Did I hear you saying that: get the government off my back? People do. They are tired of interference, regulations, taxes, the nanny state. They think that governments do what we could do better ourselves. President Reagan, in his first inaugural address put it thus: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
But be careful what you wish for. If government interference is a burden, its absence is much worse.
To see how, visit Italy. Start in the north where you find yourself in the comfort of a normal developed European country. Then board the high speed train in Rome for Naples, an hour or so south, and you step into the underdevelopment and squalor of a third world city. Here, economic and social life is saturated by organised crime to such a degree that normal governance is not possible, and the city and its people suffer for it. The Centro Storico, although a World Heritage Site, should have been a beautiful European old town, as those in, for example, Vienna, Prague, Riga or Stockholm, but is instead a neglected and dilapidated slum.
Nor would you find much evidence to suggest that what government does not do, people take care of themselves. One of the things that is neglected in Naples is the collection of rubbish. I guarantee you that will not stir you to start cleaning up the mess yourself. Far from it. Say you have in your hand the wrappings of an ice cream and can find no bin that is not already overflowing. You will say to yourself: if no one else cares, why should I? And you will throw the wrapping where it may fall. Government neglect begets not private initiative but also private neglect. Functioning governments do not just do things, they also, importantly, signal to citizens and set standards.
To see this explained, head north again, now to Siena and its Palazzo Pubblico. Here, in the Sala della Pace, is Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegories of Good and Bad Government, commissioned by the Republic’s governing council in 1338. In the central mural, a figure representing wisdom lays down the principles by which the city should be ruled, such as justice and magnanimity. To one side is another mural displaying what follows when these principles are obeyed: a thriving city of activity, trade and development with happy people living under the protection of the angel of security. To the other side is yet another mural in which a tyrant sits on a box in which justice has been locked away in a city of torture, death and decay.
These allegories are remarkable considering the time in which they were created. First, good and bad government follow not from religious blessing or damnation but from secular values, the core one being justice. In today’s language: from a sound constitution. Second, good governance results not from governors being given free powers but from their being constrained by the rules of justice. In today’s language: not from autocratic strength but from democratic controls. Third, in the causality that is displayed. First comes good government, then follows prosperity, happiness and security. In today’s language: freedom is not a luxury that people may hope for once power has enabled prosperity. It is where there is freedom that prosperity follows. What was built on these walls, then, almost 700 years ago, was a sophisticated theory of government and its conditions and consequences, and one that even now presents itself as entirely modern.
On a recent visit to Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, it happened that today’s City Council was in meeting in the room above the Sala della Pace. They were discussing renovation, which is in good hands in the city. So, no doubt, does the City Council in Naples from time to time, but there, Council decisions are not capable of following through to practical action. In Siena, the government keeps the city clean in spite of a flood of tourism that the businesses in Naples’s Centro Storico can only dream of.
Since the time of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, we in advanced democracies have been trapped in a fruitless debate for or against government, with confidence in government having been undermined. Even the catastrophic government failure of the crash of 2008 does not seem to have overturned the paradigm of small government. What we should want is not necessarily big government but certainly good government, something that is not possible under the gospel of small government.
To regain confidence in the virtue of good government, go to Italy and learn from both contemporary evidence and historical wisdom.