Hungary is about to nationalize its textbook industry: Could America be next?


WASHINGTON, August 29, 2014 — In a bold move, the Hungarian government has decided to nationalize its textbook industry, thereby becoming the single publisher of educational books for its primary schools.

Leading the charge is Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who justified the controversial decision with the same language that every leader has used on the eve of nationalization: he says that it will help to curb the “exorbitant” profits made by textbook publishers. Others have said that it will potentially damage Hungary’s entire publishing industry.

Hungary’s primary education publishing market is valued at around $64 million USD.

The transition will take place in September of 2014. Under this new plan, two books per subject will be made available for teachers to choose from, and will be prepared, published, and distributed by the Hungarian government.

Péter László Zentai, director of the Hungarian Publishers’ and Booksellers’ Association, has said that publishers will need to petition the European Court of Human Rights if they intend to seek a resolution.

Orbán’s plan for textbook nationalization is just one part of a larger effort to stimulate the country’s foundering economy. Hungary’s utility companies, banks, and pension funds have also been targeted for nationalization.

Meanwhile, in Poland and South Africa, textbook nationalization is also being considered. So where does that leave the United States?

In America, the word nationalization is more-or-less universally accepted as anathema to capitalism and the free market, but could exceptions be made? Are there situations where nationalization isn’t just a bold idea, but also the ethically correct one?

Consider the state of the textbook industry in the United States right now. In a study conducted by Rutgers University, more than 2,000 students were asked if they had decided against buying a textbook for one of their classes. 65% indicated that they had, and cited high prices as the reason.

While that’s a relatively slim majority, the same survey also found that about 94% of the same student body was concerned that the lack of a textbook would impact their grades; 55% were “significantly” concerned.

More troubling is the apparent “ripple effect” that high textbook prices have on students. 48% of respondents in Rutgers’ student survey indicated that high textbook costs had, to varying degrees, influenced which classes they had elected to take.

The fallout from Hungary’s bold push for nationalization is, so far, unclear. The country has a history of putting companies, both small and large, out of business; after nationalizing the tobacco industry, thousands of previously successful businesses were forced to shut down. Critics of Orbán’s plan warn that the same thing will happen when the textbook industry falls under governmental control.

Even the most libertarian-leaning political enthusiast should be given pause by the moral dilemma now before us. The government almost never does a better job at, well, anything than the private sector, making nationalization feel like a gigantic step backward for not only American consumers, but for American intellectual pursuits.

That said, our education system belongs to the people, just as the government belongs to the people. And it goes well beyond mere intellectual property laws; access to the combined knowledge of humankind certainly feels like something that should be a universal right.

That said, the only way this could possibly work in the United States is if the government put together an autonomous, non-partisan governing body to oversee the textbook industry in its new form. They’d have to be pulled from the nation’s leading academic organizations, ensuring a very high quality of informed, impartial, and intellectually-driven oversight.

But let’s face it: the federal government does a spectacularly poor job of insulating itself from corruption, capitalistic influence, and ignorance. We have no reason to think that even an independent textbook oversight committee would fare better.

The government would have to do a significantly better job at insulating this autonomous committee from influence, bias, and corruption than it’s so far done for the government proper. But then there’s still the matter of dismantling and reinventing a successful private sector industry.

And so we see how this would all fall apart almost immediately.

Consolidating something as essential as human knowledge from the hands of the many into the hands of the few is almost certainly a terrible idea. The only reason we’re not already rewriting our own history is because there are enough publishers on the field to ensure that what’s printed remains more-or-less true to reality.

The good news is that the situation is nowhere near as hopeless as it sounds. A number of attractive alternatives are already in play, and they may have a significant impact on the future of both publisher profits and educational excellence.

Massive, Open, Online Courses (MOOCs) have come up in discussions about what the heir apparent to the textbook might be, and it’s reached the point where many of the country’s most prestigious universities are building their own online courses. So-called “open textbooks” have also shown promise. This type of college text is released using an open-source license that allows for free and convenient digital access, inexpensive printing, and customization by teachers and professors.

What’s clear right now is that the textbook industry is in a strange and transitory place. With fewer and fewer students willing to pay outrageous sums for heavy, expensive, and quickly outdated textbooks, publishers are looking elsewhere for ways to remain in the green while still providing students with the course materials they need.

In a more general sense, we hyave been moving away from physical mediums for quite some time now, in a variety of industries. Music, books, movies, and even video games have been gravitating toward digital distribution for many years – a distribution method that should, at least in theory, pass on to customers the savings enjoyed from the much lower production costs.

Hungary’s heart is in the right place. There are few things as worthy of our tax dollars and governmental support as education. However, placing it even more firmly in the hands of an increasingly unscrupulous governing body, however well-intentioned at the start, is the first step down a dark road indeed.

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