When the State Steals, the People Become Thieves
Friday we sailed around Capri and then across to the Bay of Salerno. Very few boats around, and nary a one of the luxury yachts so common in those waters. We went to a seaside restaurant, and were among a very few customers. The owner said it was the worst season he'd seen since the 1960s.
The spring weather has been unusually unpleasant, which no doubt accounts for at least part of the problem, but this lovely part of the world has long attracted lots of visitors regardless of the temperature. Most of the merchants I talked to blame the Treasury Police, whose numbers have increased as the tourists' have dropped. The Guardia di Finanza have huge powers to snoop, and they have taken to boarding yachts and asking all manner of questions of those on board: Do you own this? If not, from whom did you rent it? How much are you paying? How are you paying? Which credit card did you use (remember, you cannot pay in cash for anything more than a thousand euros)? And so forth. So when I hear European leaders carry on about stimulating "growth," I'm not very sympathetic. All over the continent, state organizations like the Guardia di Fiinanza are showing their citizens that the most important thing is tax collection, not freedom to create new wealth.
You hear stories every day that show how avid our governments are to get their hands on our money. I was talking to an American friend who married an Italian about 40 years ago, stayed married, got dual citizenship, and is now being asked by the Italian government to tell all about what she owns in the U.S., and by the American government to tell all about what she owns in Italy. We all know this is part of the scheme to get her money into the government coffers. Two coffers in this case.
It's discouraging to watch the states' appetite, both because it shows their contempt for us -- an old thought for the Italians, but a new one for most Americans, I believe -- and because it shows how little they understand economics and human nature. The normal human response to a state that enriches itself unfairly and mean-spiritedly, all the while pretending to be doing the opposite, is to try to outwit it or change the nature of the state. Our fall elections are all about changing it, and if that fails, we will see a sort of Italianization of America, complete with the creation of a black market for money, much as we've seen the creation of a black market for cigarettes. Here in Italy, those markets (and similar ones for prostitution and drugs) are largely operated by the famous triad of organized crime, the Sicilian Mafia, the Neapolitan Camorra, and the Calabrian N'Drangheta.
Italians are quite different from Americans, perhaps most of all in their pessimistic view of human nature and their rejection of "big ideas." They've certainly had their share of big ideas and grand enterprises, from the Roman Empire to the Catholic Church and the Florentine Renaissance. Daily life here unfolds against the background of the monuments of those glorious achievements. But most Italians do not believe they are capable of new enterprises of such quality. Indeed, a conservative friend of mine once admitted that he assumes any rich person has gotten wealthy because he has acted immorally.
Machiavelli: "Man is more inclined to do evil than to do good." But even Machiavelli believed that glory, even virtuous glory, is possible.
We Americans believe we are capable of anything, and we don't have to enter evil to accomplish glorious ends. That's what November 6th is all about.
Here and there, American faith creeps into Italian life. In the latest local elections, some maverick mayors were elected -- from Parma and Verona to Palermo -- who promise to pursue a more virtuous path. I hope they succeed, but recent history is not encouraging. The last effort along these lines -- the Northern League -- has been decimated after the discovery of financial corruption at the highest levels of the party, including the family of the longtime leader, Umberto Bossi.
Sound familiar? A firebrand promising to change the system turns out to be as corrupt as those he defeated, and uses the state to enrich his family and friends...and over time, the corruption defines the whole political system.
That is why we must keep fighting the state and demanding our own freedom. Otherwise the Feds will become the same sort of affliction as the Guardia di Finanza, snooping in places best left to us to manage...lest we, in turn, devote more and more of our energies to outwit them, thereby draining strength from our creative enterprises.
But then, crime can be very creative, can't it? Stay tuned...
(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.)