Hungarian maverick outlines alternative to state ownership

By , Special correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

''Some call me utopian, others say I am crazy - and I'm neither!''

Whatever the reactions to him and his ideas, Tibor Liska, a Hungarian economics researcher, has at least raised considerable controversy and interest over his new ''model for socialist undertakings.''

Moreover, despite his challenge to much official thinking, he has tacit government approval - and a university grant that will enable him to continue working on his plan over the next three years.

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He has been working on economic reform since the 1960s. One of his earliest concepts - the necessity to base domestic prices on world market prices - was eventually embodied in the New Economic Mechanism adopted here in 1968. NEM marked an effective break from established Soviet economic practice.

Mr. Liska sees his system as an alternative to the orthodox ''socialist ownership'' pattern in East-bloc countries in general. He also sees it as an alternative to Hungary's own venture in a greatly reformed, almost market economy.

As remarkable as the implications of the model itself is its author's open advocacy of it. In no other East European country could he be allowed this.

Authorities here are now encouraging private initiative. They seem to be taking up some of Liska's proposals in the process.

Hungarian reform has been based on pragmatism and a readiness to experiment. The authorities are preparing to go even further to meet current difficulties. A slowdown of economic growth, a serious trade imbalance, and a standard of living with little chance of improvement in the near future are problems facing the government.

Mr. Liska is one of those articulate back-room boffins more indigenous to the West. He works in a small ''laboratory'' allotted him and a staff of three at the Economics University. Here, he talked at length with the Monitor about his research into ''entrepreneurialism for all,'' as he calls the opportunities underlying his system.

For him, neither the present socialist-communist world nor the capitalist has the answer to today's economic problems.

''Differing ideologies, yes,'' he says. ''But for the individual they are, in essence, pretty much the same.''

A ''socialist market economy,'' he goes on, ''cannot be created under state ownership. That simply promotes inefficiency, just as private ownership creates monopolies. Each leaves a society - of 'children,' so to speak, receiving pocket money - at the mercy of a minority which makes all the decisions.''

In place of either economic approach, he visualizes ''a society of commodity producers'' in a full market economy. It would give everyone a say in control of the means of production and a stake in the accumulation of ''socialist wealth'' for ''each and everyone's common good.''

The official view, of course, is that this is already done. Not so, Mr. Liska says. He visualizes - ultimately, in place of NEM - a state banking system acting as trustee of all state property. This bank would then put all production units - factories, shops, and services - up for public auction. The highest competent bidder would have rights to operate the production unit for his own profit.

Mr. Liska insists that ''the great masses of society, not a privileged establishment at the top, will be involved.''

Everyone, he says, would have the chance to participate on the basis of ''social inheritance.'' He describes this as the capital share of each citizen's entitlement in a country's material wealth, plus a margin of social benefits. It would act as a kind of credit-capital guarantee during a lifetime, he explains.

There are whole areas in which even Liska himself seems unclear as to how the system might apply. But he has tested it on specific problems such as housing. Here, he says, state policy has always created gross inequalities, with a small part of society privileged and a majority having to wait up to 15 years for a home.

Much better, he says, to let them ''gain'' enough in a free market so they can buy and build their own houses.

He sees this as part of a minimal program for selected areas where his ''contract'' system might be given a trial run. As further examples, he points to a large farm cooperative and a major steel plant. It appears that subsidiary ''mini-undertakings'' there have been leased out to groups of investing employees using enterprise facilities but working on their own time.

For political reasons, obviously, the leadership here is not going to swallow whole the Liska concepts on the all-embracing scale he ultimately proposes. But it is open enough to recognize the merits of some of the more immediate features of the concepts. And it is applying them to a number of businesses.

Nearly 100 trades are covered now, from the proverbial tinker and tailor to the baker, the grocer, and candlestick maker as well as electricians, electronics, and auto services.

The application of Liska's concepts does not impinge on the main body of state control over essential production and it really does no more than fill gaps between state enterprises, meet local needs, or provide services the government itself has failed to provide.

There is, nonetheless, still opposition from ideological dogmatists. Recently , the prime minister himself, Gyorgy Lazar, had to visit the party committee in one Budapest industrial district to smooth down local feeling over disparities in earnings. The discord arose from the profitable functioning of a small ''private'' association of workers inside a major enterprise.

''It is a means to an end,'' he assured critics opposed to such activities being permitted.

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