Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Government as Value-Reducer

The end of government?--I asked.   A cherished commentator responds: "Two words: Italy, Japan."

Ah, I suppose the point is that these are nations that run pretty well even though government is irrelevant--or worse a drag on-- ordinary life?  He's got a point--I might add China, where the state (=party) run economic establishment almost certainly sucks wealth out of the nation.  Purists will argue that all governments such wealth out of the nation; I'm, not willing to go nearly that far but the assertion does suggest an interesting research agenda: measuring how much government adds (positive or negative) by way of value.

Japan and Italy certainly are not DNA twins, but they do have some similarities.  In each case you've got a governing class that lies like an incubus on a society, and a society that does well in its own way anyway.  But there are differences.  In Japan the bureaucracy does play an inescapable role in organizing economic activity.  And whatever its shortcomings (many), I'd be willing to speculate that it still contributes something worthwhile to the national life.   Italy is in some ways more remarkable.  Italians from the Risorgimento to the Lateran Accord were taught (so it is said) that it wasn't a sin to evade their taxes.  Presumably those days ended, but apparently some Italians haven't yet got the memo.    The amazing thing has always been how well Italy works while carrying the government as a pesky but expensive irrelevance.  "And yet it moves," said Gallileo, under his breath: Eppur si muove.  I once read a book on Italian government bearing that title.

China is rather more of a special case because the "state" if you can call it that appears to function more and more as as business conglomerate of, by and for the princelings.  Just how this sort of thing could add wealth to the larger society is far from clear   Yet the larger society does seem to make amazing strides despite the drag.

So yes: societies may function, sometimes extraordinarily well, even in the teeth of governments that seem bent on doing everything they can to make good living impossible.

Anecdote: I had a student a few years back whose father was Italian.  "Does he ever go back?" I asked.  "Nah," I was told, "he hates the place.  He was there during World War II.   He was drafted into three different armies."

"Needless to say," he added, "he ran away from all three.

1 comment:

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

I can't resist adding my own father-in-Italy war story.

He went to Italy as a displaced person after the war. The Italian DP camps differed from the German concentration camps (of which he was also an alumnus) in one significant way: they didn't care whether their inmates lived or died. The concentration camps, of course, much preferred the latter.

Since my father preferred living, he set himself up as a petty smuggler. Cigarettes, I believe. Occasionally, the Italian cops would catch him. But they released him when he said the magic word: "Polacki." Three hots and a cot were no punishment in 1947, even with bars, especially if the alternative was a DP camp.

My father was only trying to spare them embarrassment, and the Italian cops appreciated it. I'm not sure if American cops would have behaved the same way under the same circumstances. Chalk one up for Italian anarchy.