Are Italians a libertarian people?

This might seem an odd question to ask. Italy, after all, is hardly known for its fiscal responsibility, low taxes and light regulation. It is far better known for its corruption, financial incompetence, high taxes, paralysing labour regulation and for having a postal service so unreliable most eBay sellers won’t ship there. In short, it embodies all the worst aspects of Britain in the 1970s.

But, as we Conservatives like to say, there is a world of difference between society and the state. And, as libertarians like to say, there is a world of difference between society and individuals. These home truths were driven home to me recently while reading ‘The Europeans’ by Luigi Barzini. The book, published in 1983, was the last great work by this legendary Italian journalist, writer and Liberal politician, who died the following year.

In his chapter on ‘The Flexible Italians’, he paints a portrait of a people fiercely protective of their liberty and individualism, making their way in the world via a network of close and extended family, friends and allies while largely ignoring the overbearing taxes, regulations and laws imposed on them by the state; believing in ‘private truths and public lies’.

Barzini gives an amusing example of this Italian proto-libertarianism and a determination to make their own decisions rather than blindly follow rules. On Italian train windows, he says, there are signs in French and German which read Il est défendu de se pencher en dehors (It is forbidden to lean out) and Nicht hinauslehnen (Do not lean out). The Italian sign, however, is the mere courteous suggestion of È pericoloso sporgenti (It is dangerous to lean out).

Italy’s perennially chaotic and weak governments are another symptom of this, Barzini says, because ‘their impotence preserved what most Italians conceived as liberty, the liberty from overambitious laws and excessive taxes which, if applied, would have gummed up all activities.’ This was likened by one observer, he adds, as ‘the liveliness of worms on a dead body.’

On the face of it this presents something of a problem for libertarians. Here is a people that happily ignores the state, will not be told, prefers to make its own informed decisions, relies on strong familial and friendly networks and has a somewhat ‘casual’ attitude to paying taxes. And yet, as if to prove to statists right, it is arguably these very traits which have consistently held Italy back, eroded the rule of law and contributed to the chaotic situation it is now in.

It could suggest that, but I do not believe that is the correct interpretation. This is because the ideal of the small state is not the same as the large state that everybody chooses to ignore. Indeed, while the former is the ideal of good governance (strong institutions that preserve order but do not intrude; laws that set the rules of discourse but not of discourse itself), the latter is probably the single most destructive thing to legitimate authority and order.

It is the excess of laws and taxes in Italy which are the problem, not the people, in whom all legitimate authority rests. As quoted above, if all the taxes, laws and regulations on la repubblica‘s statute books were actually enforced, the entire country would be brought to a standstill. Italy’s first president, the economist Luigi Einaudi, said repeatedly ‘If all the taxes on the books were collected, the state would absorb 150 per cent of the national revenue’.

And yet, when so many pointless, unworkable and unenforceable laws and taxes exist, what reason does a man have to follow the legitimate ones? How can he even distinguish between them? Why should he show any respect for his leaders or institutions which are meant to uphold the conditions for liberty?

Sadly Britain – traditionally a bastion of rational lawmaking – is beginning to slide in this direction. Every crisis must be immediately followed by rushed and ill-conceived legislation, whether it warrants any or not, and unenforceable laws such as the smacking and fox hunting bans were a signature of the New Labour years. The dreaded term ‘to send a message’ is becoming more frequently used.

Happily, in Italy at least, a reaction against this state of affairs is gaining ground. Tea Party Italia has been established to gather together ‘the galaxy of liberal, libertarian and conservative Italians’ under the motto ‘Meno Tasse, Più Libertà!’ – Less Taxes, More Liberty!

It seeks, through popular pressure on politicians, to lower taxes, the debt burden – now more than €2 trillion – reduce bureaucracy, cut spending and further personal responsibility. There being perhaps no people more naturally inclined to libertarianism, I wish them all the luck in the world, in their quest to chop down the sclerotic corpse of the Italian state. Now to get the pot on…