How bad government can mean a better society

By huge irony, bad government can be good for society.  Which actually means that bad government is good government.  How can that be?

The Hungarian government has handled the refugee crisis in a quixotic manner.  This year it has taken two main policy steps to deal with the ca. 150,000 refugees / migrants / asylum seekers who have entered the country this year.  First, it launched a national bill-board campaign with sentences, in Hungarian, such as: “If you come to Hungary, you can’t take work away from Hungarians.”  The tone of this campaign provoked division in the country: it stoked up anti-immigrants (mainly right-wingers of different kinds); and it enraged people of more liberal disposition.  So that was very unhelpful and probably deliberately so.  The confusion of immigration and terrorism in a national consultation on immigration policy was deliberate and wrong.

Then it decided, with the skimpiest of consultation, to build a 175km razor-wire fence along the Serbian border where most of the refugees / migrants / asylum seekers come in from.  The fence is being built at such a pace that the military and the unemployed are being recruited to help in the effort.

I don’t think the Hungarians are any better or worse than other countries.  Slovakia recently announced it would only let Christians in.  Macedonia had to resort to tear gas.  The British are relying on a fence in Calais for the management of their immigration policy.  None of this is worthy or intelligent. It is just that behaviour like this in the nature of people with power.

So how can this bad government be good for a country?

Since June this year in Hungary numerous voluntary groups have sprouted up, mainly over the medium of Facebook, to organise and focus efforts of ordinary citizens to help the refugees.  Some help refuges immediately on their arrival in Hungary; others cook for them; others help them on their way from the entry point to the designated camps which are hundreds of kilometres away. Many of these activities are focussed around the railway stations.

Often for the first time, thousands of us are getting involved in volunteering.  We meet victims of war for the first time.  We have amazing conversations with people from countries we know little about: Afghanistan, Cameroon, Iran, Iraq, Mali, Senegal or Syria.  On one bewildering evening I met a senior official from the Ministry of Pilgrimage in Kabul; a biologist from Senegal; helped a Syrian man clean his grotesquely blistered feet.  We are witness to the extraordinary and the surprising.  Some get up at dawn, others stay to the early hours with a motivation much stronger than that of making money.

Because railway stations are a melting pot of all walks of life, we meet and talk to homeless people, railway officials, cleaners, policemen, security guards – people we might never talk to in our normal lives.  We hear their stories, we have drink coffee with them.  We learn that other people in Hungary have similar views and values.  We also practise engaging with people whose views and values do appear to be quite different.

And in a way it is selfish: ironically you learn that volunteering is enriching and enjoyable.

Through this process Hungarian society is being enriched.  Ordinary people are learning new skills, learning about people and the world and its complexities and subtleties; forming new friendships and communities; having new encounters and discussions; revising their political views.

The government might have acted with clinical, Swiss efficiency, where refugees would pass unseen into hermetic processing centres.  But then we would never have experienced any of the above.  There are hundreds of meetings, conversations, emotions and experiences we would never have had.

Bad government can give ordinary people the opportunity to live life in a more meaningful way.  On reflection it is obvious: we leave the government to do one of the most important, enriching human activities: caring for others.  This is no excuse for incompetence, nastiness and corruption.  But when the government fails, and we are left to our own devices, we have a chance to pick up the pieces and become richer for it.

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