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A crisis not to be wasted, by going down the path offered by the overweening state, relying on subsidies instead of supporting the relaunch of business, work and innovation

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” as Churchill once said. A crisis means rupture and change. And in order to prevent it being wasted, it calls for far-sighted, ambitious policy, at once visionary and tangible. In these most challenging of times, as we feel the full impact of the pandemic and the recession, we are indeed at risk of wasting it all.

The warning signs are clear, and the most prominent is a combination of poor government in terms of proper use of financial resources for saving businesses from disaster, and the growth of a worrying trend towards nationalisation of the economy. In our blog posts in recent weeks, we have already highlighted the emergence – not only in many areas of public opinion but also unfortunately in political and government circles – of an anti-business climate, a sense of hostility towards private enterprise, a culture of market and meritocracy, and the social values of industry and economic innovation. Now, the worsening of the crisis and the consequential drop in incomes and rise in poverty, fear and concern for the future have led to a widespread re-emergence of the need for protection, assistance and public funding.

And of course, in the emergency phase, this intervention by the public purse is essential in order to quickly offset the risks represented by the shut-down of economic activities, especially those in the service sector and small and very small businesses, and to ensure economic support for those who have lost their jobs and income. But behind this sense of urgency, there is a temptation of a very different nature, and one that is more long-term: the long-standing Italian desire for an economy based on subsidy, aid and the protection of corporations and customers – as opposed to an economy of production – has re-emerged. A citizen’s income, emergency income, universal income, or whatever you want to call it, provided in the absence of work, instead of a job that produces income. This trend is becoming more widespread, extending beyond the confines of the emergency, and taking the shape of a sub-culture that focuses on benefits, not salaries. And this is a real threat – the threat of a radical upheaval of civil coexistence, as well as of the potential for recovery.

In addition to this benefits culture, we are also faced with an insidious road leading back to an overweening state. Even now, government bodies control almost half of the Milan Stock Exchange; they are preparing to get involved in Ilva and to dominate Alitalia entirely. Elsewhere, the state is looking to extend its influence over thousands of companies, converting state-guaranteed loans into shares. Are we preparing for a wave of nationalisation? The main instrument of this “IRI2” strategy is Cassa Depositi e Prestiti, the Italian investment bank that collects the postal savings of the country’s people, and which is under the firm control of the government (although other major shareholders include various important banking foundations, which do not seem the type to take nationalisation lying down).

In order to respond to the crisis and save businesses, of course, temporary public assistance can make a lot of sense. Germany, France and various other European countries are moving in this direction, with the traditional strength provided by powerful and efficient public bodies. “More than one euro in every two given as aid to companies is spent by Germany […] to the tune of nearly a one trillion euros”, according to Il Foglio. And the case of Lufthansa (on which the government spent 10 billion to acquire 25% of the airline and finance its recovery) is just the best-known example of a public intervention strategy. Once the crisis finally comes to an end, its effects will certainly be felt.

Does this mean more help from the state, then? It depends on the forms of financing and investment provided. It would be better if this were not the case, if public intervention were seen as a means of moulding business strategy. And if such an intervention must be made – on pain of the failure of a significant portion of the industrial system – then clear limits are essential: non-repayable financing and not just credit, a long repayment term, and where public equity is resorted to, independent and authoritative corporate governance, in order to bring companies back to the market and back into ownership by private shareholders. These measures would avoid the significant temptation to strengthen the hold of politics and bureaucrats on the economy and on companies, through an overweening state.

A fascinating rhetoric has begun to take shape over the course of these crisis-racked months: the rhetoric of the post-War Italian Reconstruction. It is a lovely rhetoric, full of brilliant political and civil values. But it is also misleading. The years between 1945 and the early Fifties relied on a young and enthusiastic ruling class, who had cut their teeth on the political and moral tensions of the battle against Nazism and Fascism, and who were passionate about the ideas underpinning democratic freedoms. This ruling class headed the new institutions of the Italian Republic, moving with a united spirit towards a better future for Italy, even in the depths of extremely bitter political and social conflicts. This ruling class felt a strong sense of responsibility, which gave institutional and political substance to the initiatives and to the desire for recovery, employment, the well-being of workers and entrepreneurs. One example of this was the labour agreement between CGIL (the Italian General Confederation of Labour), led by Giuseppe Di Vittorio, and Confindustria (the General Confederation of Italian Industry), led by Angelo Costa, with its slogan “First factories, then houses”. And they set their sights on a united Europe, viewing this as a positive horizon of further freedom and opportunities for economic growth. The “economic boom” that followed, and lasted until the mid-1960s, was driven by a cross between the vital spark of the various social players of the time and the positive public intervention measures they took (although this reformism was hampered over time by more conservative instincts).

IRI (the Institute for Industrial Reconstruction), founded in the early 1930s, had been crucial in saving Italy’s frail industry from the consequences of the Great Depression that started on Wall Street in 1929, and the institute was relaunched after the war. Since its foundation, the IRI had been led by managers inspired by the culture and ethics of responsibility championed by civil servants, such as Alberto Beneduce, an economist with a socialist background who was capable of great autonomy, even under an all-consuming regime like Fascism. And in the post-war period, at the behest of other great managers, such as Oscar Sinigaglia, Agostino Rocca, Giuseppe Luraghi and Pasquale Saraceno (who would go on to lead the most successful efforts of Cassa per il Mezzogiorno), and educated, broad-minded bankers, such as Raffaele Mattioli, president of Banca Commerciale Italiana, the IRI, together with Enrico Mattei‘s Eni, played a fundamental role in restarting the reconstruction, supporting the relaunch of Italy’s economy and the process of industrialisation: infrastructure (the Autostrada del Sole motorway being one of the most famous examples), energy, services, finance and core industry, from steel to chemicals. Then, from the Seventies onwards, the decline began: excessive political influence, frequent bail-outs of insolvent companies (the futility of the famous panettone di Stato, the “state pie”), and a management team chosen – with a few exceptions – for their party loyalty rather than for their skill and foresight in the world of business or for their pursuit of a productive and competitive corporate culture. Not forgetting the inefficient banking system, which, by the end of the Eighties, had been reduced to a “petrified forest” (this expression, more apt than ever, was coined by Giuliano Amato, Minister of Treasury and subsequently President of the Council in the early Nineties, a complex period of economic renewal and privatisation).

Those days are gone. They are not missed. If anything, in order to clamber out of the crisis, the Italian economy is in need of a relaunch, of internationalisation, greater productivity, superior competitiveness, dedication to the green economy and a sustainable approach to business that is both efficient and responsible. The public authorities, the state, governments, are responsible for establishing clear rules, implementing effective controls, investing in basic infrastructure, research and training, and ensuring the conditions exist for an open and transparent market. Instead of having an entrepreneurial state that gets involved in business management, Italy must focus on being a good builder of political strategies, both within its borders and in the EU, to help companies grow and make markets as efficient as possible.

In short, we need good policy, and not small power plots or ideological decisions implemented by the pervasive public purse.

The issue is that unfortunately, we are dealing with a political situation that is very fragile, and not up to the challenges that lie ahead. We are emerging from years of diatribes (some of which have been founded, and many of which have been specious) against the “caste” of politicians and elites, years characterised by an anti-parliamentary populism which has aimed to “open Parliament up like a can of tuna”, and by a parochial and anti-EU desire for sovereignty, with institutions populated by representatives appointed by party leaders for their loyalty rather than for their skill or competence. Good politics, and the initiatives associated with it, has been replaced by an obsession with frantic social media communication, against a backdrop that is teeming with fake news and background noise that favours neither the knowledge nor the capacity to put forward responsible criticism. The horizon of long-term transformations (the political endeavour of a good politician, a statesman) is overshadowed by the mediocrity of the instant and compulsive personal gratification provided by “likes”.

However, in clawing our way out of the crisis, we must make our way up a slippery slope. And a change in tone, choices and the very culture of government is what we must jointly commit to in the immediate future. Both in parliament and in government, there do exist personalities and factions that display a certain degree of foresight, coupled with a clear sense of responsibility. And there are also alert social forces at work, boasting both knowledge and skills, with the capacity for informed criticism, proposal and collaboration. The Quirinale is a firm point of reference, a place of rules, competence and democratic guarantees, with a solid pro-EU vision. This country, which has proved itself so generous and so responsible even in the current era of difficulty and pain, deserves serious choices, and a better future.