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WHAT US crusade against the Koch brothers? Kicking out the Soros-funded university was state action. What state action has been taken against the Koch Brothers?

And WRT to Facebook, where have you seen anyone talking about Zuck being Jewish? The comparison is ludicrous.

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The immigration numbers people were raising to say that overstays are the real problem are also now very outdated. People were quoting 2016 and 2017 numbers; the first person to comment on it quoted the following article, which said there were 410,000 overstays - https://apnews.com/article/illegal-immigration-archive-immigration-cb7493650af7e1a06f6eeaf9628ecf7a

Year to date, there have been over 1.7 million encounters (not total immigrants - just those "caught"!) at the Southern border. People are vastly underestimating how quickly this has changed under Biden and how severe the situation at the border is, and thinking that overstays are the real problem in the current situation would betray deep ignorance of the facts. Source for the numbers, straight from CBP: https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-land-border-encounters

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> "Orban won almost all districts. There is no gerrymendeing that can explain that."

I'm not quite sure this commenter understands how gerrymandering works. (Winning almost all of the districts can be achieved with a little less than half of the vote, even less if you're competing with more than one other party.)

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Call it the Demagogue Book Club! Orban, Modi, and Erdogan are all similar as leaders of populist-right parties who got elected in democracies with majorities large enough to start changing constitutional rules, and doing so substantially with the goal of changing the country's culture and entrenching their own power. All three continue to run states where opposition parties are real and win important posts (all three capital cities, in Hungary, India, and Turkey, are run by the opposition), and in Hungary and Turkey recent polling suggests the opposition is favored to win the next serious election. (But not in India). There are countries where you could not release a poll suggesting that the incumbent is about to lose (for instance, Belarus is mentioned in this very piece): those are dictatorships. (Or where elections are just not held at all, as an Iran).

On a different note, a question for Hungarian readers, why is there a substantial population of Hungarian voters that remains devoted to Ferenc Gyurcsany? I noticed that his wife did really well, but lost, in the opposition primary earlier this year, which amazed me. I can't believe that anyone would remain devoted to this guy -- even if you think his tenure as PM was a huge success, which boggles the mind, at this point he's lost so many times that you'd have to think his supporters would move on. (I guess this phenomenon sometimes happens with former leaders who never give up on trying to return to power -- there's a Saakashvili cult in Georgia too which keeps Kartuli Ocneba in power -- but I'm interested in hearing more about the Hungarian case. Preventing this sort of thing might be a good argument for term limits, on top of all the others.)

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I think the Hungarian fertility deal (which is genuinely a pretty decent increase but from a terrible base) ties in with the fundamental and paradoxical antinatalism of conservatism/authoritarianism. Cultures that value having a ton of kids tend to have decent birth rates, and for Complex Reasons tend to be conservative, but on a broad scale conservative/authoritarian cultures tend to do a lot worse than their peers -- compare the "bad" TFRs of the West to the "holy shit are you going to die right now" TFRs of the developed East (and indeed often the underdeveloped East, North goddamn Korea is sub-replacement), and particularly note the tendency of wealthy nations with strict gender roles/expectations to have even worse situations than those without them. The most nightmarishly low fertility rates are in places like Singapore and South Korea, which fall into a cross-section of significant wealth, cultural conservatism, and political authoritarianism. Western Europe does poorly; Eastern Europe does even worse.

In the case of Hungary's natalist policies, this ties in with cultural conservatism's narrow band of acceptable family structures. Hungary offers free fertility treatments -- unless you're single, over 40, or non-heterosexual, which is to say, unless you're a significant proportion of the people seeking fertility treatments. From a natalist perspective, kicking huge swathes of people begging to have children out the door is lunacy.

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"Before we get there: I interpreted the paragraph Richard quotes as claiming that, if a teacher or doctor protests Fidesz or Orban in their spare time, as part of the normal exercise of their rights as a citizen, they can get fired or otherwise see their career suffer. That doesn’t seem to me like the government exercising control over the bureaucracy, that seems like a nightmarish escalation of the “cancel culture” that both Richard and I are against. In fact, this is an unusual but kind of compelling argument for directionally privatizing education and health care; if the government controls the hiring, promotion, and firing process for people in education and health care, that makes it harder for people in those fields to stand up to authoritarian regimes."

This argument has been made by libertarian intellectuals for many decades. Typically in the context of arguing that undermining "economic freedom" also undermines "social freedom". As well as a general critique of central planning: obviously in the Soviet Union, the government controlled all media and industries and thereby could silence people even without actually arresting them.

I don't have specific page numbers at the ready, but I'm almost certain it would include von Mises, Hayek, Milton Friedman, certainly an implicit point in Ayn Rand's fiction... I think I recall hearing a lecture on this specific point by George Reisman.

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> Orban himself calls his regime an “illiberal democracy”, which seems as fair a description as any. Technically people vote, and probably the elections are even mostly fair, but things are rigged enough behind the scenes that it’s really hard for the elections to matter.

This doesn't sound like what Orban or his allies mean by "illiberal". They see liberalism or lack thereof as primarily a property of society / culture not formal institutions. Roughly speaking, to be "illiberal" in this sense means to adopt social / cultural norms that tilt toward a specific vision of a good way to live, rather than aiming for some form of neutrality. For example, when "the illiberal left" is used as a synonym for woke cancel culture it doesn't imply any agenda to repeal the freedom of speech, only an agenda to bake the promotion of certain political views into social norms.

This is, admittedly, confusing because "liberal democracy" does historically mean a liberalism of formal institutions (bills of rights, universal suffrage, nondiscrimination rules, etc.). But taking advantage of fuzziness in such terms is nothing new in politics. Whether or not Orban intends to subvert Hungary's system of democracy I'm confident that's not what he means to convey by the term "illiberal".

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> For example, what about a country that elects an autocrat once every four years, the autocrat can do literally whatever they want, and then they stand for re-election (or not) on the strength of their accomplishments.

Isn't that essentially the french system post-De Gaulle?

Relevant post on a substack on french politics that I've been following for a while: https://lacampagne.substack.com/p/camembert-president

Key quote: "France is a monarchy that undergoes a succession crisis every five years, by way of an election. "

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OK if you are going to call somebody who does nothing that is not legal at the time a "dictator," what word are you going to reserver for a Mao or Stalin? Someone who has people dragged off in the middle of the night and murdered in secret? Who sends tens of millions of people to concentration camps to starve, or executes the Holodomor, the Great Leap Forward?

I don't think this is a trivial issue. If you don't draw a very bright line between violence and non-violence (if nonviolence that is sleazy in all kinds of ways), you end up crying wolf so much that you reduce the psychic defense people have towards *real* dictatorship. You alienate a bunch of people who *don't* find your "dictator" a dictator, because you're calling them a bunch of dictator lickspittles. You're helping fray the social fabric, if only a bit, because you're magnifying a political dispute which is still, at this moment, being settled by peaceful means, and implying it bears no sharp and meaningful distinction from differences that *are* settled by violence. By de-emphasizing a common agreement on that bright line, you help blur it, erase it, so that we cannot count on *everyone* -- however pro- or anti-Orban, say -- from pulling together to resist the lure of the genuine psychopath, the Mussolini who promises to stop all this squabbling and make the trains run on time, breaking a few eggs on the way to that nice omelet to be sure.

I think words matter, when they become widespread and sloganish, and if you're helping spread the idea that a guy like Orban, unpleasant as you (or I) may find him, is not really in any qualitatively different class than Joe Stalin or Idi Amin, this is not helpful, and people with a long view, and an awareness that we cannot take a peaceful resolution of our differences as some kind of God-given natural right -- who are aware it is quite possible for those differences to end up with genuine bloodshed, if we cannot agree on a few Marquess of Queensbury rules about moderating our language -- are right to push back against it.

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I am going to make a comment which absolutely not charitable, so pardon me for this, but it seems to me that (differently from Scott) Hanania is NOT against cancel culture at all. He just want to be on the side of the cancelers.

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Hungary is a small country that gets a lot of benefits out of the E.U., but is also therefore highly vulnerable being pushed around by the increasingly German-dominated E.U. The classic example of this was the German Chancellor's unilateral decision, made in not much more than Scott's ten minutes, in the late summer of 2015 to let a million military age Muslims into the E.U. and try to force the other members to take them on.

This shocking (but now largely memoryholed by the media) event largely set in motion Brexit and Trump's election the following year. Orban took the lead in resisting Germany's whim, so it's hardly surprising that Hungarian voters seem to want a strong leader who will resist German power over them.

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Does democracy mean checks and balances? I always took democracy to mean "following the will of the people" and checks and balances to be sensible things we implement because we're not insane.

If 4 families control a country and must cooperate to create law that's checks and balances without democracy. If the public has complete control over whatever strongman rules them for the next 2 years its democracy without checks and balances.

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> Some kind of hybrid regime that keeps the trappings of democracy" is a trick that goes back at least to Caesar; that's why Caesar was called an "imperator" (usually translated into English as "emperor", but previously it was a military term meaning "commander") and "dictator" (a sort of commissioner with emergency powers, prior to Caesar always being temporary) but never a "king" ("rex") like Tarquin.

There's something to this, but I think it's valuable to be very clear about what happened there. The Roman emperor was never -- NEVER -- known as a "king" *in Latin*. That is because, in the Roman cultural tradition, kingship was synonymous with evil and strictly tabooed. He could not be referred to as a rex.

But it wasn't controversial at all to refer to him as a king, only as a rex. In areas that spoke Greek he was called a king. In Egypt he was called a king. The only difference is that those areas did not speak Latin and therefore when they said king, they were not saying "rex". But they were using words, like "βασιλεύς" in the case of Greek speakers, that all parties agreed were equivalent to the Latin "rex".

So the situation in the Roman Empire is more along the lines of how modern Americans are adamant that the "police" are a nonmilitary organization, despite the fact that if you start with any definition of "military" there is no way to exclude the police from it. The *word* is taboo for vaguely-felt ideological reasons, but no one sees a problem with the concept.

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The comparison with Merkel is strange since she is {by the standards of her political system if not American ones) a right wing leader, who has been very successful. So if conservatives prefer Orban to her then it's not because they're looking for a successful right wing leader

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On the subject of the importance of independent institutions for democracy I think you would like Fukuyama S's "Origins of Political Order" and "Political Order and Political Decay"

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It’s hard to disentangle the Soros/anti semitism thing. Presumably Orban would fight just as hard against Soros and his influence if he wasn’t Jewish. And if Soros were a supporter of Orban presumably that would be just dandy by Orban and he’d invite him to the football on a regular basis. But none of that is to say anti semitism isn’t a thing in Hungarian society so Orban’s attacks on Soros benefit from that energy.

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The Dublin agreement is largely done for:


“ On 23 September 2020, the European Commission adopted the New Pact on Migration and Asylum following consultations with the European Parliament, Member States and various stakeholders. The New Pact covers all the different elements needed for a comprehensive approach to migration. In particular, the New Pact recognises that no Member State should shoulder a disproportionate responsibility and that all Member States should contribute to solidarity on a constant basis.”

As is only fair.

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President Hammond Book Club?

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>. If you get a really virtuous autocrat, maybe George Washington, this works fine

The virtuous autocrat slave owner and genocider of Native Americans George Washington.

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I was wondering if this Belarus flights thing would carry enough people to matter. If there are 55 flights/week, 52 weeks/year, and (based on a cursory search) 150 people per flight, that gives us about 400k people per year. The figure I normally see quoted for the refugees taken in in 2015 is 1 million (and apparently this helped the European far right a lot).

So, it looks like Belarus might get somewhere with this plan to destabilize its neighbors.

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I don't think it makes sense to compare how long the infrastructure bill got passed to Hungary's fence change. The former handed out massive amounts of money for planned projects that will unfold over years. Of course every Congressperson wanted their fingerprints on it. And if they delayed another month, what would the harm really be? You would need to compare the SHORTEST time to adopt a law/amendment under Biden. And I still think that would be longer. The Democrats barely hold a majority and thus their most marginal members have more power to extract concessions.

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> So much so that before the 20th century, "democracy" was often used *literally as a synonym* for "authoritarian and demagogic rule"!

> A democracy is supposed to have some number of independent power centers to provide checks and balances, and if you put too much effort into making every power center bow to you, you stop having checks and balances, and become authoritarian.

These quotes both ring intuitively true to me, and their proximity made me really step back and admire the radical rebrand that the Hamilton and Madison pulled off with democratic structures.

Not for the worse, but the overton window has certainly shifted a lot since then. They had to write 85 articles explaining how we could have a little voting without immediately collapsing into some kind of hellish anarchy or dictatorship. They talked about how important it was to limit the powers of the new democratic government and bind it with additional competing layers and structures, and loaded it with reassurances that they understood mob rule was bad.

If you advocate for expanded democracy today, you don't need a long intro explaining why you would want such a thing. (And that's often good, expanded access can absolutely make democracy better at the things it does well.)

If you advocate, exactly like they did, for structures that attenuate just the areas democracy is bad at-- you're much more likely to need to start off with 85 pamphlets emphasizing that you understand the dangers of monarchies or technocracies or communism.

I'm not saying the flipped burden is necessarily for the worse, but it feels rare to see such a polar change in all our presumptions about "what is good" in some domain.

Are there other areas like this I'm overlooking, where we fundamentally flipped the presumptive value system from one end to its complete opposite?

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I would prefer Autocrat Book Club to Dictator Book Club.

There are a lot of very different systems of government that have existed. The modern understanding of a single axis between democracy and dictatorship is an extremely limited sample.

Older authors (maybe pre-1800?) have a much richer understanding of political systems, in part because there were a lot more different political systems. Medieval Europe had everything from hereditary monarchies to elected monarchies (Holy Roman Emperor - also modern Malaysia) to theocracies (bishoprics) to aristocracies (Italian city states) to elected city councils and city leagues (Lubeck Law & Magdeburg Law in the Hanseatic League) to anarchies (Frisian freedom, Cospaia, Dithmarschen) - and lots of mixed systems in between.

There are a lot of axes we can disambiguate political systems according to. These do not all have to be correlated and some may even be anti-correlated.

- Democracy. Does the government reflect the will of the people?

- Moral Liberalism. To what extent does the government impose its morals on the people?

- Political Liberalism. Can anyone run for office?

- Informational Liberalism. Is there freedom of speech? How diverse is the media?

- Economic Liberalism. Ease of doing business and what fraction of the economy is controlled by the government.

- Centralization. Are there multiple power centers? The idea of a bicameral legislature was originally to represent different English social classes - but is extremely useful to allow time for public debate between when legislation is proposed and passed.

- Federalism vs Unitary State. Are there multiple governments as well as multiple branches of government?

- Expertise. Are there independent experts whose opinions are respected in their areas of expertise?

- Nationalism. Does the government represent a ethnic / cultural group or something else?

- Rule of Law vs Rule of Man. Is the government constrained by its Constitution and precedence or can it do what it wants.

- Corruption. Is public money used for the public good or to enrich the rulers.

Compared to the Western ideal, Orban is unusually informationally illiberal (controlling most of the press), centralized, Rule of Man, corrupt (though compared to what?), and nationalistic.

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“Orban himself calls his regime an ‘illiberal democracy’, which seems as fair a description as any. Technically people vote, and probably the elections are even mostly fair, but things are rigged enough behind the scenes that it’s really hard for the elections to matter.”

Yeah, the more I think about this, the more it seems like democracy is defined as “elections plus things liberals do to overturn the will of the people” and non-democracy is “elections plus equivalent things conservatives might do.”

Like most American states had referenda against gay marriage. Then 5 judges came along and said “lol, jk”. That sounds like a fair vote within a system that’s still rigged. A lot of things are like this.

Regarding the conservative/liberal asymmetry, that was indeed part of what motivated my comment. “Judges overruling the voters” is seen as sort of the liberal template, while “masculine guy wins elections and smashes the heads of bureaucrats” is the conservative template, and so the latter is “un-democratic,” even if it is closer to reflecting what people voted for. I can’t shake the feeling that the whole discussion is shaped by this underlying bias of NGOs and journalists who report on foreign countries.

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I'm in favor of "Political Leader I Am Uncomfortable With Book Club"!

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Scott writes: ‘I’ve been unconsciously working off a definition that has something to do with “somebody who tries to clear away the normal mechanisms of civil society in an attempt to make it hard for people to oppose them.”’ Why does this remind me of Boris Johnson?

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"A country that elects an autocrat once every four years, the autocrat can do literally whatever they want, and then they stand for re-election (or not)" is pre-2005 Britain. Whoever wins a majority in the House of Commons became prime minister (like an electoral college), and generally has enough control over their party to pass any laws. There's no limit to what laws parliament can pass (no court can overrule them), and the House of Commons can pass laws on their own. Until 2010, the Prime Minister also got to hold elections whenever he/she felt like it (albeit with a five-year deadline).

Pre-2005, the Prime Minister also got to appoint (and dismiss at will) the Lord Chancellor (chief judge who was also the speaker of the House of Lords), and the Lord Chancellor picked whomever he wanted to fill all other judicial vacancies. For bonus Orban, Blair's first Lord Chancellor was the guy who trained him to be a lawyer, and the second was his former housemate.

Thatcher's Lord Chancellor approvingly referred to this system, where whomever controls a majority in the House of Commons controls everything, as "Elective Dictatorship."

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Possible name for the series: Dictator(?) Book Club. A series looking into those who are somewhere that looks kinda like dictatorship, and asking, "Are They a Dictator?"

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I called this serious “Dictator Book Club” ... I think you meant series.

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> see NYT on February 4, 2021

It was actually Time magazine, not the NYT.


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>In fact, this is an unusual but kind of compelling argument for directionally privatizing education and health care; if the government controls the hiring, promotion, and firing process for people in education and health care, that makes it harder for people in those fields to stand up to authoritarian regimes. But if you’ve got to have a government that controls major industries, and you want to leave room for democratic rights, you’ve got to have some kind of firewall between people’s off-the-clock activities and their government-sponsored careers.

That firewall exists in US First Amendment law, see Garcetti v. Ceballos for an example of the explicit consideration of whether a speaker was acting as a public employee in the course of performing their job or as a citizen on a subject of public concern. There are further areas where rights are further protected, ex: a professor in the course of their academic functions.

All told, I trust the integrity of First Amendment jurisprudence a hell of a lot more than I trust private companies to be restrained in dealing with employees whose speech they view as troublesome. The idea that increasing privatization would promote free speech on the margin strikes me as exactly backwards.

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Possible typo: " I called this *serious* “Dictator Book Club” because it had a nice ring to it, but I don’t want to assert that I definitely know what dictatorship is, or that Orban definitely qualifies"

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Would it be crazy to have a system where you elect an autocrat once every 4-6 years, but put in some kind of ironclad rules that they CANNOT run or be elected again, or at least until after a waiting period. Maybe that's a worst of both worlds experience, but hopefully solves the issue of them just changing the rules so they can't be ousted.

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One quick comment on bureaucracies and why everyone hates them. I think they frustrate both liberals and conservatives because they are both liberal and conservative, but in different ways.

Bureaucrats tend to be conservative personalities that sought stability and low-risk in a career--going to work for the forest service, the utility, or department of X means you’re unlikely to get rich but have an almost guaranteed stable job with solid benefits. They also tend to be extremely status-quo biased; you never get in trouble for keeping things running the way they have been, your only real failure point is implementing something new and having that fail. This lends itself towards conservative policy and implementation. And then there’s institutional conservativism where after a while, an institution will be comprised of many multiple departments (often with different internal incentives) any of which can say “no” to new ideas.

But bureaucrats tend to be better educated than average. Probably because of that, they’re more likely to be more culturally liberal. Like most educated people, they’re more likely to trust experts in academia and elsewhere. Some of them will have PHDs or specializations in esoteric topics. They’re not in “real world” businesses or small business owners. This is enough to make conservatives feel like bureaucrats aren’t their people.

Put together, everyone thinks the bureaucracy is working against them.

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If Orban is so incredibly popular, and continues to enact policies that his people want him to enact, then why does he feel the need to rig elections ?

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> The most common comment was that it was a stretch to call Orban a dictator. Maybe I’ll rename the series - Autocrat Book Club? Political Leader I Am Uncomfortable With Book Club? Suggestions are welcome

I think it's reasonable to call it Dictator book club, if you are trying to answer questions like "what is a dictator?", "how do people become dictators?", or "how can we prevent dictatorship?" Your summary and the comments provided a lot of useful fodder for such discussions, even if Orban is not a dictator. In fact, you have to include some non-dictators in your dataset, otherwise you might accidentally find factors common to all leaders, without being able to actually distinguish dictators.

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> If one of the two major parties got to answer all these questions the way it wanted, how many votes would that be worth? Would it turn 49% into a victory? 45%? 40%?

I'd say we have fairly clear answers to these questions in US states today - North Carolina's new maps, for example, turn something like 44% into a majority. My own state, Indiana, turns about a 55-45 split into an unbreakable Republican supermajority, and it's very easy to draw districts that would put the state house in Dem control instead.

From that beginning advantage, many advantages are derived. Turnout among Dems is low because they don't feel they can win, and even if they take a seat here or there, it won't break the supermajority. Weak GOP politicians get their districts redrawn to protect their seats, which discourages opposing candidates. They employ research firms to assess the impact of various laws on turnout and adjust voting laws accordingly.

So, the media aspects you mentioned don't exist, but also don't especially need to. It only takes a handful of structural advantages to lock in power.

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> The analogy seems weird - I think most Americans who think they’re of English descent are, and nobody ever claimed the Italian-Americans, blacks, Hispanics, etc were descended from Englishmen. Still, the point about cultural descent is well-taken.

The Hungarians don't claim purity either. While almost every culture tells themselves a story about how they're superior not all cultures claim its due to single descent or purity of blood. The point is twofold. Firstly, that ancestors or culture heroes like the Founding Fathers or the Magyar kings don't require particular genes. Secondly, that applying blood purity to nationalist racism is not always going to give you an accurate view of the world.

PS: Some people pointed out that English genes are more common in the US population than I thought. But aside from that point I guess it's because I'm not much of a genetic determinist. I think that identity

> We’re back to our old question of “What is a dictator?” I’ve been unconsciously working off a definition that has something to do with “somebody who tries to clear away the normal mechanisms of civil society in an attempt to make it hard for people to oppose them.” So shutting down the press, making it illegal to join opposing parties, committing voter fraud, that kind of thing.

I'd argue that's a bad definition. By that definition, the Democrats who ended the legislative filibuster are dictators. Obama's a dictator for his various norm breaking. Likewise, the EU reaction to the financial crisis would be defined as dictatorial under this definition. To be clear, I don't think that. I'm bringing it up to point out the definition is too wide. Democratic (little d) politicians norm break too.

I'd also argue you're not really looking at norm breaking. You're looking at a new form of muscular conservative populism that's been cropping up in the world. One that's alarming the media (and I think you) for two reasons. Firstly, because they're on the opposite side of the aisle. But secondly because some of these movements are making major political shifts and often for the worse. A lot of them are pretty corrupt, for example. There's also a minority of thinkers who are far leftists and see any move right as a move toward dictatorship.

I'd call it something like The Populists and include the left wingers, though you'd have to note left wing populism has been much less successful. Bernie Sanders is not unsuccessful but he's done less than Trump.

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None of the alternative series names sound great to me, maybe just add "scare-quotes". "On this installment of "Dictator" Book Club..."

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Some minor corrections:

"I called this serious “Dictator Book Club” because..." --> I called this SERIES “Dictator Book Club” because...

"If one of the two parties was allowed to create its own system from scratch, and it was allowed to be at least as weird as the Electoral College is now, how many votes would that be worth?"

I think you mean "at most as weird as the Electoral College", to convey that the hypothetical party could make something comparable to the Electoral College but not worse. As it it it doesn't provide an upper bound on "weirdness".

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One point on the "Is Orban really a dictator" question. I think people are missing something important here when they defend Hungary as a democracy because it meets some condition (e.g. it still has elections).

They're trying to use objective definitions without realizing that wannabe dictators are playing an adversarial game with spectators over those definitions. If Hungary has to be considered a democracy to get EU aid money (and avoid international condemnation), and the EU democracy guidelines say "must hold free and fair elections", Orban will do everything he possibly can to meet *that definition* in theory while negating it in practice. He'll gerrymander, he'll pack the courts, he'll take over the media using barely-plausible intermediaries, etc. You need to realize you're in an adversarial environment, anything else will give you the wrong answer. Inspired by this: https://twitter.com/0xdoug/status/1456032851477028870?s=20

Once you're in a situation where one party *wants to* head a dictatorship and has made some progress I think you evaluate the system in light of the above paragraph. That said, the numbers matter here. I'm inclined to say that if you can get 45% of the vote or so vs. an opposing party/coalition and still win, you're more an illiberal democracy, and lower than like 40% is straight dictatorship. If coupled with moves like buying out media orgs, imprisoning rivals, etc. I'd say you can still win majorities and be illiberal/a dictator. It's just too easy to win some support from the population, especially if you have the media on your side/handicap the opposition.

As for all the "Biden's done the same things" complaining, I think this is pretty transparently partisan and dumb. The Democrats could change the rules around filibusters to let them pass major legislation tomorrow, but they haven't done it. And if the US were in remotely the same situation as Hungary or Turkey, Democratic donors could have bought Fox, Breitbart, OAN, etc. and thrown Trump in jail. None of that has happened or will (his AG declined to even investigate Trump) because we're worlds apart from the dictatorships covered in Scott's reviews. As Scott mentioned, Biden can't get much more done than Trump did, because the US government is hard to move in any direction.

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"Are there systems of government that can let leaders take decisive action without degenerating into dictatorship?"

This conundrum makes me think of the epigram by Sir John Harington:


Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason?

Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

If the strong, decisive leader is doing things we like, he's not a dictator. Was Obama a dictator when he brandished his pen and phone?



"We are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we're providing Americans the kind of help that they need. I've got a pen, and I've got a phone. And I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward in helping to make sure our kids are getting the best education possible, making sure that our businesses are getting the kind of support and help they need to grow and advance, to make sure that people are getting the skills that they need to get those jobs that our businesses are creating,” the president said.

“I've got a phone that allows me to convene Americans from every walk of life, nonprofits, businesses, the private sector, universities to try to bring more and more Americans together around what I think is a unifying theme: making sure that this is a country where, if you work hard, you can make it,” he added."

And if your first reaction to that is "Don't be absurd, of course he wasn't anything like a dictator!" how is "If the elected representatives of the people don't do what I want, then I will simply go around them by using the powers of my office expansively and getting non-elected persons who will follow my agenda involved".

What was that about Orban putting all his college buddies into positions of power, again?

(No, I'm not saying Obama was a dictator. But he had no problem posturing in an attitude not a million miles removed from 'populist strongman', and the media etc. generally ate it up with a spoon).

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>The idea is something like: there are a few ways to govern. One is to be Angela Merkel. Be more or less an elite, who only likes things other elites like. Then you can do things like have an independent judiciary (because the elites in the judiciary will mostly be nice to you), have an independent media (because the elites in the media will mostly cover you positively), have independent academic experts (because they will say the evidence supports you), etc.


>Another is to be Viktor Orban. Go against elite opinion, and when the elites try to stop you, crush them. Crush the judiciary and replace it with your college friends. Crush the media and replace it with your college friends. Crush the intelligentsia and replace them with your college friends. Then do whatever you want, and the judiciary, media, and intelligentsia will take your side!

Yes, but you're missing a key bit of nuance here in the form of the Long March Through the Institutions (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_march_through_the_institutions). Cultural Marxists, by which I literally mean men like Marcuse and his fellow travelers in the post-1968 New Left, systematically and deliberately infiltrated the academy, the bureaucracy, the media, the Catholic clergy, etc. in order to promote their vision of progressivism. It is not a mistake that elite opinion in 2021 leans progressive: that situation is the results of five decades of entryism.

Reversing that takeover, literally as old as the French Fifth Republic, means that at least two full generations of elites need to be removed and replaced. Which means either somehow taking and holding those institutions for 25 years or so so that the next generations will be educated in a more neutral manner, or draining the swamp and accepting the chaos in the short term as a necessary evil.

> [...] But Biden isn’t having an easy time either, judging by the increasingly-shabby-looking reconciliation bill. If Biden wants $3.5 trillion in spending, a tax on unrealized capital gains, and maybe Medicare For All for good measure, who does he have to crush? Maybe the “liberalism = hewing to elite opinion = playing on easy mode” equivalence isn’t the right way to think of things.

Apples and oranges.

$3.5 trillion is hardly chump change even for the US Federal government, and much of that is clearly pork barrel spending aimed at the progressive left (e.g. hundreds of billions earmarked for Historic Black Universities). Which, incidentally, is why the infrastructure spending bill was held up: the progressive wing of the democrats was afraid they wouldn't get their promised payout in the form of Build Back Better. Getting that ridiculously large bribe through both houses of congress at all is an impressive flex, doing so in under a year even moreso.

A tax on unrealized capital gains, meanwhile, would explicitly violate Article I Section 9 of the constitution which forbids such direct taxes. Collecting federal income tax required passing the 16th Amendment and there is zero chance that a 28th amendment wealth tax would be approved. Which does support your argument, in that Biden would need to pack or strongarm the supreme court, so one point for you.

The issue with Medicare for All, like with Obamacare, is that nobody who says that phrase can agree on what it means. Which is why the AMA, despite passing without a single Republican vote, was such a mess: its supporters couldn't agree on what the bill they voted on should even say. If he wants some vague gesture at healthcare reform they can push AMA II through and figure out what to write in it after arbitration but it's not like Biden and the Democrats have a clear agenda item here. The biggest obstacle here is not the Republican opposition but their own deliberately unclear messaging.

So by my count, you have one case where in one case Biden seems to be getting what he wanted despite it being completely insane, one case where Biden may be genuinely stymied by the US Constitution, and one case where neither Biden nor anyone else knows what would constitute winning or losing. Not exactly the sort of sandbagging we saw over the last four years.

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“whereas it took Biden six months to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill that as far as I can tell nobody actually disagreed with.”

Really? Reason Magazine - and fiscal conservatives everywhere - disagreed with it. We’d have been better off to just pass nothing or failing that at least to leave out the parts of this bill that *actively make infrastructure more expensive* such as “buy american” provisions.

There exist conceivable versions of an “infrastructure bill” which would have been worth passing, but this wasn’t one of them.


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>After reading your comments, I think I understand the answer better: it’s not any particular policy, it’s that he was able to gain and hold power despite being conservative.

This seems too charitable towards the Orban supporters outside of Hungary, many of whom know almost nothing about Orban. When working with limited information, one does not have to have an opinion consistent with all the facts.

Lots of people like Orban because they think he has done so much to support conservative policies, even though in reality Orban has not done so much to support conservative policies. But I think most pople who like Orban do so because

(a) the "elites" dislike and fear him

(b) he (figuratively) tells people who are in power in Europe to fuck themselves.

As an American, you may not realise how invasive the EU is when it comes to national sovreignty and similar issues. Any figure who stands up to this and doesn't lose will be celebarted in some circles.

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I'm thinking a definition for democracy would help us a lot more than a definition for dictatorship.

I'm not particularly concerned with the minutia and flavours of various forms of autocrats, dictators, oligarchies, kelptocracies, etc. Perhaps some political science researcher will care to help them get published by generating a lot of jargon and models around the exact same thing. A tiny group of people, often with a singular figurehead or leader, get to decide everything for everyone else. Queue the 'how is this different to kings and feudal rule' and a long red herring discussion on that.

What matters more to me is how close or how far away we are from democratic rule, principles, processes, etc. Measuring things in a binary on/off 'voting vs no votign' equals democracy or not democracy is incredibly simplistic and uncharitable. And oddly uncaring about the thing I thought we cared about.

If anything it speaks to our mindset and history of kings ruling over us that our minds are parasitised to look for and examine 1000 and 1 minor differences between the type of king we have and democracy is reduced to 'election happened' or not.

Perhaps I'm thinking of some aristotelean ideal for democracy which has never been achieved anywhere, but it is at least good to have a target. And it isn't a novel or unusual way of approaching things. Beyond the headlines and moronic left right mind-killer arguments of which 'tribe' people are in, the more detailed researchers do look at things like press diversity, press freedom, economic factors, ease of starting new political parties in terms of process, fundraising rules, level of cronyism, etc.

It seems incredibly clear to me that all of the 'more like a democracy' principles are things Orban has undermined. And indeed, these principles are also lacking in almost every western nation where you can see even elite studies about elites doing elite things from Harvard show in the US the upper class get whatever laws they want passed almost all the time.

The poor know this and this non-democratic enfeeblement of their desires is why half of the US doesn't even bother to vote. Not voting is the best way they have to object to their disenfranchisement, as counterintuitve as the object-level meaning of those words are.

But so what? Orban and the US and Germany and whoever you want can be said to stray from democracy in any number of ways. The argument of 'Timmy stole cookies from the cookie jar too' doesn't hold up when little Bobby stole the cookie factory and put his friend in charge of it. Orban and Hungary have strayed much much furtehr away from the ideals of democracy and freedom and inclusion of all ideas in government.

I truly don't understand the idea of rejecting a king as a dictator, and then wanting to see one political party in charge as a not-dictator. The coalitions and whatever in pluralistic systems of voting where 10% of the votes = 10% of the seats in the legislature....that's a good thing in my view. The only part where it is 'bad' and 'oh no, the 'winning' party has to compromise' is from the King's view, not the democracy view of the world.

We have real factions in society and far more disagreement than not. So I'd be skeptical of anyone lamenting how an election and democracy does not result in a 'CLEAR' winner who then can or can't do whatever the hell they want. I'd rather have those factions and checks and balances who hold back the political party be other elected people rather than bureaucrats or elites.

In one system it is the elite educators, judges, and wealthy people acting like a not so mini oligarchy of views on and issues they care about being in a compromise with the elected winner.

In another system all of the diverse views of society where 20% of people think this and 30% think that and 10% think this and 5% think something else....they all duke it out in congress or parliament or whatever. Rather than using democracy to reduce all of society down to 'one winner' or a 'ruling party'.

Maybe it is MORE democratic if you NEVER have a RULING party. Perhaps the idea of this winner and ruling class who then go on to negotiate how the government will act with the elite power structure of non-elected people is not the ideal of democracy.

Those coalitions which have to form from many many parties is a better representation of the struggles people have. Why would we go from two neighbours disagreeing with each other to then having everyone vote such that only one of their views is 'in charge'.

Maybe you have a very different idea of what a democracy is or how to define it, but amongst Scott and the commenters and Scott's replies, it seems no one is in disagreement that Orban's views and actions are 'bad for democracy' in Hungary.

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Elective Dictatorship is good phrase to describe people like Orban. I learned about it from Caplan describing individual States in the US during covid, as (he argues) governors had effectively no check on their power. https://www.econlib.org/the-american-experiment-in-federalist-dictatorship/ but the expression seems to be older https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elective_dictatorship . Seems to be fitting for Orban as well?

Maybe a good litmus test for whether an area is democratic or not is if leaders can be thrown out if ~60% of the uniformly distributed population votes to throw them out? This deals with mild to moderate gerrymandering.

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> All of the things you accuse Orban of doing, are routine with the Left in most Western countries.

Your response to this focused on parliamentary procedure, but I think this is also wildly false regarding elections. Let's look at the US. Orban has been accused of making parliamentary districts vary wildly in size, with his political opponents packed into larger districts. US house districts don't vary much in size, but one party (it's the GOP) has managed to gain a bit of an advantage through strategically-shaped districts anyway. And US Senate districts do vary wildly in size, significantly to the benefit of Republicans. Presidential elections also work in a convoluted way that benefits Republicans; of the last three Presidential elections won by Republicans, the Republican candidate only won a plurality of the popular vote in one of them. (As a side note, it was also elements of the GOP that seriously attempted to remain in power after losing an election, though perhaps this doesn't technically count, as Orban was not accused of doing that.)

Orban was accused of controlling the media so no one could say anything bad about him. I must have missed the memo on the Democratic Party acquiring Fox News and the FCC shutting down conservative talk radio hosts.

Orban was accused of court packing. Some Democrats have talked about court packing sure, but who in the US has actually done anything remotely similar to that recently? Just the Republicans, who prevented Obama from filling court vacancies (most famously a Supreme Court seat, but also lower court vacancies), so that a Republican president would be able to fill more court positions later.

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Since the book club series focuses on biographies, perhaps "They Call Them 'Dictator' Book Club". Sort highlight the fact that the biographer is doing a lot of judging.

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"Are governments that try to control the bureaucracy more authoritarian than ones that don’t?

One argument in favor: I think most of us would agree that a government (here used as eg “the Tory government”, a particular political regime) which tries to control the judiciary and pack it with supporters is more authoritarian than one that doesn’t. A democracy is supposed to have some number of independent power centers to provide checks and balances, and if you put too much effort into making every power center bow to you, you stop having checks and balances, and become authoritarian."

I think, from a USA point of view, it is a mistake to match controlling the judiciary by packing the court with controlling the bureaucracy as a president, or even the Congress. In the first case, the Judicial Branch is one of the Big 3 power centers in the Constitution. The bureaucracy is a late comer, the result of legislative action and under the purview of the president, and not a distinct branch of the federal government in the Constitution. As such, controlling the bureaucracy is incumbent on the legislature and president; a fourth branch of the federal government operating independently of the legislative or executive branches is a big no-no.

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>either you’ll get stagnation and dysfunction, or you need someone who at least flirts with dictatorship

Isn't this the neoreactionary thesis?

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What always gets left out of foreign discussions of Hungarian politics is the fact the opposition party Jobbik was an ultra far right party until around the time people wanted to get rid of Orban. They had members that spat at the holocaust memorials and make public speeches about removing Zionists.

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I get a little uncomfortable with defenses of authoritarian leaders (there, I avoided "dictators") on the grounds that they improved the economy. That's what He Who Must Not Be Named Because of Godwin's Law did, and a common explanation of his popularity. That's not to say that any authoritarian leader who does the same is as bad as He Who ... It's to say that it's not a good defense of Orban as a leader because it could equally well be used to defend He Who ...

Stevenjbc writes: "All of the things you accuse Orban of doing, are routine with the Left in most Western countries. In fact, if he ever rigged an election it could be called "fortifying" it (see NYT on February 4, 2021)." Couldn't find anything in the NYT, but Time had a big article around that time about "fortifying" the 2020 election, an article which makes very clear the difference between fortifying and rigging. The fortification was to prevent rigging. No doubt a person rigging elections would call it "fortifying," but they'd be lying. Soviet dictatorships calling themselves "democracies" were lying: it was propaganda.

Vicoldi writes, "Most importantly, the gerrymandering problem is way less serious than the review portrays. I looked up the population of electoral districts, and all have population between 75 000 and 102 000." You've just proved there wasn't malapportionment. Doesn't say anything about gerrymandering.

Vicoldi also writes, "Orban won almost all districts. There is no gerrymandering that can explain that." Yes it can. See North Carolina.

I agree with Furrfu about the trappings of democracy and with Erusian about Magyar ethnicity: it's very crude to suggest that a break in ancestry, especially at many centuries' distance, means a break in ethnicity. Ethnicity and genetics are not identical.

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I wanted to write that I mostly reverse my Gell-Mann amnesia statement:

I think that the original post had a number of serious problems, but together with this Highlights post, it gives a pretty accurate picture of what's happening in Hungary.

Scott also gets some reverse-Gell-Mann points for not repating the frequent accusations about the anti-semitism of the anti-Soros crusade in Hungary. The anti-Soros campaign is often very nasty and demagogic, but Scott's sense is right, it is just the usual anti-billionaire-populism, nothing more.

Orban often makes it clear very explicitly how much he tries to be on good terms with Jewish people and has zero tolerace for anti-semitism. The allegations of anti-semitism appearing in the Western media is the same kind of dog-whistle-based accusations that were at some point made about Trump being an anti-semite.

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The narrative (in original review, but also in this post) relies heavily on the assumption that Hungarian elections are rigged, that Orban has gerrymandered districts and changed election rules so that he can not me removed (or at least it is very very hard to remove him).

After reading more about Hungarian electoral system, I do not think this is true. Yes, hungarians outside Hungary are overwhelmingly voting for Orban, but they are such a small fraction that they do not have meaningful impact. And claim about gerrymandering is just not true.

Orban wins because Hungary has quasi-majoritarian electoral system and his party is about 3 times more popular than other parties. In these circumstances it would be miracle for Orban not to win.

Sometimes you do not even need majoritarian system. In Sweden, Social Democrats were in power 40 years straight, Tage Erlander was prime minister for 23 years in a row. And they did not even need majoritarian system, it just meant that Social Democrats had 40-45% support and other parties had 10-15%. Does it mean that Sweden was not democracy or Erlander was dictator? I do not think so.

I would say this the crux of the issue. Is it possible to move Orban from power? Is it possible that opposition wins and Orban looses? In case of Hungary, I would say yes, you can compete with Orban and you can win. For instance, in case of Russia or Belorussia I would say no, you cannot compete and you cannot win.

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"[Having elite support means] you can do things like have an independent judiciary (because the elites in the judiciary will mostly be nice to you), have an independent media (because the elites in the media will mostly cover you positively), have independent academic experts (because they will say the evidence supports you), etc."

I think this statement, or at minimum the popular perception that this statement is true, underlies a lot of claims for the reform of partisan gerrymandering. I think that most principled conservatives recognize that gerrymandering can be abused, but at minimum it still represents an arena in which the parties can contend openly for their interests. Many of the proposed reformist alternatives involve giving power to officially non-partisan boards or committees, which sounds great in principle... but it's a lot easier to support such a system if you trust that the committees will err on the side of supporting you when things are murky and come down to judgment calls. Conservatives think that such boards, which are likely to be disproportionately "elite" at least in terms of education, will incline to favor the Left, and unlike in the case of open partisan gerrymandering (at least you can *try* to win elections when the districts are against you) there's not much that could be done to check the power of a nonpartisan commission once established. Drawing districts favoring your side is boring old partisanship, and both sides do it. Criticizing a "non-partisan" committee would likely be labelled a "threat to democracy" on some level.

So non-partisan commissions to draw districts are, or at least are perceived as, one more luxury that sounds good but in practice will help the pro-elite side. If you're on the pro-elite side, great; you will support such things. If not, you're stuck arguing against a seemingly attractive and pro-democracy measure, because you fear in practice it will help your opponents.

I know there are other proposals to entrust district-drawing to an algorithm, but this just kicks the problem up a level. Are algorithm programmers likely to be friendly to conservatives, as a demographic? Not social conservatives, I would guess (though Libertarians might fare better; not sure). Once again, the concern is that "neutral" decisions makers are not in fact neutral, and installing them would result in a world that is not only elite-slanted, but in which resisting the elite consensus comes across as "anti-democracy" as opposed to just partisan.

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> The USSR retained the trappings of its bottom-up grassroots democracy (that's what the "soviets" were) even while the Party took over real control.

I'd rather say that USSR retained the trappings of the trappings of its bottom-up grassroots democracy. Whether it was nearly as bottom-up grassroots as usually depicted is very doubtful. Community organizers / party activists would arrive from St. Petersburg or from the guberniya seat and put together soviets. Lenin's theory of bringing-from-without of revolutionary consciousness by the vanguard party explicitly stated that this was the right thing to do.

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> Yeah, I didn’t get into Orban’s crusade against George Soros. I think all the “no worse than Biden” people would have been extra angry about that one; is this different from the US crusade against the Koch Brothers?


> Maybe the difference is that it feels potentially anti-Semitic? But the same week I wrote my post, Congress was interrogating the Facebook whistleblower about what’s basically an accusation that a manipulative Jewish billionaire is responsible for all the political opinions we dislike, in a way contradicted by all the evidence. I think billionaires with political influence, Jewish or not, seem to be unpopular everywhere.


> That having been said, I disagree with this tendency, and Soros is a good example of why: billionaires are independent power centers who are able to build things without government approval, and so they play an important role in pushing back against authoritarianism. Orban trying to shut down Soros’ university was bad and I hope they’re able to figure something out to stay in Hungary.

Billionaires are also usually distinctly Anywhere people on the Somewhere-Anywhere spectrum, and Soros certainly is a supranational presence and as Anywhere/globalist as they come. A lot of at least European right wing populism is the rise of pro-Somewhere politics so hostility to Soros' ilk should be no surprise.

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Francis Fukuyama's Political Order and Political decay examines directly the question of the tradeoff between decisive government action and resistance to capture. You may find it useful.

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All of Soros' influence in the West is undermining of the West, Orban was right to ban it and every other Western country, if it was acting in the interest of its people, would follow suit. Same goes for many other of these globalists who are trying to spread lies through universities and the media and any lies in them should be punished, Same in politics. The practical effect would be that leftism would be impossible as leftism is nothing but false promise from freedom of laws of nature.

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If Orban is a "dictator", what's left for eternal Frau Merkel, and other quasi tyrants presiding over most of the western world? He's called names just because he deviates a little from the policies favored by the name-callers. Simple. Pure hypocrisy.

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Why an American conservative might be in favor of Orbán, despite his obvious flaws:


Probably someone already mentioned this article, but just to be sure.

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> glaring problems in this review [...] Most importantly, the gerrymendering problem is way less serious than the review portrays. I looked up the population of electoral districts, and all have population between 75 000 and 102 000. I couldn't find a source how the article quoted in the review got that 1 Fidesz vote = 2 Left votes, but it must have used some very creative accounting.

Scott linked to a source that said, "51% of voters will get only 33% of the seats. And Orbán will get his two-thirds."

With gerrymandering - and sometimes without gerrymandering - an outcome like this is possible even if all electoral districts have the same size, so it sounds like Vicoldi doesn't understand how gerrymandering works.

All systems based on single-winner electoral districts (and especially the first-past-the-post system used in the US, Canada, and I assume Hungary) tend to amplify the number of seats won by the largest parties. So this imbalance surely isn't entirely the fault of gerrymandering. But with gerrymandering it is possible to amplify winnings even further for one particular party—again, even if the population in each district is identical.

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