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Hungary's Prime Minister thinks it's time to ditch liberal democracy

Thierry Charlier/AFP

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has often been accused of wanting to undermine liberal democracy in his country, but in a July 26 speech to ethnic Hungarians in Romania he seems to have come out and said it. My Hungarian language skills are a little rusty, but here's Zoltan Simon's account for Bloomberg:

"I don't think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations," Orban said, according to the video of his speech on the government's website. He listed Russia, Turkey and China as examples of "successful" nations, "none of which is liberal and some of which aren't even democracies."

These do not seem like the remarks of a man eager to be persuaded by economic data, but it's worth noting that these examples of illiberal success actually make a very strong case for liberalism.

Consider Russia. Russia, famously, is blessed with tremendous fossil fuel wealth. But a relentless history of bad, illiberal government has left it with less than half the per capita GDP of Germany or Taiwan. Indeed, according to the IMF's latest Purchasing Power Parity calculations, Russia is a bit poorer than Croatia or Poland or, indeed, Hungary itself. Turkey is even poorer than Russia, and China is the poorest of them all with a GDP per capita of just around $10,000.

Now of course China has been experiencing enormous economic growth in recent years. And good for them. But the idea that Chinese-style illiberalism can eventually produce even Hungarian levels of prosperity is totally untested. Hungarians looking for models from abroad should understand that even really troubled western European countries like Spain and Italy have considerably higher living standards than Russia — and all without the good luck to stumble into oil and gas wealth.