1526, Hungary, and All That
A holiday detour through history
LATIFUNDIA. Now, there’s a word that made us stop and Google it.
The holiday season is usually a great time to catch up on one’s bedtime reading. In keeping with this, last month we gifted ourselves (probably overriding Santa’s naughty list in the process) with Francis Fukuyama’s 2011 work The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, a gripping page-turner for nerds (like yours truly) and particularly for wannabe political scientists (again, like yours truly).
This was the book in which we had encountered that wonderfully delightful word, latifundia, which caused us to repeatedly utter it aloud one night – apropos of nothing – to the mystification of our TV-watching spouse, who thereupon braced herself for what she assumed was a husbandly onset. (Think John Cleese speaking in Italian and Russian to Jamie Lee Curtis in the movie A Fish Called Wanda.)
She had little to be concerned about in the event, as Dr. Fukuyama’s book proved thoroughly engrossing – in fact, far more satisfying for both halves of our brain than Acemoglu and Robinson’s more-recently published Why Nations Fail, which this (lazy) critic found somewhat repetitive and a chore to read.
As some of you know, and others may have guessed, the term latifundia is of Latin origin, and refers to large agricultural estates typically amassed by members of favored groups such as aristocracies, or military veterans, or religious organizations. The Romans were famous for the practice of awarding tracts of freshly-subjugated hinterland to loyal generals and centurions.
The caesars were neither the first nor last to incentivize an elite class using agrarian resources, i.e., both the land and the peasants. The Romans were pre-dated in this by the landholdings of bureaucrats of the Zhou and Han Dynasties, and were followed by medieval Europe’s feudal manors, Ottoman sipahis’ (cavalrymen’s) dirlik system, Spanish conquistadores’ encomiendas and haciendas (implemented in Latin America and Philippines), and many more. Fukuyama observed that “there is something like an iron law of latifundia in agrarian societies that says the rich will grow richer until they are stopped.”
The flip side of this is the likewise-iron, inescapable plight of the peasantry, serfs, or slaves. We are reminded of the befuddled refrain in the Ray Charles song Them That Got:
“That old sayin’ ‘them that’s got are them that gets’
Is somethin’ I can’t see.
If ya gotta have somethin’
Before you can get somethin’,
How d’ya get your first is still a myst’ry to me.”
It is truly fortunate that we live in an age where there are many ways for hard-working but otherwise ordinary folk to reach for a better life. However, the blessings of modernity remain uneven. Poverty and disparities in opportunity stubbornly persist, within both the developed and emerging worlds. Ray Charles sang plenty else that resonated with the urban underclass inhabiting the cracks of the late-20th century’s pre-eminent democracy.
This is an important point to make for the benefit of those who think that Philippines and similar countries are the only ones with room to improve. As Fukuyama noted, even mature democracies cannot afford the hubris of switching to autopilot, because change is constant. Institutions are prone to decay, and mighty empires may hasten to join Ozymandias in the dust, if succeeding generations of citizens become apathetic and lose their cohesiveness. (Note to the Hyperpower: the balkanization of public debate is symptom Number One, in our view.) Ultimately, it is people who animate their institutions. It is people, through both individual and collective decisions and actions, that preserve, tweak, or supplant these over time.
Fukuyama identified as essential three political institutions: (1) a strong state; (2) an exogenous legal framework (a “rule of law”) such as a constitution interpreted by independent courts; and (3) the vigilant enforcement of accountability (especially with respect to rights and freedoms, and public finance) upon the state. Per his framework, which he has applied (to see “whether the shoe fits”) to ancient China, ancient India, the Islamic world, and various countries in Western and Eastern Europe, any society prospers and endures based on the interplay (or failure thereof) among said three institutions.
Dr. Fukuyama is one of the more colorful figures in today’s pantheon of big thinkers. He started out as a protégé of the late Samuel Huntington (he of the clash-of-civilizations worldview), and then became one of the leading lights in the Neoconservative movement, which made itself most felt during the Reagan and Younger-Bush administrations. Fukuyama made a splashy debut on the public stage in 1992, when he published the triumphalist The End of History and the Last Man, which viewed the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as both validation and evidence of exportability of American-style democratic and governance institutions.
What makes Fukuyama interesting is that he is capable of changing his mind – a skill he probably was forced to learn when public opinion turned against his 1992 book, when subsequent events in the ex-Soviet bloc slouched messily in unexpected directions, and as the rise of communist China became increasingly harder to explain away). By the second Iraq invasion, Fukuyama had already distanced himself from some of his earlier positions (and from the Neocon wing in the Bush White House), notably regarding how readily transplantable Western political institutions really are into places where the historical, cultural, political, social and religious development paths are totally alien.
We find Fukuyama’s survey of political institutions convincing for the most part. As a matter of fact, we feel his book ought to be designated by the Philippines’ Department of Education as a mandatory high school textbook (maybe for Grades 11 or 12?), as a key toolkit for every would-be citizen, voter, and taxpayer. (And we keenly look forward to his post-French Revolution sequel, due out in 2014 and supposedly to be titled Political Order and Political Decay, nearly as fervently as we yearn for the final part of The Hobbit trilogy.)
If the Fukuyama hypothesis on institutions is indeed valid and sufficiently comprehensive, what does it mean for Philippines, looking forward? Well, we found his evaluation of Hungary’s experience particularly instructive and cautionary.
Everyone knows about the Magna Carta, which rebellious English barons had imposed as an early form of a Bill of Rights on King John at Runnymede in 1215. However, we’d bet that fewer have heard of the Golden Bull, negotiated merely seven years later between King Andrew II of Hungary and his own upset constituency of hereditary noblemen. (Some historians think the English had regaled their Hungarian friends with tales of King John’s submission as they rode together on the Fifth Crusade. Ah, the benefits of shop talk!)
The subsequent paths of England and Hungary proved extremely different, as we all know. Whereas the Magna Carta posed an effective check against a capricious Angevin monarchy, the Golden Bull of 1222 overly sapped the power of the Hungarian state (i.e., starved it of the needed tax revenues and provincial warlords' automatic military cooperation), such that by the time the Mongols came a-pillaging in 1241, there was inadequate political unity and military force to prevent the decimation of as much as 50% of the kingdom’s population and the destruction of up to 80% of all settlements and villages (both upper-end estimates).
Although the Mongols did not linger long, the haplessness of Hungary’s central government in the face of squabbles among latifundia-saturated barons got decisively demonstrated when the Ottoman Empire caused the dismemberment of the country into three separate territories after the Battle of Mohács in 1526. An independent Hungary was thereby effectively erased from all maps for a number of centuries. In that particular game of thrones, it was the imbalance of power between a supine state and powerful elites which proved to be the existential determinant. That, in turn, went down to key differences in content (i.e., the nature of the obligations and the severity of the implications thereof) between the 1215 English Magna Carta and the 1222 Hungarian Golden Bull.
And so our mind wanders back to the familiar archipelago of our birth. Latifundia may no longer be a central issue in Philippines in this day and age, but wealthy and powerful elites are still very much an obstacle to inclusive growth, equality of opportunity, internal peace, and, if you think about it, even national defense. On the bright side, we take as institutionally-constructive the fact that of late civil society has been energetically probing how government, and the elites who have captured it, have been misusing our taxes.
But on the other hand, we Filipinos badly need to accelerate the shoring up of our political institutions, because external and internal challenges will not wait. Super-typhoons can be expected to recur more frequently henceforth (perhaps at least twice a year?). The regional hegemon can be conservatively assumed to further escalate its provocations within the West Philippine Sea (that’s just realpolitik; like medieval Hungary, Philippines today just happens to be a buffer state caught between larger powers; it needs to rapidly beef up so as not to get pushed around any longer). And worst of all by far: the current bumper crop of youth could become disillusioned and apathetic toward how they are governed, if we, their elders, continue to fiddle to the crackling of the flames (with we and our children being the lechon).
Taxation, the proper use of public monies, the strengthening of the state vis-à-vis the local elite, and other lessons from The Origins of Political Order are all matters that lie at the very heart of this nation’s survival.
Well, that’s enough intellectual self-gratification for the time being. We’d best get back to our day job, which by the way is professional private equity for mid-cap businesses.
(Hmmm… now, that’s just the kind of elite-disrupting activity that we like and our country needs.)
May everyone have a very busy and happy 2014!
 Any canonical Ray Charles set on the angst of the marginalized must include: It Should’ve Been Me (on envy of others’ conspicuous consumption); Living for the City (written by fellow visually-impaired artist Stevie Wonder on the prohibitive cost of urban living for the blue-collar sector); and I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town (on dreams of suburbia).
 Trivial Pursuit: Interestingly, Hungary’s turning point happened only five years after Ferdinand Magellan got whacked by Lapu-Lapu in the surf off Mactan Island.
The opinions expressed herein are the writer’s own, and are not necessarily official positions of Angeon Advisors Ltd. Neither the writer nor Angeon makes any representations or warranties as to the accuracy or reliability of the materials contained herein.
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