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In 2019, the Hungarian government organized the third annual “Budapest Demographic Summit” to promote its family policy. The event was attended by leaders from around the world, as captured by a photo in this Associated Press (AP) article showing former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaking at the conference, in front of a screen displaying “Family First” in Hungarian and English. That article is only one example of a sharply increasing interest in Hungary’s social policy, but a deeper investigation into Hungarian family policy can illuminate the positive role the family plays in populist and illiberal rhetoric and practice, as well as the negative role that immigrants play in the same sphere.

Hungary’s family policy is rooted in its constitution, a superficial but useful indicator of just how important the family and “family values” are in Hungarian society. After all, societies enshrine only their most fundamental values in constitutions. That Hungary enshrines family rights as opposed to, or in addition to, individual rights should come as little surprise. Indeed, as Korolczuk and Graff put it, illiberalism is “constructing a new universalism…that replaces individual rights with rights of the family as a basic societal unit.”

Turning away from the superficial and looking at the practical implementation of these family policies, we start to get a clearer picture of how they work. The policies include tax breaks for families with two or more children, state-sanctioned construction of daycares and nurseries, housing subsidies for families, and life-long income tax exemptions for women with four or more children. It’s important to stress that family subsidies have doubled since Orban returned to power in 2010 and have only been possible because of the steady economic growth that finances them. Reliable economic growth is essential to this project, and Orban himself views it as the precondition for “Hungary’s demographic efforts.” However, the form of Hungary’s social welfare, tax breaks as opposed to direct subsidies, has the effect of excluding the poorest members and families of Hungarian society, many of which belong to Hungary’s Roma minority.

The contours of Hungary’s family policy are in line with what some scholars call “authoritarian neoliberalism” – a phenomenon characterized by a few features, chief among them are its integration of neoliberalism and welfare-statism, and its construction of exclusionary social protection. As argued by Noemi Lendvai-Bainton and Dorota Szelewa, authoritarian neoliberalism deploys “the seemingly contradictory measures of marketisation and nationalisation,” with the goal of integrating neoliberalism and welfare-statism to “deliver desirable political outcomes, whether it be higher FDI inflow in one sector, while state monopoly and political rent seeking in others.” Exclusionary social protection is achieved through cutting social spending in most sectors while increasing it dramatically for specific, targeted groups. Social spending is thus a form of identity politics in which “insecurities are actively rolled out for the ‘other’…and only selectively mitigated for some.” In this way, the state both retreats and expands, both shrinks and grows.

Orban’s family policies are indicative of this authoritarian neoliberalism in more ways than one. On the one hand, the economic growth pursued by Orban has been achieved through the neo-liberalization, and precaritization, of some parts of the Hungarian economy. At the same time, Hungary’s family policies are prime examples of the type of welfare state expansion, targeted and exclusionary, that characterizes authoritarian neoliberalism. In the words of Noemi Lendvai-Bainton and Dorota Szelewa, the Roma have proven to be the “Other” for which “insecurities are actively rolled out,” while the pain for traditional, white, Christian, families has been “selectively mitigated.”   

But the economic elements of Hungary’s family policy don’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, they are tied to a strong anti-immigrant sentiment, with Orban himself marketing “economic incentives for families, not immigration” as “the answer to low birth rates and a decreasing population.” This anti-immigrant discourse is quintessentially populist. A few years ago, Rogers Brubaker provided one of the most sophisticated definitions of populism, characterizing it as a phenomenon with vertically and horizontally antagonistic features. Populists who speak in the name of “the people” characterize the latter in vertical opposition to those on top, the “economic, political, and cultural elites,” as well as those below, the “parasites or spongers…addicts or deviants.” In the horizontal dimension, “the people” are understood as a “bounded collectivity,” characterized by the contrast “between inside and outside.” This definition of populism maps nicely onto Orban’s family policies, where immigrants (as indicated in the quote given above) are the “Other” in the horizontal dimension from which the “bounded collectivity” of the family, and the nation, must be protected.

Orban’s efforts to protect families from what he sees as “anti-family” court decisions and non-governmental organizations helps flesh out the vertical dimension of Brubaker’s typology. Orban’s dislike of these institutions (courts, NGOs, etc.) is an example of using the “economic, political, and cultural” elites that Brubaker describes as a means of mobilizing “the people,” with Orban as their mouthpiece. It, like anti-immigration sentiment, is a form of discursive “Othering” meant to advance Orban’s political goals. In this case, his authoritarian neoliberal family policy.

Thus, Hungary’s family policy is in line with the types of policies one should expect from populist and illiberal governments. The increase in social spending on families, paired with the cuts in social spending across the board, elucidates the exclusionary protectionism that one can expect from illiberal, authoritarian neoliberal, regimes. Furthermore, the attacks on immigrants and elites used to justify this exclusionary family policy is indicative of the type of discursive behavior that scholars of populism expect from populist leaders.

Aaron Irion is a graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, where he studies International Affairs. Before graduate school he worked in electoral politics, and is interested in the political economy of undemocratic and illiberal movements. 

Photo: “Orbán Viktor beszéde 2022. március 15-én (2),” by Elekes Andor licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.