that the prime minister himself is so muddle-minded.
As one commentator remarked, Lánczi’s explanation of corruption means that “Fidesz steals not only our money but also our right to become outraged.” Indeed, in Lánczi’s world anything goes.