September 1, 2015

REFORM YES, CHANGE NO: Defying the EU the Italian Way.

Laws are passed, prime ministers take bows for the camera, and then…nothing.
Why? For one thing, even after parliament passes a bill and the president signs it into law, it isn’t quite law yet. The bureaucrats still have to issue an implementation decree that defines how, exactly, the law will be carried out. This can take months, years, even forever—and by the time the implementation protocols emerge from the bowels of the bureaucracy, they have often been amended and weakened to the point that they change little or nothing.

And the bureaucrats have an easy time of it; Italian reform laws tend to be thought through poorly and drafted poorly, and they are then amended in a complicated legislative process that usually both weakens the intent of the law and complicates its execution. All of that provides plenty of grounds for the bureaucrats to “interpret” what’s left into something bland and ineffective.

The second big reason is that the Italian state is weak—it is not very good at making people do what they don’t want to do, especially in the South. After all, the Mafia and other organized crime associations have been defying governments since the Middle Ages. They are still at it today, and Italy is a prime case. The politicians and even the bureaucrats in far away Rome may have decreed reforms, say, in the trash hauling business, but what matters much, much more to the officials on the ground in South Italy is what Tony Soprano thinks about the reforms.

Beyond that, Italy has far too many local governments. It has twice as many municipalities and towns, for example, as the much larger and more populous United States. The central government doesn’t have enough inspectors and overseers to keep them all in line, and even if it did, the inspectors and the overseers would often sympathize more with their fellow bureaucrats than with the grandstanding politicians in parliament. Beyond that, firing a tenured civil servant in Italy is virtually impossible, meaning that bureaucrats can pretty much run their offices to suit themselves.

Italy is far more sophisticated and clever, that is, than the hot-headed Greeks. Syriza is a party of naifs who made the mistake of attacking Germany and Brussels head-on. Italy is savvier than that: it knows how to say “yes” and look busy while doing little or nothing. Italy has a long history of using that strategy. The Goths conquered Rome and did a lot of damage—but they didn’t change Italy much. German emperors strutted through the halls of Italy’s palaces and issued decrees to both princes and popes—and Italy kept on being Italian all the same.

Perhaps we Americans should deal with our own ruling class the same way.