Dear friends of Istituto Acton,
It comes as no surprise that the March 4 Italian elections produced no clear winner. Recent changes to the electoral laws were made to try to produce one, but the system is still designed to prevent fascists and communists from coming to power. So Italy continues to oscillate ineffectually between center-left and center-right versions of Christian democracy, even though party bearing that noble name ceases to exist. Paralysis and inaction remain the norm.
The international media reported on the elections as a populist victory similar to those of Brexit and Trump. It was an easy and lazy way of placing Italy within the Anglosphere revolt against the ruling class, even if the Italian ruling class as personified by the unelected President of the Republic still gets to decide which type of coalition should govern Italy or if/when new elections will take place. Nothing of consequence has been or will be decided by the Italian people, whoever happens to be in power.
The libertarian in me used to think Rome and perhaps Italy are better governed when there is no government. When there are no politicians to strike against or complain about, so people just get on with their lives, which in Italy sometimes include business. But I was wrong. Strikes still take place. Businesses are still struggling. The heavy hand of the Italian State can frustrate, strangle and crush private initiative without actual politicians sitting in Parliament.
There’s no escaping the pervasiveness of the Italian State, so while it’s tempting to want to reduce its scope and scale, it simply is not a practicable solution. The question then is: Who will run the Behemoth in the least harmful way? As I wrote last month, the center-right coalition ran on a flat-tax platform. Comedian Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle doesn’t have a platform, asking its supporters to make policy suggestions through a website called Rousseau, which unsurprisingly wasn’t technologically adequate and soon crashed. The League also sounded a Rousseauian note, calling for a smaller, though not necessarily more virtuous, republic through the expulsion of illegal immigrants. Italians don’t seem to be holding their breath about any of these.
Despite high levels of unemployment, virtually no growth, and young people leaving the country as soon as they can (and, one must not forget, the absence of gli azzurri from this year’s World Cup), Italy still has its charms. The people have a sense that they will survive somehow, just as generations before have in worse circumstances, even if no one knows exactly how. Perhaps it’s because Italy, with its unique geography, history, art and food, will always be a popular tourist destination. But will it be anything more than that?
I used to think that the presence of the Vatican kept Rome from becoming like Athens: a city full of spectacular ruins from an ancient past but not much of a present or future. The students at the Pontifical Universities keep the place young and international; they turn into Romans of a sort and will take romanitas back to their homes. The pilgrims continue to come from all over the world to see not just the beautiful churches but the Vicar of Christ himself. More than anything or anyone else, the pope is what keeps Rome important on a global scale.
Yet even when it comes to the Church in Rome, I am beginning to have my doubts. By most accounts, Pope Francis was elected because he was an outsider and would have the independence to reform the quasi-feudal ways of the Roman Curia. He has consolidated a few Vatican offices, but, as the veteran Vatican journalist Joan Lewis reports, morale is low and direction is lacking. Vatican employees are not well-paid but enjoy generous benefits and job security, which the pope doesn’t want to take away. It’s especially hard to fire people when there are no jobs to be found in the Italian economy. And then there is “Lettergate,” a relatively minor scandal that typifies the defensiveness, incompetence and ideological leanings of the reformed Vatican.
The Vatican is, therefore, very much part of Italy. Both are deeply rooted in a more glorious past and suffer trying to keep up with the fast-changing postmodern world. As frustrated as I can get, though, I don’t want Italy to become like the UK or the US; I can reach those places easily enough thanks to convenient air travel, and they can even come to me via the globalization of Anglo-American culture and streaming internet (which usually works here). But at least these famous words of a great British politician can apply: To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely. It would also be nice if the graffiti was cleaned up, the trash collected, the buses ran on time, and the potholes were fixed.