Orbán’s Apologists Have Abandoned American Freedom to Defend Authoritarianism and Kleptocracy

Over the past few years, there has been a weird fetish in the conservative movement over Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán. One of Orbán’s admirers on the right recently claimed that Orbán “kept Hungary intact by promoting fertility and blocking immigration.” That’s truly an interesting choice of words.

The claim about Orbán is a head-scratcher when one considers that Hungary’s population has declined from 10.1 million in 2003 to 9.6 million in 2022. It’s even more ironic that Orbán, who has used racially charged rhetoric when railing against the blending of races, has harshly criticized the immigration policies of Western Europe while also acknowledging a need for foreign workers because so many Hungarians have left the country to pursue life in other parts of Europe.

Some may point to Orbán’s record on taxes. Since taking office in May 2010, Hungary has moved to a flat tax rate of 15 percent and reduced its corporate income tax rate. However, individual income taxes and corporate income taxes aren’t big revenue raisers. Nearly half of the revenue Hungary takes in comes by way of a value-added tax (VAT) that is the highest among countries that are part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). A VAT is essentially a consumption tax. Nearly a third of its revenues come through social insurance taxes.

What isn’t often mentioned by Orbán’s apologists is the fact that his government raided and nationalized private pensions. In 2022, inflation in Hungary reached 14.6 percent and central government debt has grown to 87 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Orbán has lived beyond Hungary’s means by pushing populist economic policies that his government can’t afford. For example, Hungary had a record budget deficit of $9.2 billion in 2023. The country had a budget of $21.3 billion that same year. Hungary’s credit rating isn’t good, and it could get worse because Hungary relies so heavily on the European Union.

That’s right. Orbán talks tough about Europe, but he’s very much a welfare queen because Hungary is extraordinarily reliant on money from the European Union.

From 2010 through 2022, Hungary received $16.473 billion (USD) in nominal dollars from the European Union, or nearly $19.3 billion (USD) in inflation-adjusted dollars. Over the same time frame, Hungary contributed only $2.4 billion (USD) to the European Union in nominal dollars, or $2.8 billion (USD) in inflation-adjusted dollars.

This is what makes Orbán’s frequently bloviating somewhat humorous. Orbán rails against Europe, but he needs the European Union for Hungary to survive. This is partially why he has been so hard to deal with when it comes to the European Union funding Ukraine. Orbán essentially extorted the European Union in December 2022 by blocking financial support to Ukraine until the European Union released money withheld from Hungary because of its shift to kleptocracy and authoritarianism. More on that in a moment. Just last month, the European Union released money to Hungary to try to keep Orbán from blocking more money from Ukraine.

Orbán has branded himself as an “illiberal” and Hungary, under his leadership, as an “illiberal democracy,” meaning that he and the country he leads have moved away from the values of classical liberalism on which the United States was founded and through which we and much of Europe have prospered. Orbán appears to have modeled himself as sort of a lesser version of Russian authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin.

A regular report published by the Cato Institute in the United States and the Fraser Institute in Canada, The Human Freedom Index, explains, “Among the countries and territories where [human freedom] deteriorated the most are Nicaragua, Syria, Hong Kong, Egypt, Turkey, and Hungary.” Hungary was ranked 65th in human freedom, according to The Human Freedom Index, in part because of the lack of freedom of movement, the repression of civil society, and restrictions on the free press and free speech. Freedom House ranks Hungary 66th in freedom, calling it “partly free” because of the lack of political rights. Even the Heritage Foundation calls Hungary “moderately free,” ranking it 54th overall, due to the country’s declines in property rights, government spending, and fiscal health.

We’ve already highlighted the confiscation of private pensions by Orbán’s government, but the problems with Hungary extend far beyond that. As mentioned, Orbán has modeled himself as a leader similar to Putin, who has enriched Russian oligarchs through their connections to him and other Russian government officials. Orbán, who built a soccer stadium in his small hometown village next to his home, has acted similarly by passing along the country’s wealth to cronies. Subsidies from the European Union go to powerful, well-connected individuals who are favored by the Hungarian government. The populists in the United States would call those who line their pockets this way the “elite.”

Orbán’s cultural reactionaryism is what has endeared him to so many American conservatives, but his focus on boosting birth rates through tax incentives and crackdowns on abortion hasn’t gotten Hungary where it wants to be.

Freedom of the press has been curtailed. Journalists who aren’t beholden to the Hungarian government have been surveilled. Courts were structured to largely do the bidding of Orbán and his government, making them little more than a rubber stamp. Court-packing has been an issue that has rightly riled conservatives. Well, Orbán actually did it. In 2011, he expanded the number of judges on the Constitutional Court of Hungary from 11 to 15. The European Union was recently able to force Hungary to roll back the court changes and restore judicial independence by freezing funds, but there are other remaining problems, including infringements on academic freedom, free expression, and freedom of the press.

Put simply, Orbán should be a focus of criticism from conservatives, not someone to be praised or invited to speak at major conservative events. Orbán is a reactionary, an autocrat, and a kleptocrat. He may not be the worst of the world’s leaders, but, as Hungary drifts into authoritarianism, he ranks among the worst.