Lack of civic culture
Closely related to the distaste for meritocracy and the obsession with family is the weak sense of a civic culture or virtue in Italy, which expresses itself in everything from the inability to form lines to the ubiquitous graffiti and trash in many southern cities to the widespread tax evasion and persistent strength of the Mafia. The all-too-common Italian attitude is that while taking responsibility for family is fundamental, beyond that, “What can you do?”
This concept of the “amoral family,” first articulated by American political scientist Edward Banfield, may not be surprising for a country that, for 1,500 years after the fall of the Roman empire, was constantly being taken over by one foreign power or feudal state after another. It was perhaps only natural that Italians are inclined to view government as hostile, taxes more like tribute and the court system more an instrument of social control than a source of justice.
The problem, however, is that if people don’t expect each other to be fair and honest, if they don’t trust the government or can’t rely on the courts, if they don’t see that their willingness to wait their turn or throw out their trash will be reciprocated by others — then it’s hard to create an economic environment where highly competitive businesses can grow and prosper.
“You can’t have a modern economy without social capital,” says Sergio Fabbrini, director of the Luiss School of Government in Rome.
A case in point is the judicial system, which by some calculations takes an average of 20 years to impose a criminal sentence or 10 years to resolve a civil dispute. And yet despite this extraordinary backlog, judges routinely take three months off in the summer.
Long vacations, however, are only a small part of the explanation. The bigger part is the insistence on endless appeals of every matter, along with the complexity and endemic contradictions in Italian law. “Ours is a system of lawyers, not laws,” quipped one businessman.
This lack of a civic culture extends even to the upper reaches of Italy’s business elite, who, for the most part, remain removed from the political process and political conversation — a cynical apathy that Italians refer to as qualunquismo. I can’t quite figure whether this stems from aristocratic hauteur or the fetish about privacy or some fear of opening themselves up to attack or scrutiny by the tax authorities. Surely their acquiescence helps to explain why a corrupt and comic Berlusconi was allowed to stay in power as long as he did, even as the economy continued to slide. Now, as Monti struggles to overcome resistance from myriad opponents of liberalization, the absence of vocal support from the business elites is rather striking.
“Our elites are very selfish, very parochial, very self-satisfied,” said one of Italy’s leading journalists. Like many Italians I spoke with, he found it curious that I would even ask about the role played by corporate and professional elites.
Despite all of the legal and cultural impediments, there are thousands of firms that have managed to succeed, making Italy the No. 2 industrial producer in Europe and generating sufficient exports to roughly balance the country’s trade accounts. Because of them, there are parts of Italy that are as wealthy, innovative and productive as the most prosperous regions of France or Germany. The problem is that these companies are too few and their continued growth is often frustrated by the prevailing business culture and the financial requirements of carrying the parts of the country that are economically more like Greece and Portugal. Too many of the best people leave. Too much of the best technology is sold off for a pittance. Too much of the country’s wealth is invested elsewhere.
If Monti is to succeed in his reform efforts, he needs to refocus public and political attention on these globally competitive firms, celebrating their triumphs, channeling capital and talent in their direction and building an economic policy framework around their continued success. Most of all, he needs to enlist their leaders as vocal supporters for his reform agenda and as founding members of a new political and economic establishment.
Without such a changing of the guard, without a cultural and political revolution, it’s hard to see how this lovable and charming bastion of old Europe can emerge from the euro crisis with much hope for its economic future.
“I am not happy to say it, but I am afraid that Italy is doomed to continue on this path of a long, steady decline,” said Roberto Perotti, a leading economist at Bocconi. “What is wrong with Italy is the attitude of the people and the society.”