Word of the Year

Comments - «Politics»: May it Find Morality and Itself

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire on 02/01/2013

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«Economy» has been the reigning word in 2012.  The first word of 2013 must be «Politics» if we want the year ahead to be better for the economy too.  There is, in fact, the extreme need to invert a tendency in place for some decades, the one that brought us to use increasingly economic logic in areas that had nothing to do with the economy, such as school (‘educational opportunities’, debits and credits), healthcare, culture,  and politics.  It isn’t rare to hear important Italian journalists speak of political parties today as «competitors», of political «supply» and «demand» (what would be the ‘price’ of equilibrium?). 

But most of all, in this country there is a pervasive feeling of disenchantment which brings too many to believe there can’t be any citizens, much less politicians, motivated by the common good and not by private interests only.  The pan-marketing of these last decades has increased the ‘average cynicism’ as well, convincing many among us that the logic of interest is the only realistic true one, and that all the rest is mere chattering.

Many of the economists have used and are still using economic categories and logics (that is, of the markets) to explain just about anything, from why religious orders make their members wear habits and pronounce solemn vows (to raise «barriers at the exits», as happens in industries), to the behaviours of politicians and of the electorate.

The first economists to apply economic logic to politics were the Italians between the eighteen and nineteen hundreds. Among these Maffeo Pantaleoni, who sustained that choices of fiscal and economic politics depend on «the average intelligence» present in Parliament.  Amilcare Puviani, then, with his ‘Theory of financial Illusion’ retained that the fiscal system of a country is accepted by the masses on the base of a double illusion: that tributary pressure is less than the real one and that internal revenue is used for goals of common good, and not for the private interests of the dominant class.  Wilfred Pareto, the most genial economist ever, continued this tradition, adding to it the important element that human beings are normally moved by passions and interests, but have the invincible tendency to give a logical «varnish» to their actions.  In the case of politicians, the «varnish» is the common good or ideal, while the real motivation is power.

This economic approach to politics is pervasive and dominating, and yet it only picks some dimensions of reality, not all of them, and often leaves out the essential, among which the very fact of the popular vote (it is known that according to official economic theory the ‘rational’ elector should not vote).

I am convinced that but for a few exceptions (one of these is Albert Otto Hirschman, recently missed), economists do not serve well the common good when they treat politics as a market.  Rather, they commit a serious error full of consequences. A  humanistic interest (maybe) works when I must choose a car or an airline ticket, but less for a job, and far less and badly, for choices where symbols and ethical dimensions are concerned, such as political ones.  Some weeks ago a colleague of mine said:   «I belong to the American leisure class and I have every economic interest in voting for a conservative program.  But I don’t do it, choosing to go against my interests».  Dominant economy has great difficulty understanding this kind of choice, which is, instead, very crucial especially in moments of crisis.

Today there are many citizens who go beyond their economic interest in continuing to keep their company going so as not to lay off anyone, to pay taxes knowing they are the only ones to do so, to believe and keep investing in politics and to vote out of civil duty, notwithstanding.  Italy has already had happy moments when politics, at every level, has been something more and different from the search for private interests of electors and elected.

Men, and more so women, are capable of acting for bigger interests than private ones, to deny it would be negating the humanity and dignity of a person.  The decades from which we are (perhaps) coming out of, have undermined the virtue of hope in being able to change:  but it is from this hope that, at an anthropological level, and therefore political, we can and must start again.  Taking the road of good politics, certainly depends on the «average intelligence» of the next eventual Parliament, but depends also, and above all today, on its «average morality».

The many ‘poverty traps’ in which we have fallen, especially for some regions in the south, cannot be broken except by giving prophetic and trusting strength to politics in itself.  From here, work and a good economy will be able to take off.  An economy is not only the one dominating in the world, and the world.  Italy, before Pantaleoni and Pareto, has had Dragonetti and Genovesi, who thought of and attempted a Civil Economy founded on reciprocity and public happiness.  The year 2013 is also the 300th anniversary of the birth of Antonio Genovesi (we will speak about it more on these pages), and it is an occasion for re-appropriating an economy friendly to politics and the common good.

Let’s work and rise to the test of the passage we are going through (by choosing with our lifestyles and our votes) and leave to Genovesi himself the last word, (from a letter written in 1765): «I am already old, and do not hope or expect anything else from the earth. My aim is to see if I am able to leave my Italian people a little more enlightened than I found them in coming, and also a little more attached to virtue, which is the only true mother of every good.  It is useless to think of art, commerce, government, if we do not think about reforming our morals.  While mankind finds interest in being rascally, we cannot expect big things from daily efforts.  I have too much experience of this».

All of Luigino Bruni's comments on Avvenire can be found under Avvenire Editorial.

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