Who Wants to Live in Hungary?

Not Viktor Orbán’s Western fans.

Budapest Hungary
Skyline of Budapest, Hungary (Unsplash/Tom Bixler)

Hungary is having a moment on the American right. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson broadcasted from the country last week and interviewed Viktor Orbán. Rod Dreher blogged from Hungary for The American Conservative. John O’Sullivan, a former speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher, has defended Orbán’s power grabs in National Review. Sumantra Maitra defended Orbán in The Federalist. There is even an Hungarian Conservative magazine for English speakers.

Here in the Netherlands, far-right leaders Thierry Baudet and Geert Wilders admire Orbán. The right-wing De Dagelijkse Standaard calls him a “hero”.

Conservative columnist (and non-Orbán fan) David French sees Hungary as “the right’s Denmark”. Progressives want America to become Scandinavia; Trumpists want to become Hungary.

So why don’t they just move there?

Not a great country

French gives a few reasons. I’ll expand on those.

  • Hungary is not a rich country. The average household has $18,430 in disposable income (after taxes) compared to $29,300 in the Netherland and $45,280 in the United States.
  • The conservative Heritage Foundation ranks Hungary 31 out of 45 European countries in terms of economic freedom. Among its shortcomings are lack of accountability and transparency in public procurement (a nice way of saying government contracts tend to go to Orbán’s family and friends); price controls in electricity, pharmaceuticals and telecom; and special taxes on foreign-owned energy and financial firms.
  • Hungary ranks 52 out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, behind most other European countries and the United States.
  • Hungary has the third-lowest tertiary education rate in the EU. Only Italy and Romania produce fewer university graduates per capita. Hungarian teacher salaries are among the lowest in the EU.
  • Emigration is up from 13,000 when Orbán came to power in 2010 to nearly 50,000 in 2019. Liberal, university-educated Hungarians are voting with their feet and moving away.
  • Hungary is the only country in the EU Freedom House considers “partly free” and not “free”. Orbán has bent formerly independent institutions to his will and made life difficult for opposition parties, journalists, universities and nongovernmental organizations that criticize his government.
  • Transparency International ranks Hungary 69 out of 180 countries in its Corruption Perception Index, down eleven points since 2012.
  • Reporters Without Borders rank Hungary 92 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, down from 56 in 2013. Many newspapers and websites have been taken over by Orbán’s allies. Few independent media remain. Journalists have been stripped of legal protection to keep their sources confidential and can be fined up to €1 million for providing “imbalanced” news coverage. News programs are not allowed to devote more than 20 percent of their airtime to crime stories.
  • Hungary doesn’t allow gay couples to marry or adopt children. Orbán’s government is replacing “sex” on civil documents with an unchangeable “birth sex”, making it impossible for intersex and trans persons to change their gender markers. Orbán has banned gender studies and the depiction of sexual minorities in schoolbooks and daytime TV. The country does recognize same-sex civil unions and has law against gender and sexual discrimination on the books. Rainbow Europe ranks Hungary 28 out of 49 European countries in terms of LGBT rights.
  • Hungary is far less religious than the United States. Just 14 percent of Hungarians say religion is very important to them and 17 percent go to church at least once per month.
  • Conservatives praise Orbán’s pro-natalist policies, including a lifetime income-tax exemption for mothers of four children and more, yet Hungary’s birth rate is lower than America’s and the EU average. UNICEF ranks Hungary 24 out of 41 rich countries in terms of child care.
  • Life expectancy at birth is 76 years, four years below the OECD average.
  • Are Hungarians at least happier? No. They rank 43 in the World Happiness Index, behind the United States and almost all other EU member states.
  • Nor has Orbán’s nativism enhanced social trust, defying the conservative expectation that a more homogenous and traditional society would be more trusting. Hungarians are far less trusting than Americans and Northern Europeans with only 28 percent agreeing most people can be trusted against 58 percent of Americans, 71 percent of Swedes, 74 percent of the Dutch and 86 percent of Danes.

Package deal

Liberalism is a package deal. It’s not a coincidence that the historically liberal Netherlands is also historically one of the richest countries in the world. It’s not a coincidence, as Matthew Yglesias points out, that some of the most successful Hungarians made their careers in America: Andrew Grove, the CEO of Intel; Thomas Peterffy, the founder and chairman of Interactive Brokers; Charles Simonyi, who created Microsoft Office; George Soros, the financier and philanthropist; and Steven Udvar-Házy, chairman of the Air Lease Corporation. It’s not a coincidence that the wealthiest states in America vote Democratic and the poorest vote Republican. Openness to new ideas, to innovation, to enterprise, to different people and to trade go hand in hand. As do focus on family and the local, homogeneity, protectionism and respect for tradition.

No country leans completely one way or the other. Immigration isn’t popular in the Netherlands. Hungary is still a member of the EU. Most countries, and indeed most people, try to find a balance between freedom and security. We have free elections, a free press and open debate to figure out what that right balance is.

An honest debate acknowledges tradeoffs. I would err on the side of freedom and prosperity even if it weakens my sense of belonging, and that’s one reason I chose to live in the Netherlands and Spain. You may make the opposite — and Orbán’s — choice, but then you have to accept that comes at a cost as well.