Commentary

Why is the EU pushing villages?

Dozens of local mayors took advantage of free EU money to build houses for themselves – under the pretense that those are guest houses and will totally bring tourism into the hopeless little villages. It is a scandal, yes. But the real question is not why locals take advantage of dumb money. The question to ask is why the EU is pushing villages on us in the first place?

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Bódvalenke, European village. Photo: Viktória Fűrjes

EU central planners are not smarter than you or I. So when they set their innovative little minds to the sticky problem of rural poverty (as such) and a dire economic situation of thousands of pointless villages, they can’t come up with any ideas, (other than “village tourism” and the jobs it supposedly creates).

But EU bureaucrats shouldn’t come up with solutions. It is simply not their job. And who said that every village must remain inhabited anyway? Whose interest does that serve? Certainly not the locals’.

And the reason why central planners can’t come up with a silver bullet to solve villages might be that there may be no such thing. Or even if there is a solution, it is not one-size-fits-all. Only the villagers themselves can find their own solution. If they set their minds to it. If they don’t, if they have given up on those places, why would a central planning comrade push for those villages to keep being inhabited?

Whose interest is it that Hungary must keep having 3200 villages? It is not self-evident at all. And no, tourism is not a silver bullet.

Pouring a lot of money on dysfunctional systems can never work. Just look at international development, poverty alleviation schemes, or dumb charity. The lack of resources is only a part of the problem, and it is only a superficial issue compared to the fundamental dysfunction that need to be tackled first. Villages are no different. Their poverty is as much a result of their uselessness as it is a problem on its own right. You cannot alleviate village poverty with just money.

Many of the inhabitants of Hungarian villages have left during the last decades. There had been an exodus from villages to cities since the 1970s, long before exodus from the country became severe after around 2011. People who are still living there are often desperate to leave – but are stuck in a dead property market with their life savings built into their houses that can’t be sold. Many are already living on the largess of relatives who did leave.

The reason d’etre of villages used to be agriculture, but the world has changed – and for the better. Luckily, tens of thousands of people don’t have to toil the land at low efficiency to produce enough food anymore. Returning to such fragmented farming would result in disruption in food production.

The reason Hungarian politicians still want see people working the land (or standing by conveyor belts in factories) is that they are still stuck in feudalist times. They haven’t really understood anything that happened since, enlightenment, the industrial revolution still feel alien and suspicious to them. They are enjoying the benefits of the modern economy, but their central planning instinct is still shaped by simplistic, schoolboy-level thinking. They were, after all, socialized under communism, so their central planning instinct is hugely developed (even if they scoff at the word “communism”). And the idea of individual initiatives and free markets had only ever been skin deep. If at all.

Plus, they have the nationalists’ trademark false historic nostalgia, and they would leave a bunch of people living in the past if they could, wearing folk dresses, dancing folk dances, doing the village thing as the romanticists imagined it. But should anyone be the victim of the false nostalgia of a bunch of uneducated but overconfident politicians? Who should be the one to be left behind? Any volunteers?

Those politicians and their voters are quite happy to drive cars instead of donkey carts, wear lycra instead of hand-embroidered nonsense. Villagers today wear second-hand garbage anyway, and there is no reason to assume it had been better centuries ago when they toiled the land, owned by their landlords, and died young. It was not a desirable way of living by any standard.

Today, village life make less sense than ever. So why would the supposedly progressive EU push village living at any cost? And worst of all, push it on those who can’t afford it? There is nothing wrong with people living there voluntarily, but as things are, many are trapped by their lack of education, access to information, socialization that traps them before they even hit legal age, and most importantly, by their lack of resources to make the transition to towns or abroad where there is work, education and economic opportunities.

“Preserving” village life means prolonging the unsustainable economic misery of locals who will grow more and more dependent on the state and politics to deliver them basic goods, livelihoods and – the worst of all – “jobs”. Even if those jobs are underpaid, public work, or at a publicly subsidized factory that was richly paid off to employ a few skill-free locals in the middle of nowhere.

Why are we spending on factories to move to poor regions rather than spending on people and give them the opportunity to seek their own livelihoods – and let factories be built where it is economically rational? Why do we force every player against its own interest, when we could just assist their efforts to improve their own lives?

The calculation of public money spent on these “jobs” vs. the benefit they bring (to anyone) never holds water. Unless we calculate the political capital of local overlords who wanted a photo while cutting ribbons to pose as local saviors.

But the hypocrisy of “job creation” by politicians is rampant everywhere. It is one of the most poignant symptoms of central planning mentality that plagues the West and much the old communist East. And today, the EU.

When I was little, all my town-dwelling classmates could gleefully cite the “risks and side effects” disclaimer at the end of TV commercials in German. Being the top student of an elite school, it was quite unusual for me to be behind my classmates in anything, but their access to cable TV gave them an advantage I could never catch up on: they have heard spoken words in foreign languages and I haven’t. And that made a lot of difference.

Not having cable was really just a tiny, tiny example of rural disadvantage. Why would we expose even more people and hapless children to it?

Let’s face it, village living is a luxury. It costs more per resident to provide public services in villages. Extending cable and phone services, or later the internet had always been an issue, because it is rarely economically feasible. Providers are not allowed to charge as much as it costs to bring their services to remote places. So politicians start grandstanding, call these services human rights or simply just compel the providers to subsidize customers and build a sewage system miles away from the nearest inhabited area. Utility providers comply with the law and collect state subsidies in return, becoming dependent on state revenues.

If people who live in small villages can pay for it, it’s perfectly fine. But when they can’t, a vicious cycle of subsidized public and commercial services ensues, that makes village life look affordable so poor people get stuck there. After decades of such frantic efforts to subsidize village living, they can’t even understand that it’s not some kind of economic birthright. They expect public services and even jobs to come to them because reckless politicians provided those things. Everything suggested them that village living should be doable, and now so does the EU by subsidizing “local tourism”.

I used to be at the wrong end of rural disadvantage, and I know this is not the solution. Had there been mobility from villages, could my parents sell their house and find a job in a town or city, my life would have been significantly better. Bringing me (subsidized) cable services would only have eliminated one (tiny) problem. I could still not have access to a decent library, walk home after school (rather than commuting on the only afternoon bus), or see a movie in a cinema – a thing I haven’t done since I was 14. And that’s just culture. These villages are often use firewood, water comes from local wells and they have dodgy sewage systems, if at all.

Meddling in services by legal means and beating providers with the force of the law to force them to provide a service under its real cost backfires in a million ways. But we are too short-sighted to see regulation as a cause for a range of new problems. Every little authoritarian voter (which means a large chunk of society at any point) is just as soaked in the central planning mentality as their politicians and eurocrats are and believe that something can be done, the state is just not doing it. But maybe nothing can be done.

Having stayed in those village would have secured me a dead-end living, an underpaid job, always on the verge of unemployment and with no alternative jobs available. It would mean complete exposure to the broader economy without a single tool to control my own economic standing in it. I would be dependent on politicians’ largess, exposed to random laws, regulations or companies opening a factory where I am  – or not. I would be forced to subordinate my family planning decisions to match politicians’ whims. Then probably end up with more children that I can afford and see the promised state subsidy cancelled when they change course, unpredictably. It would depend on anyone but me how much I make, where I can work, whether I can afford heating in the winter. Absolute and complete dependence that would melt the mind of anyone. I understand more than anyone, how village life makes you susceptible to populism, authoritarianism, makes you accept (and demand) central planning, or a strongman. You are completely helpless.

If a bunch of hipsters decide to settle in a village, trade access to culture for bird song, and they bring their remote work with them or make the village viable somehow, let them do so. But can you grasp the human damage done by politicians and bureaucrats prolonging the economically unsustainable village existence of millions of people who should have found real occupation elsewhere already? Stifling social mobility for the sake of some noble goal that is nobody’s in particular? Reinforcing the false belief that someone has a “right” to live there? That the existence of each and every village is self-evident regardless of economic reality? How long can we deny economic logic? How long can we deny opportunities from those who want to get out?

I grew up in such a village so my question is more than rhetorical. Local schools are traps for kids. No one jumps out of that trap, and that is probably the point. We expect the impossible from kids when we pour money on these nonviable structures. You can’t get into higher education if you start your schools in a village, which is probably for the better because you couldn’t afford it if your parents live in a village. Affording rent in a town or city where higher education is available is impossible for many as local wages are even more shockingly low than the the country average. And that’s when someone has a job.

In my village, in the height of comfy-cosy goulash communism, only 17 people had a job: the grocer, the pub owner, a few teachers, and the local municipality workers. Underpaid, but jobs. A few more people commuted to the nearest town (there were two buses, one in the morning, one in the evening), out of nearly 2000 residents. People were mostly sitting outside of their houses, in the street, on benches, either gossiping viciously or permanently drunk. And that was the best time that village has ever seen. It went all downhill since.

Why is the survival of each and every village in the interest of anyone? Especially those who are stuck there? Any why should anyone else pay for it?

If it would be regarded as a costly way of living that brings its own perks, any only those who can afford it would move to a village, everyone would be in their logical place that brings them the most benefit. And paying for what they consume. Otherwise we are pouring taxpayer money on a goal that isn’t.

Whenever EU central planners see no hope for a village (which is often), they just write ‘tourism’. Because they genuinely can’t imagine a single other way for money to hit that village. It is as if they had an empty cell on their spreadsheet where the solution should go and they just filled it with ‘tourism’.

Tourism (or the hope thereof) is the fudge that makes central economic planning look economically feasible. If one lookout tower attracts 10 thousand tourists a year, ten will attract a hundred thousand and … ugh, we need at least six hotels to cater for all those nights spent in the village! Quick, we need a spa!

So they give money to build stuff a village doesn’t need: swimming pools, hotel spas, lookout towers, and guest houses. Then there is no money to heat the swimming pools, maintain the spas, or mow the lawn in the EU-funded arboretum. Or just to build a bloody bus shelter so that the local kids don’t have to wait in the rain twice a day during their daily commute to the nearest school. No, that would bring no prosperity to the village and it cannot be input in the spreadsheet as bringing imaginary returns in the future.

The Hungarian countryside is peppered with good-for-nothing hotels (pardon, ‘spas’) that are ugly and pointless and the only reason they have visitors is that people get part of their salaries in hotel-vouchers that can only be used in these nasty establishments. And some poor local kids have “jobs” there when they could just go and work in a real hotel that guests voluntarily visit. So that no one has to pay, bribe, or subsidize anyone.

NB:
1) People like villages more than they like people. They don’t give a second’s thought to those who live there. And this is why a politician can push any condescending nonsense through public opinion – while really just creating opportunities of public money theft and maintaining his own, little feudal kingdom. 
2) Being born there is not the same as moving there. Being born into a village is not a choice. Having the choice to move there is a luxury and should be regarded as such. 
3) Please don’t condescend to people who live in villages. They are not quaint, and oh-so-honest and hard-working. They are like you. Some jerks, some nice, many alcoholic, resigned, and desperate. Some would really-really like to leave. Don’t make that choice for them just because you want to sleep with the pleasant thought that they are out there somewhere.
4) Budapest suburbs and villages by the Balaton with vineyards are not the true face of village poverty. Moving there because you can is a fine choice. Now please respect the choice of those who may try to leave actual, poor villages, but can’t because it has been on life support and they are stuck. 

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Featured image: Viktória Fűrjes

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5 thoughts on “Why is the EU pushing villages?

  1. While it has some pretty good points, and is generally true to a certain type of villages in Hungary and all over Europe, this generalization is blatant. Discarding ALL villages as non-viable does not help anybody. There is no general solution. In fact, there are places which need no solution or help at all. And there are ones, which need a little push to unleash their potential. And ofc there are the ones which are almost hopeless. When discussing a diverse group of anything (municipialities in our case), generalization is never the answer, but rather careful analysis and tailored and targeted solutions.

    I also grown up in a Hungarian village. In fact I we lived OUTSIDE of any inhabited area, in the middle of a forest until my age of 10. We did not moved there for fun, but because of my father’s job. But originally he was from the nearby village, so no, we were not some hipsters or smg. YET we had clean drinking water, lighting, electricity, heating, thousands of books, cable tv, and internet. Our household was in fact the 400th in Hungary to have internet (first 0,001%). I never needed bus to get to nursery, or school, as my parents took me there via car. We were not trapped there, we could also go to nearby towns, Budapest, etc via car, and also abroad: I have been to places all over Europe as a kid. And all of my friends wanted to visit our house-in-the-woods, and my birthday parties were always the best, because of the location. I loved growing up there, if I could start over, nowhere in the whole world I could find any better place.

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  2. “Who should be the one to be left behind? Any volunteers?”
    Actually, there are volunteers. Naturalism and/or romantic nostalgia is plentiful among the visitors of alternative-“medicine” blogs and ancient-Hungarian-themed events (or generally folk-culture traditionalist fairs), respectively. Despite the associations with opposite ends of the political spectrum, there is non-negligible overlap between their demographics; this overlap are the volunteers. I won’t call their decision sane or well-reasoned, but I’d respect it nonetheless. (One of my relatives is exactly such a person, and she explicitly wished she could move to a farm. The reason she couldn’t is because her husband had a job in town—duh.)

    “It was not a desirable way of living by any standard.”
    Well, actually, the number of people per village was low enough (within an order of magnitude from Dunbar’s number) that “everyone knew everyone” and there was a strongly-knit community (the graph of who knew whom was dense). This is more similar to the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) (i.e. hunter-gatherer groups) than city life (“atomization” and all that—a sparse graph of who knows whom), and sort of makes people happier. Maybe. I’m a nerd who writes about the density of social graphs, so I’m not the best person to judge how normal people want their social lives to look. And pardon the insult (if you take it as one—I hope you don’t), but based on the libertarian opinions, you are also a high-systematizing type of person.

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    • Not only do I have my opinion, but I am from such a village. The “tight-knit” loveliness everyone projects on villages is actually a suffocating stranglehold of bigotry. I.e the biggest bigot is the winner in the social hierarchy.

      Atomization? Sure, there is atomization (except, of course, voluntary friendships, that are NOT based on just being born into the same, small group). Why are people never worried about the cult-like potential of small, born-into groups?

      Sure, there is atomization. But that doesn’t mean that its opposite is a positive thing. Sure, they know each other. But that’s not sympathy. Condescension and mutual hatred is as thick as it gets. And I am yet to meet a “happy” village dweller when I visit. Depression, alcoholism, vicious gossiping and resigned desperation. An unhealthy mental and financial dependence on the local strongman and religious awe for the king because they feel absolutely helpless in their own lives. How is that something that must be maintained? Let alone that the subsidies are the cause of this dependency in the first place.

      The nicer people want to hear about the big, wide world when I visit. Some are livid with envy and attack my parents for being so bourgeois (they are poor, often don’t heat at the end of the month). They all want me to help their under-educated kids escape the village, many live on remittances sent by their own kids living in Budapest or Bavaria. Men are drunk all the time. Even when a factory opened in the nearest town, they didn’t get jobs because the daily bus runs an hour late to catch the shift’s start – and often breaks down.

      Naturalist nostalgia and romanticism are real, you are right. And I also respect that. But you also mentioned the problems with it. 1) A village is not like that IRL. A village might smell of cow manure rather than roses and dogs are barking rather than cars honking. I also heard the morons complaining, who moved there and hated the smell… 2) Money doesn’t go to villages voluntarily. If someone’s job is in the city, good for him. Now how is it help the poor sob who lives in that village and can’t choose to even commute to a city? I am not talking about affluent suburbs of Budapest here. But actual villages. If money doesn’t follow your volunteers into these villages, the the EU or the local politician shouldn’t throw other people’s money on it. I don’t care if they lose their constituency, I can live with that.

      It is written above that I have zero problem with a bunch or digital nomads moving there if they can make it work. But if they need EU or taxpayer money for that, it is not right. Why does the state take money from me and pay someone else’s rent? I have to count every cent I make, and couldn’t survive if I spent money at such low efficiency as the state does. Why is that money not left at people who made it – maybe they would spend it on something that actually makes someone better off.

      “Hunter-gatherer”? Seriously? Please don’t do that…

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    • Average people are—on a fundamental, “visceral”, “emotional” level—less bothered by hypocrisy and incoherence, but more concerned about group cohesion, status and following the norms than you are. Whether you put it as “they have internalized the bigotry so deeply they don’t even notice it” or not, for the most part they are like fish in water. Stop trying to model them as having coherent principles.

      Take your example of gossiping. If it were an unalloyed bad, why would many people, both rural and urban, *pay* for tabloids, soap operas and reality TV? I’m not saying that it’s healthy, but it must give them at least a temporary positive feeling—compare it to alcohol, if you wish; I repeat that I didn’t call it healthy.

      I actually agree that most villages are obsolete, and in principle their population should be resettled into a handful of metropolises. But I realize that this idea is both massively unpopular and is of simply impossible scope.

      “the local politician shouldn’t throw other people’s money on it. I don’t care if they lose their constituency, I can live with that.”
      Public choice theory? This video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rStL7niR7gs or the book it is based on?

      “Why is that money not left at people who made it?”
      Because many people think of altruism as a virtue. If they just donated privately, then those unvirtuous people who didn’t donate would be in relative terms better off. Thus they come together and agree to bind everyone by one rule t̶o̶ ̶r̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶m̶ ̶a̶l̶l̶.
      Or you could say that each individual voter supports more welfare because when he votes for it, he spends his money for 0.0001% part and other people’s money for 99.9999% part. And while he may not care about the recipient so much that he would give it 100% out of his own money, he does care enough to spend at the 0.0001% rate.

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    • “I actually agree that most villages are obsolete, and in principle their population should be resettled into a handful of metropolises.”
      A common ground between opinions could be to live and let live. There are villages which are self-sufficient, happy to be villages, and just wish to be left alone. Not only ones inhabited by resettling “hipsters”, but actual ones. Why would we condemn them? Why would we deem them a relic of past? Why would we strip them from their right of self-determination? Many places are only wish to be left alone. And I mean it economically too, not just politically. Today, the government sweep resources, taxes, fees from the local level to Budapest, and reallocate them on political terms. So those municipalities from Budapest to the smallest village which are self-suficient should really be granted broad automomy over both their political life and how they spend local tax revenues.

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