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A Value Anchor for Conservative Democracy by Sven R. Larson

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Commentary

A Value Anchor for Conservative Democracy

In an insightful article for the print edition of The European Conservative (Winter 2021), Balázs Orbán presents a list of criteria that identify the European Union as an emerging empire. One of the criteria is the urge to monopolize values: in the world of the EU, Orbán explains, there can be no dispute with Brussels-approved values. The technocracy governing the EU, he notes, is increasingly “insensitive to the legal, social, and identity values of individual member states.”

As a related point, he highlights the EU’s ambition to impose a one-size-fits-all economic, political, and social model:

Most empires require an ethos of universalism to function, namely a unified government, a unified legal order, unified values, and a unified way of life. This is based on the premise that the same principles must apply in all areas of the empire.

In recent years, the demands to conform have zeroed in on government models, primarily in Hungary and Poland. The reason is simple: these two countries prefer to pursue their own democratic paths than the liberal democracy favored by Brussels. 

Hollow accusations against Hungary

As I explained in “The Case for Conservative Democracy,” the liberal version of a democratic government is sold as a standard bearer for protecting freedom, but in reality it is nowhere near the solid form of government we are led to believe. It is vulnerable to ideological bias, and it lacks prohibitive measures against the slow-crawling expansion of totalitarianism. 

At the heart of the problem with liberal democracy lies the idea that people, as they individually vote in their own self interest, always produce aggregate results that rationally preserve freedom and a democratic government. This aggregation is false; history can provide us with compelling examples of how tyranny has capitalized on the democratic self interest of the individual voter.

This is, in fact, exactly what the EU is doing: it tries to impose its templates for governance upon the peoples of its member states—even as the will of the people pulls in another direction. Actual election outcomes in the member states are of no consequence to Brussels; in the name of democracy, the will of the people must yield to requests from the European Union. 

Hungary is a case in point, being criticized for “democratic backsliding” (a whimsically defined term) and for often unspecified democratic “deterioration.” Freedom House, an organization that is funded almost exclusively by the U.S. government, no longer considers Hungary to be a democracy. Instead they refer to the country as “a nation in transit” or a “hybrid” between democracy and authoritarianism. 

You would expect such serious accusations to come with strong underpinnings, especially from an organization that receives millions of dollars in annual government funding. However, the criticism of Hungary for being non-democratic is long on rhetoric and short on specifics. The Freedom House assessment report from 2020 says that a new Hungarian constitution allowed “the ruling coalition” to make fundamental changes to “the electoral laws and the system of campaign financing.” Painting with the same broad brush, the report claims that “the ruling coalition” has “captured the public media” and used “government-friendly oligarchs” to take control over private media.

All these accusations are made without any references; there is no way to independently verify their accusations. To the extent that references are given, they are related to the constitutional reform that reduced the number of members of the Hungarian parliament, and to the proposed addition of an administrative court system.

Anyone criticizing the latter might want to explain how it is different from the administrative system that has been operating in Sweden for decades. As for the constitutional reform, again there is an alarming shortage of specifics in the Freedom House report. Had they looked more closely, they would have found that the Hungarian Constitution is no more vulnerable than in other countries: Hungary has pretty much the same procedure in place for reforming the constitution as most parliamentary democracies do. 

Furthermore, it is not true that the Fidesz government has made any un-democratic changes to the core functions of Hungarian democracy. Its unicameral parliament is still elected in universal suffrage through elections that combine a mix of proportionate and simple-majority distribution of seats. The proportionate form is common in parliamentary systems; the majority model is the standard bearer in the United Kingdom and the United States. 

The constitutional value anchor

If anything, Hungary has a solid parliamentary form of representing the will of the people. The combination of proportionate and majority representation is more comprehensive than a system that relies solely on either model. 

Ironically—given the criticism—if there were one weakness in the Hungarian democracy, it would be that it has not gone far enough in establishing itself as a conservative democracy. It can still take steps to protect itself from the whims of liberal democracy. A lot of power is concentrated in the unicameral parliament, which means that a new ideological majority could rapidly swing the country in a radically different direction. 

There is a reform model that could provide the necessary protection for a country wishing to insulate itself against short-sighted storm winds in public opinion: the constitutional value anchor. This term is used as a label for the essential component of conservative democracy. Its use here is original, and is therefore meant as a thought experiment. To illustrate its purpose, consider the disastrous decline of Venezuela. It happened because the country’s democracy did not have strong enough barriers to prevent a democratically driven totalitarian transformation of the country. 

While such radical, socialist change is highly unlikely to take place in Hungary, the example is a reminder of how close liberal democracy always is to the abyss of totalitarian decline. 

The purpose of a value anchor is not to thwart the will of the majority in elections, but to dampen rapidly unfolding consequences thereof. The faster the majority wants to change some fundamental character trait of a society—be it constitutional or socio-economic—the stronger the value anchor will resist the change. 

There are two types of constitutional value anchors, the first of which is exemplified by the American Constitution. When a legislative bill is passed by the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, it must almost always pass the Senate with a 60% majority. This so-called filibuster rule has often proven to be a firewall against radical reforms, with a highly problematic election-reform bill as the latest example.

The 60% rule, which is not written into the U.S. Constitution, has been in effect in one form or another since the 1970s. It works reasonably well, but is more of a brake to slow down runaway legislation than a constitutional value anchor.

A similar brake function exists in terms of amending the constitution. The standard process is slow and onerous, requiring a vote to take place in 99 legislative chambers: the House and Senate of the Congress, and the two chambers of the legislature in every one of the 50 states. (the Nebraska legislature is unicameral.) Two thirds of the states must approve an amendment before it can be ratified. 

The reason why this form of value anchor is imperfect, is that it does not come with a specific set of values that are to be preserved over time. The specificities of the first ten amendments, a.k.a., the Bill of Rights, pertain to limitations of government powers vs. individual citizens. 

Three steps to constitutional reform

The difficulties associated with constitutional amendments are there to protect the Bill of Rights, but, as demonstrated by constitutional interpretations by the Supreme Court, the meaning of those rights can change over time—some in directions most certainly not intended by the Founding Fathers.

For countries considering how to reinforce their democracy against the lapses of its liberal form, there is an alternative constitutional value anchor available. This type, which works well with traditional European monarchies, has three features:

1. A constitutional-level value document specifying the conservative foundations of a country.

This value document would be protected from future modifications by an even higher standard than the American Constitution. Thereby, it takes the form of an eternal value foundation for a nation state. If the country is Christian, it would enshrine that religion as the country’s heritage. It could also establish the nation’s focus on conservative family values and its commitment to individual and economic freedom. 

These values would be general in character, but much like the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, the document could be written in such terms that it would be easily understood by regular citizens (as opposed to requiring legal expertise for its everyday interpretation). This raises its approval among the people, and gives them confidence in protecting and preserving the foundation of their country.

2. A value-changing legislative formula by which bills in the legislature can be measured in reference to the value document. 

Efforts to change the country’s cultural, social, political, or economic character in reference to the value document, are “scored” according to a formula. The more radical the proposed reform is, the higher the bill scores on a scale of legislative rigidity. The scale is logarithmic, accelerating the “rigidity” score with proportionate increments in efforts to reform away the country’s founding values. 

The purpose of the score is to impose a mandatory delay, in some instances indefinite, for radical bills in the legislature. 

3. A value guard function the purpose of which is to implement the delay of legislation per the aforementioned value-reforming rigidity score.

This is an institution, constitutionally mandated and protected, implemented to enforce the delay of high-scoring legislation. It could be an upper chamber in the legislature, but to secure its integrity its members should be appointed by a plurality of stakeholders in society. Originally, the U.S. Senate had somewhat of this function, with its members being appointed by the states. The popular-vote Senate only came about with the ratification of the 17th amendment in 1913. 

Democracy and monarchy

The value guard function can also be fulfilled by a monarch or other head of state. Conceivably, the head of state would have to sign legislation of any value-reforming magnitude for it to go into effect. If his or her signature is not provided within a certain period of time, the legislative bill is dead.

For this value-guard function to work properly, the head of state could not have much latitude in choosing how to respond to bills that aim to change the country’s founding values and character. The choice would be to sign the legislation after a score-mandated waiting time, or to not sign at all. 

Needless to say, this value-anchor idea is abstract in its nature, but that is necessary: the purpose here is not to develop a plug-and-play ready constitutional reform, but rather to establish a model by means of which such reforms can be developed. The reforms, in turn, would aim to formalize a conservative model for democracy that is protected from the weaknesses that characterize modern liberal democracies. 

To sum up, the three main elements of the value anchor are:

  • A combination of traditional parliamentary democracy with strong protective measures against the possible detriments of short-sighted, self-interested public opinion; 
  • A slowdown of legislative reform bills of a radical nature, in order to foster debate over them and—in instances of very radical ideas—to postpone them indefinitely; and
  • An emphasis on the eternal nature of a nation; each generation inherits it and does not have the right to radically change according to their own whims; it has the responsibility to be its stewards and pass it on in good shape to coming generations. 

If the value anchor can be made to work accordingly, it could reinforce conservatism and prove it better suited as the ideological foundation of a democratic society. 

Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.

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