Classical liberalism in 19th century Hungary

I recently found a book on Hungarian Liberalism (a collection of articles) and read through some of the short essays of Széchenyi (affectionately remembered as the ‘Greatest Hungarian’ in the country) and was pleased to be confirmed by how purely Hume and Adam Smith can be found in his thinking (later in the 20th century the political mainstream often tried to depict him as a proponent of nationalism).

It is somewhat surprising that economics and economic thinking was so much in its infancy until so late in the 19th century in the country that later gave us John Harsanyi or Nicholas Kaldor. But of course it does not mean that it was non-existent. Széchenyi was not the first free market thinker (Széchenyi was not an economist, rather a statesman, political thinker, philanthropist) in Hungary (see for example Gergely Berzeviczy) but certainly the most influential one. His work has often been juxtaposed with Kossuth’s ideas (who himself was also a follower of Smith but later embraced the idea of ‘inevitable protectionism’). Not surprisingly, 20th century Hungarian political elite (corrupted by two horrible totalitarian ideas) favoured the latter even to the extent that the biggest researcher of Széchenyi’s life, Gyula Szekfű did a lot to strip Széchenyi of his liberal ideas.

Széchenyi realised that the only way to democracy and progress is economic and social liberalism, where the autonomy of the individual prevails and becomes an intrinsic part of free enterprise.  He emphasised that 19th century philosophy was a battle between individualism and absolutism (little he knew what was to follow in the next century). Individualism was such an important part of his works that he attributed almost no relevance to State or Nations, the two drivers of the darkest events of 19-20th century Europe. Still, my favourite finding was the word ‘szabadköz’ (literally translated free-public), which Széchenyi uses as a desired state of life, a world where the individual can freely operate without physical or moral boundaries to fulfil its material and intellectual desires.


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