It was exactly a year ago that I wrote about the “József Eötvös Group,” organized by a number of conservative economists and legal scholars. In the choice of its name, the group honors József Eötvös (1813-1871), who was minister of education in 1848 and again between 1867 and 1871. Eötvös, along with Ferenc Deák and István Széchenyi, is one of the few admirable nineteenth-century Hungarian politicians whose moderating influence was eventually overshadowed by nationalist politicians with little wisdom.
Eötvös was a writer of some renown who joined the turbulent political life of the 1840s. One of his political aims was the reform of the inhuman conditions of Hungarian prisons. He also worked on the theoretical foundations of a future Hungarian parliamentary system and made sure that it became part of the program of the opposition. He served briefly as minister of education in the Batthyány government (March-October 1848). When, after the Compromise of 1867, he became minister of education again, he was at last able to put his ideas into practice. In the first few months parliament passed his bill for the emancipation of the Jews. A short while later, he completed a reform of the Hungarian school system. Finally, the Nationality Law of 1868 became the law of the land, which was a liberal document at the time.
Robert A. Kann in his monumental book A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526-1918, called Eötvös an enlightened man and added that “had Eötvös’s and Deák’s spirit prevailed, the Hungarian treatment of national groups might not have been inferior to that administered by the Austrian authorities.” Today we would call him a liberal conservative. He is a perfect fit for those liberal-conservative intellectuals who want to offer an alternative to Viktor Orbán’s populism. Interestingly, liberal members of MSZP turned to Ferenc Deák as their idol and established the Ferenc Deák Circle. The two groups are not that far apart ideologically.
The Eötvös Group holds regular open meetings on defined topics. A year ago, when I reported on one of the group’s meetings, the theme was the nature of Viktor Orbán’s system. The key speaker was András Körösényi, a political scientist, who described Fidesz’s world as a political system based on Viktor Orbán’s “oligarchic interests.” It doesn’t really matter where Orbán’s critics come from: their ideas are quite similar. For instance, the liberal Bálint Magyar describes the same phenomenon as a mafia state.
This time the topic was the sorry state of the Hungarian economy. While the government is in the midst of a campaign to sell the idea that the economy is booming, the two economists who delivered lectures at the meeting, Tamás Mellár and László Csaba, painted a different, quite grim picture.
It is perhaps telling that while a year ago only a handful of people were interested in the group’s lectures and discussions, this time the place was packed. In fact, extra chairs had to be added, and even then some people had to stand.
Tamás Mellár told his audience that ever since the 1970s for every 1% in economic growth 2.5% of funding has been needed. Thus, between 2001 and 2010, a 17% economic growth required 34% in additional funding. The situation became worse between 2010 and 2015 when, to achieve 10% economic growth, the country needed 35% in additional resources. Most of this came from the European Union, but some of the money came from the nationalization of the private pension plans, loans, and depletion of some of the foreign currency reserves of the Hungarian National Bank. That cannot go on, Mellár declared.
What does Mellár suggest after the removal of the Orbán government? As far as economic measures are concerned, a new government will have to abolish the flat tax introduced by the Orbán government and replace it with a progressive income tax. He would also introduce a wealth or equity tax on the total value of personal assets over a certain limit, which would be one possible way of recapturing some of the public wealth stolen by Orbán’s oligarchs. Instead of forced industrialization, the government should pay attention to new technologies, new business solutions, education, and research. But in order to see any change, Hungarians must break out of the apathy that currently exists in the country. “Now there is no Russian pressure anymore. This time we ourselves caused all this trouble, and we must be the ones who get us out of it.”
Although the government’s predictions for next year are optimistic, László Csaba sees little hope for the expected great economic growth. Interest rates in the United States will most likely rise, and who knows what Donald Trump will be up to. Meanwhile, there is the refugee crisis, populism, low economic growth in Europe, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, slowing emerging markets, and unpredictable oil prices. One cannot count on European Union subsidies forever. Hungary must rely on itself.
He is convinced that “without comprehensive reform of the education system there is no hope.” The government should leave higher education alone. Instead of constantly reorganizing colleges and universities, the government should concentrate on kindergartens and elementary schools because these are the crucial years where students’ futures are decided. As far as the government’s economic predictions promising high growth are concerned, “they are completely unfounded.” Hungarian GDP at the moment, calculated in U.S. dollars, still hasn’t reached its 2008 level. This is worrisome even if it includes the fact that the forint is now weaker against the dollar. “We don’t have enough capital, we don’t have enough manpower, we spend too little on research and development, and the external environment is not favorable. In fact, the only increase we can expect is an increase in debt.” As for the government propaganda regarding recent tax reductions, it is a sham because for each tax cut there are many new increases elsewhere. “There is a feeling of hopelessness in the country.” He concluded his talk with a Seneca quotation: “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”
Still, there are some hopeful signs. The Momentum Movement’s introductory meeting was filled with interested people. The young organizers urged the audience to ask them questions about their political plans. On the very first day the activists gathered 10,000 signatures of the mandatory 138,000 and by now they reached almost 40,000. People have been standing in line to add their names to the list. The government seems to be taken aback; they didn’t expect such an enthusiastic reception to an anti-Olympics drive. Therefore, attacks on the group began in earnest in the many government-financed newspapers and internet news sites. Since the topic of the Eötvös Group’s next gathering will be “Do we need an Olympics?” pestisrácok naturally discovered a close connection between the learned economists and the young political hopefuls, which apparently does exist. All in all, one can see some early signs of a societal awakening.