The ECHR (“the court” hereafter) ruled against Hungary saying that the state violated three publishing companies’ property rights as they lost all their clients.
But how can the court rule that public schools as clients can be the “property” of any one company? And if legal and/or market conditions are altered, how long can any company claim the right to its clients? The verdict says nothing about that. But interestingly, it was not the publishers – who actually printed the books – who went to court, but the distributors, the middle men who make a pretty penny from their intermediary position between publishers and schools.
The Hungarian government argued that by regulating the textbook market, the state was only making better use of the state budget. But the court said companies were only given an 18-month period to prepare for the changes and the time was too short for them to switch to other publications. The court, however, did not explain how this can be blamed on the government.
The court also found that the change had no apparent benefits to parents or students. But let us look at the prices: last year, the average price of a textbook printed by the state was HUF 670 ($2.35) while the average price of textbooks published by private companies was HUF 1,476 ($5.17). Currently in Hungary all students in the first nine grades get their textbooks for free. It is thus quite understandable that the state regulates the market.
In developed countries, judges’ activism is one of the greatest threats against democracy. The separation of powers, the system of checks and balances also means that the justice system has to be kept in check, it cannot take over from the legislators. But it is doing exactly that: in 2015, it was the U.S. Supreme Court that legalized gay marriage, not the legislation. In Germany, it was the Constitutional Court (not the legislation) that imposed on the state to offer the choice of a third gender in identification documents.
But back to the topic at hand: the court wishes to interfere with the Hungarian school book market, an intervention that would lead to chaos and more expensive books, that will ultimately be a disservice to both parents and children.