Italy’s Failure Is a Failure of Statism, Not Liberalism

The recent election in Italy marks the first time in the modern era that populist parties have won a majority of the seats in a legislature in Western Europe. While the two parties that won, the Northern League and Five Star, did not run on a common policy platform and and may have difficulty governing together, their success represents a milestone for Western populism. But it does not represent a defeat for liberalism, at least of the classical kind. Italy has since World War II been the nation in Western Europe least hospitable to such liberty.

From the beginning of the new Italian constitutional order, Italian politics had three important strands in its politics, all hostile to liberalism. For a long time, the Christian Democrats headed governments. They were heavily influenced by Catholic social thought antithetical to free market economics. Its focus was on directly protecting the livelihood of the (generally male) breadwinner. As a result, Italy enacted laws that made it extremely hard to fire workers. It also protected businesses from pharmacies to notaries from the competition that technological change would otherwise have created.

Italy was also home to the largest Communist Party in Europe. That party promoted state-run industries and impeded competition with them. The third strongest force, the socialists, were pretty much in favor of both programs, although sometimes in weaker form. The liberals represented a tiny minority in the Italian parliament despite a proud intellectual heritage, today reflected by the Bruno Leoni Institute. All the major parties have supported exceedingly generous pensions paid for by the state, which have burdened the young and made its debt the highest in Western Europe except for Greece.

After making the easy economic gains from catching up after the devastation of the world war, the Italian economy has stagnated. It has had essentially no growth for the last two decades. Few nations in the world other than Zimbabwe have done worse. It has sky-high youth unemployment because businesses do not want to hire those they cannot fire. As an old professor says in the Best of Youth, one of Italy’s great films of the last decade, it is becoming a country fit only for old dinosaurs like him. While there have been a few reforms in the last decade, Italy has had no change on the order of Thatcher’s revolution or even the Hartz reforms in Germany.

Given the failure of its politics to deliver, Italy is the Western European country most ripe for populist revolt, even if what it needs instead is a refoundation in classical liberalism and the opportunity society it creates. But this revolt refutes rather than supports the meme, made popular by Patrick Deneen and other anti-liberals, that the dead end of liberalism leads to populism. Just as Marxism was intellectually embarrassed by the communist revolution’s first appearance in pre-industrial Russia when Marxist theory would have predicted it would break out in a place like Great Britain or Germany, so anti-liberal theory should be embarrassed by the success of populism in Italy. Classical liberalism has not failed there. It has not been tried.

Reader Discussion

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on June 01, 2018 at 06:48:50 am

Anyone who thinks the failure in Italy is a failure of liberalism or statism (ie the Nation State of Italy) doesn't understand Italy. Today the state ruling Italy is the EU (ie Brussels and Berlin). Italy like Greece is heavily dependent on EU subsidies and Italy like Greece does what the EU dictates. Lets face the fact that the EU is more destructive to Europe than WWI and WWII.

Italy always had a failed government but it Italians went about their daily life comfortable with local control. Italy's formal government was in Rome. Italy's formal finances were managed by the northern financiers in Milan and Venice. Italy's society and culture and economy were run by families. Italy's informal govt was the Mafia but today all this has been replaced by the EU (Brussels and Germany) and Italy's culture replaced by the cultural marxists of unelected EU elitists.

I have news for those who dont know Italians. They (like the Greeks) are growing to resent the EU more and more everyday. The Italians will not stand for the cultural marxist dictates from (Brussels and Berlin). Italians will not stand for demands of Greek like austerity. Italians will not accept african and islamic migrants. Italians will not accept Islam replacing Catholicism.

Italians may want those EU subsidies but increasingly they would rather leave the Euro, return to the Lira and have the option to devalue it when needed. Italians also want their local rule back. They want to decide what is best for Sicily, Sardinia, Southern Italy, etc. They want things run from leading families at the community level like it was in the past. In short Italians want the Italian nation state back. Italy hasnt had growth since it joined the EU and the Euro.

Italy and Greece are a failure of ruling those nations out of Brussels and Berlin like vassal states (something Poland and Hungary refuse to accept and are winning). If Italy leaves the Euro then Greece will follow. It doesnt matter whether Italy and Greece stay in the EU or not because both are following Austria into the VISEGRAD where they operate with the EU as more of a (voluntary) confederation which they can disregard when local control conflicts with Soviet Style top down totalitarian EU control.

As a nation-state with Italy ruled out of Rome and Greece ruled out of Athens, they will return to having failed govt BUT they will not be vassal states to Brussels and Berlin forced to accept Islam, african and muslim migrants. Their fate will be their own hands and having thier govt fail every generation may be their method of capital destruction which allows them to adjust to changing economics and technology a free world presents. Its not the northern european way but it just might be the southern european way.

An Italy and Greece ruled locally would have closed its ports and borders to migrants long ago...and deported any who entered the country and denied all government services. These are after all poor and indebted countries and the EU doesnt reimburse Italy or Greece a single Euro for any migrant entering their country...all the EU does is dictate by totalitarian stalinistic fiat.

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Louis Messana
on June 01, 2018 at 11:15:09 am

Thanks, McGinnis; that's a helpful (and artfully phrased) perspective.

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on June 01, 2018 at 14:07:47 pm

Do you think the Northern League and 5 Star can form a successful governing coalition?

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on June 01, 2018 at 15:46:18 pm


Was it you (some short time back) when comparing the american Revolution with european counterparts commented that what the Americans did was to "form a government without a state" ,i.e. a bureacracy,?
Can it now be said of the situation in Italy that what we are witnessing are the effects of a people subjected to a STATE (the EU) without a government?

This is not too far from McGinnis phrasing of liberalism never having been tried.

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on June 01, 2018 at 21:20:57 pm

I have asserted myself, (in an as yet, unpublished essay) that through the auspices of the EU, Merkel has largely achieved for Germany what it could not accomplish in two world-wars; and with Brexit, Germany is positioned in many ways, all the better, (even while creating some challenges in terms of feeling the military void), for greater domination of the EU, AND, without ever having to fire a single shot. And, much to the resentment of Greece, but Italy as well.

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Paul Binotto
on June 01, 2018 at 21:22:23 pm

"filling the military void", of course I meant to type - ugh.

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Paul Binotto
on June 02, 2018 at 09:55:28 am

No, I didn't say that but the thought has crossed my mind that Hamilton ran the Washington administration much like the British Secretary of State for the Colonies and the Board of Trade ran the colonies.

In Europe, the EU acts much like an occupation government and commenters outside of the Franco-German block routinely refer to the EU as the Fourth Reich.

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on January 22, 2019 at 05:47:10 am

[…] Leonhardt notes that if a government shutdown happened in Europe, people would be taking to the streets. But the record of European nations with the most vigorous streets and greatest propensity for illegal strikes is a very unhappy one. France is the prime example, and as a result of its tradition of social ferment and extralegal actions, it seems unable to renew itself with reforms. The consequence is persistent economic stagnation that makes its citizens poorer than our poorest state and high unemployment rates which are a great source of human misery. Italy is the other European land of perpetual strikes. It is a political basket case with the worst record of economic growth in the industrialized world and is now in the hands of populists who are making a bad situation even worse. […]

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The Left’s Foolish Romance with Mass Protests

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