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A land of egotistic paternalists?

July 29th, 2011

Recent public opinion surveys reveal a very low level of trust among Hungarians, both in one another and in public institutions. Sociologists blame the lack of trust on political elites, for failing to promote the basic norms of market capitalism and democracy after the fall of state socialism. Hungarians hate state intervention, but also expect support from the government.

“It is not easy to set up new patterns of social behaviour after forty years of socialism,” says sociologist Antal Örkény in an interview published in the left-wing 168 Óra. Referring to recent surveys, Örkény suggests that the level of trust in institutions is very low in Hungary and the lack of trust among Hungarians dates back to 1989. “The regime-change was largely controlled from above, and the majority had no idea what democracy and the rule of law was. Nor did they have any idea about what patterns of behaviour were to be followed.” There has been no meaningful debate about the meaning and value of basic democratic norms since 1989, although “democracy only works if there is a consensus on the basic moral and social issues”, Örkény adds.

Örkény sees political corruption and the nepotism of the elites as major social problems. “People think that if those ‘above’ them may steal and swindle with impunity, it is also acceptable to do so ‘below’.” As this could not yet be described as a generally law-abiding society, Hungarians only trust close friends and relatives, which makes social cooperation burdensome and impairs democratic institutions. In the resulting ambiguous situation “we hate politics but expect the state to help us out when we get into trouble.”

“Voters in 2010 expressed the desire for an end to corruption and endless controversy, and for peace, social stability, and a strong leader, who can provide order.” But instead of building a real consensus, the governing parties weaken democratic institutions, which  will alienate its supporters in the long run, Örkény concludes.

István György Tóth, CEO of TÁRKI Social Research Institute, in an interview published in Heti Válasz, also blames political elites for the absence of basic norms. Tóth finds it worrying that according to the surveys of the IMF and the EBRD, Hungarians have a very low level of trust in the market economy. “The political elites since the regime- change have done very little to promote … democratic and capitalist norms.”

Tóth also notes that Hungarians have a controversial relationship to the state, marked both by egotism and by paternalism. As for the policies of the current government, Tóth suggests that the centre-right coalition also sends a mixed message of market capitalism and paternalism by promoting a flat tax on the one hand, and forcing companies to compensate employees who are worse off with the new tax code, on the other.

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