Many Hungarians still remember the left-liberal political slogan that “the state is a bad owner”, but as Viktor Orbán’s government has consistently proven, such a slogan only applies to those not smart enough to run a state.
Selling off state assets without a care in the world was the policy of the socialist-liberal governments that ruled between 2002 and 2010, which sent almost 200 previously state-owned companies into private hands. It was essentially a continuation of what Gyula Horn’s socialist government did between 1994 and 1998, during which time 65 percent of state holdings were privatized.
Yet, despite the massive selloffs, public debt kept climbing ever higher, and would have done so even if the state had sold off its golden eggs, such as the lottery or the city transport companies, as many from the free democrats lobbied for.
They sold off everything and anything, without regard to national or strategic interests: the Budapest airport, power companies, banks, and the quite profitable cargo arm of the national railways.
The second Orbán government which came to power in 2010 ended all this. Since then, state assets rose by 52 percent. New national utility firms arose, the state acquired stakes in companies of strategic importance (including the oil and gas firm MOL) and over half of the Hungarian banking system is now under domestic ownership.
The state also bought back national art treasures with immeasurable value, securing Hungary’s cultural legacy for its own citizens.
So how is that good for taxpayers?
On the one hand, partial or full state ownership reduces the Hungarian population’s exposure to the whims of multinationals, which often operate solely with the principle of profit in mind instead of what is good for the country. Just think about how America’s greatest companies sold out their intellectual property and the security of Americans to enter the Chinese market.
Another highly tangible benefit is that utility bills have remained largely unchanged in the past few years, with Hungary featuring some of the lowest prices for gas and power in the European Union.
Yes, state ownership does not mean that these companies shouldn’t be profitable but only state-owned companies can also have an eye on national interests, unlike private ones.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that privatization is bad in itself. It just means that the politicians who previously sold Hungary’s companies and state asserts were simply bad owners and have rightly been relegated into the opposition.