Focus on the Family: How Hungary Makes Conservatism Work

30.12.2021

In the lead-up to the European Council Summit in Brussels on December 15-17, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán promised to defend family-friendly policies. He referred specifically to rising energy costs, but he also vowed to fight EU proposals for new taxes on homes and cars. 

Prime Minister Orbán pledged to “protect the interests of families,” a phrase that in recent years has become unusual in the public discourse. However, Orbán’s leadership on defense of family-friendly policies is not surprising. Over the past decade, his government has become an international leader in taking conservatism from theory to practice. 

The Fidesz-led government has been successful in many ways, but their economic accomplishments are particularly impressive. Throughout the 2010s, Hungary often ranked as one of the three fastest growing economies in Europe. In 2015-2019 according to Eurostat national accounts data, the five years immediately before the pandemic, Hungarian families enjoyed the second-fastest rise in consumer spending in the EU, with only Romania ahead.

Businesses are also enamored with Hungary. Eurostat data shows that in the three last years before the pandemic, they increased their investments in the nation’s economy by an average of 16.1% per year. Only Ireland did better.

Growing capital formation and a rising standard of living are irrefutable evidence of how the Hungarian government is successfully putting its conservative values to work. Another area where they can show concrete results is in family policy. With a distinctly conservative welfare state, Mr. Orbán has led his country out of a demographic slump. Marriage and birth rates are up noticeably according to Eurostat, which is precisely what the Hungarian government was aiming for.

Their achievements attract praise, but also criticism. In 2018, the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a left-leaning German think tank, opined that the family policies in Hungary were not socialist enough. Instead of the conservative strategy of helping families regardless of their income, the Böll Stiftung wanted the Hungarian government to promote economic redistribution, regardless of how it would affect families.

Ironically, by calling for more economic redistribution, the Böll Stiftung actually, and probably without intention, put the ideological value of the Fidesz-led government’s family policies on full display. That ideological value was well explained by Family Minister Katalin Novák in a recent interview with American news outlet Newsmax, where she summarized the salient points

  • A tax system that is heavily supportive of large families; 
  • Subsidies for young families toward housing and the purchase of larger vehicles; and 
  • Up to three years’ worth of paid family leave.

The success of these policy measures is visible in Eurostat’s demographic data. After Hungary suffered a precipitous decline in live births, from nearly 100,000 in 2006 to just over 88,000 five years later, the new conservative parliamentary majority managed to not only end the decline but turn the trend around. In 2019 there were 5.7% more babies born in Hungary than at the birth-rate bottom in 2011. 

Eurostat also reports a 26-percent decline in abortions since Viktor Orbán took office.

While conservatism has been successful in Hungary, more left-leaning governments in other European countries have seen child births fall precipitously. In the Netherlands, from 2011 to 2019 live births were down almost six percent. During the same period of time, live births fell by 8.6% in France, by almost 11% in Portugal, by 20% in Ireland, more than 21% in Greece, 23% in Italy and by 24% in Finland and Spain.

Some countries saw a rise, with Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, Hungary and Malta in the top. However, unlike Hungary, Germany depends increasingly on immigrants for the rise in the number of babies born: according to the Pew Research Center, Muslims in Germany have a 36-percent higher fertility rate than the rest of the population. 

The Hungarian government explicitly, and successfully, sought to encourage the native population having more children. However, not everyone has appreciated their success. In 2019 the Swedish government saw it fit to attack its Hungarian counterpart with some rather inflammatory language. Ms. Annika Strandhäll, Minister for Social Insurance, claimed that the Hungarian government’s policies “reek of the 1930s,” thus making a pointed reference to Nazi Germany.

Ms. Strandhäll’s remarks came on the heels of the Swedish government’s attacks on Hungary’s immigration policies. In other words, the Swedish government was upset that another country promoted growth of its own population over immigration. 

Does Ms. Strandhäll believe that there is something morally repugnant in ethnic Hungarians, or ethnic Swedes, having more children? 

Regardless of the incredulous remarks out of Stockholm, the fact is that Hungarian family policies have worked as intended. They have worked because the government in Budapest had clearly defined the purpose of its welfare-state policies: to strengthen the family. Economic redistribution, which again is what the Böll Stiftung advocates, is not a priority for the conservative government. 

Conservative family policy aims to give people a chance to provide for their families by thrift, hard work, and entrepreneurship. It is up to the families themselves to decide how to do that. With a flat income tax and tax deductions that are not defined by the size of the taxpayer’s income, the Hungarian government has avoided penalizing its citizens for working hard and investing in their own future. People are free to pursue higher incomes, to work their way to a better life on their own terms.

When welfare-state benefits are contingent on income, families lose those benefits as they earn more money. Steeply progressive income taxes have the same effect. In combination, they constitute a welfare state that prioritizes economic egalitarianism over strong families. 

The Hungarian government has been wise in its choice of how to ideologically profile its welfare state. However, they have also exposed their accomplishments to a certain amount of risk. Hypothetically, a future, left-leaning government could change the ideological profile of the welfare state by returning Hungary to a multi-bracket income tax. It could also make child-oriented benefits applicable only to lower-income families.

One way to protect the conservative accomplishments is to constitutionally reinforce the current welfare-state structure. This can be done, for instance, by prohibiting the use of government resources for economic redistribution: it could be a ban on discrimination between individual citizens by imposing different income-tax rates. By the same token, benefits paid out should be of a lump-sum kind and not vary with the size of a person’s income.

In practice, it is a bit difficult to implement a constitutional provision of this kind, because it could prohibit government from providing poverty relief. However, the scholarly literature on welfare-state theory provides some guidance as to how various types of welfare states can be configured in line with conservative values, especially with regard to poverty-relief programs. 

It would be unfortunate to see the accomplishments of the Fidesz government be lost to something akin to the Swedish welfare state. However, the risk of such a future appears to be remote. The conservative movement in Hungary stands on firm ground and enjoys widespread popularity. It is entirely possible that its very momentum and its accomplishments are sufficient to guarantee that Hungary will remain a conservative bastion for the foreseeable future. 

In an interview with Hungarian Conservative, András Lánczi, Hungarian philosopher and provost of Corvinus University, explains the profound role of conservatism in his country. Not mincing words, Lánczi contrasts his country against the mainstream of Western civilization, which he sees as standing at “a tipping point.” It is, he says, facing a monumental choice:

[We can] either concede the thought, institutionalized two or three hundred years ago, which prioritizes secular, materialistic, and positive human rights and institutions, or else we maintain that human life cannot be reduced to any single doctrine.

The mission of the Hungarian conservative movement for the past decade, Lánczi continues, has been to use the tools of government power “to scale back the forces of moral relativism.” This is manifested in the Orbán government’s ambition to place focus on the family and to build a conservative welfare state. By solidifying the traditional family as the foundation of society, conservatives draw a demarcation line against the relativistic trend in Western countries where ‘marriage’ is expanded to increasingly creative configurations. 

Another example of moral clarity under Prime Minister Orbán’s tenure is the new anti-pedophilia law. It was designed to prevent the spreading of sexually explicit material to minors and to protect them further against sexual predators. The law has earned international praise, but has also drawn a surprising amount of criticism. Among the most pointed critics is the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. In a press conference back in June, von der Leyen purported that the anti-pedophilia law “goes against all fundamental values of the European Union.” Multiple EU member states signed a declaration criticizing the law.

It would be easy to suggest that Ms. von der Leyen and other prominent critics actually do believe that exposing children to sexually explicit material is normal. However, their criticism is more likely founded on a misunderstanding of individual rights. Going back to András Lánczi’s point about positive human rights, it is a widespread belief in the Western world today that a person’s negative right is also a positive right. 

The difference between the two types of rights is fundamental to any understanding of how human rights work. A negative right is established simply by virtue of the absence of a law: if there is no law that makes sexual acts between people of the same sex illegal, individuals have a negative right to take part in such actions. Similarly, the absence of a law banning free speech is a negative right: all citizens have the right to express themselves as they see fit.

Critics of the Hungarian anti-pedophilia law confuse negative rights with positive rights. They assume, simply, that any laws that restrict the promotion of same-sex relationships are identical to a violation of the negative right to a homosexual lifestyle. In the Hungarian case, the ban on homosexual propaganda to minors is erroneously portrayed as a universal ban on homosexual actions, or, even more, the stigmatization of those who identify as homosexual.

Conservatism relies heavily on negative rights. Individual freedom is guaranteed by virtue of constraints on government. The freedom of speech and the freedom of religion, to take two examples, are guaranteed by keeping government out of the personal choices people make; a homosexual couple can live next door to a traditional family where the neighbors go about their lives without ever infringing on one another’s choices. 

A ban on same-sex marriage is not an infringement on their negative right any more than it is an infringement on their rights if they are banned from propagating homosexuality to minors.

By contrast, under socialism there is no longer a negative right to privacy and freedom. Rights are positive, meaning that whoever is deemed to have a positive right is entitled to exercise that right even if it means invading the privacy of others. In the case of the Hungarian anti-pedophilia law, this means that critics of the law view the right to a homosexual lifestyle as a positive right. This right, in turn, stipulates that those who take part in same-sex relationships are entitled to actively exhibit their lifestyle, e.g., by presenting it to minors. Any limitation is a universal limitation of their rights qua positive rights.

By standing by their anti-pedophilia law, conservatives in Hungary have brought the philosophical aspect of the battle for the future of Western civilization to the forefront. In doing so, they have done the West’s conservative movement a considerable service: for too long, conservatives across both Europe and America have shied away from fighting their battle in the entire continuum from abstract values to actual public policy. 

By putting conservative values to work, Viktor Orbán and his government have created a tangible, workable alternative to the mainstream of the West. Perhaps this, better than anything else, explains the ferocity of his critics: they fear, simply, that conservatives elsewhere will be inspired by his accomplishments.

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