Siklaki: This is just how we Hungarians are

February 5, 2018

István Siklaki | Photo: Berecz

In an interview with, social psychologist István Siklaki explains how Hungary’s anointed class of businessmen with close ties to the government rationalize (or justify) what would otherwise be considered theft.

NER lovagok: noun Knights of the System of National Cooperation, a term to describe the class of anointed individuals who enjoy the economic benefits and legal protection arising from their relationship with Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, and especially with its chairman, Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister.

Siklaki explains there are three ways people rationalize theft:

  • Firstly, they consider the potential profits;
  • Secondly, they consider the risk of being caught; and
  • Thirdly, they consider the consequences of being caught (whether it’s worth the risk).

The problem, Siklaki says, is that humans do not exactly operate this way. To approach the idea of theft rationally would mean that people would steal more if there was no risk of getting caught. But studies have found that that is not the case. On average, he says, most people stop at stealing when they have reached 20 percent of what they could actually get away with.

So why don’t people steal more? According to Siklaki, the cap is imposed by the desire to preserve a self-respecting image of oneself.

“The opportunity to cheat creates a dilemma for people,” Siklaki says. “On one hand, there is the temptation of easy gain, but at the same time people want to think of themselves as being reputable. The way we resolve this situation is by stealing, but only a little. This is also important because economic studies have found that everyday small theft does far more damage – from the national economy point of view – than larger, more spectacular corruption cases.”

Siklaki says no one is immune to stealing.

“Realistically, there is no person who can completely reject this temptation. It’s universal. The difference, however, is in the extent to which people violate which rules to what extent. There are differences to the limits of individuals and even societies,” he adds.

On whether value of what’s stolen influences what people are prepared to justify for themselves, Siklaki says: “The psychology of exonerating oneself is the same, but we undoubtedly use different excuses. The value of what is stolen certainly matters.”

On whether the Knights of NER and lowly pickpockets use the same excuse to justify stealing, Siklaki says: “I don’t think so. I think the Knights of System of National Cooperation do not actually believe they are committing a crime by stealing. Nay! They believe they are serving the objective of seeing a rise to the national middle class, that they are serving the public good. This is a political ideology, one that a simple pickpocket most certainly doesn’t claim to adhere to. A great example of this intellectual self-justification is the statement by András Lánczi, who claimed that what people believe is corruption is actually the government’s policy. Of course, this does not change the fact that it is still theft and not some patriotic act.”

Is “the rising national middle class” just word magic? Siklaki says it is: “Political ideology has an impact on our use of language, it rapes it. In the English language, for instance, there is no difference between cheating and corruption — both are used to explain the unlawful obtaining of gains. At the same time, the word ‘corruption’ has become popular in the Hungarian press and has lost a bit of its meaning. On one hand, it projects the notion that the act is a type of stealing that is different from the everyday kind of theft. At the same time, it almost shrugs responsibility for the act further away in distance. People cannot grasp the stolen billions. It’s the same with the word ‘corruption.’ There are no visible victims. It’s as though the nameless taxpayer doesn’t even exist.”

According to Siklaki, this is just how Hungarians are and Orbán is playing on this.

“Hungarian society has historically been socialized [to accept] that a very narrow political minority rules over the nation’s assets. This is how it was under the Horthy and Kádár systems. It’s not nice, we don’t like it, but this how the world and we Hungarians are. This is pretty much how we approach the theft of what otherwise belongs to the public. Unfortunately, Orbán plays on this, it strengthens this otherwise unfortunate societal custom. I think the prime minister deliberately projects the notion that he and his family members are above the law — and that includes his political family, Fidesz. Under the Kádár system, the rural party secretary had just as much influence over the public’s assets as Lőrinc Mészáros has today as an oligarch. This certainly does serve as an example.”

Siklaki argues that a reflex kicks in when people feel like they have no influence over public matters, that is, people start looking for ways to game the system. This reflex become an everyday activity.