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Mario Monti is working through Italy's debt crisis. Is the US watching?

Italy may find Prime Minister Mario Monti's dose of discipline hard to swallow, but his depoliticized democracy is the only form of government that can move Italy forward. Monti's experiment may also serve as an antidote to the political dysfunction in the West – especially the US.

By Nathan Gardels / February 2, 2012

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti speaks at a media conference after an EU summit in Brussels Jan. 30. Mr. Monti has canceled decades of regulations that blocked bakeries from opening on holidays – a decree that has come to symbolize his bid to carry out a bold modernization to jump start the Italian economy.

AP Photo/Thierry Charlier, File

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Rome

Making my way from Milan to Rome in recent days, I experienced firsthand the rancorous process under way to deleverage Italy’s sovereign debt and impose more competitive habits on the languorous rhythms of this Mediterranean culture.

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Angry truckers blocked the main highways, drivers left their taxis standing, and most trains were canceled. Students scrawled anti-austerity slogans across peeling, ocher-colored walls. Surly shopkeepers only brightened at the sight of mid-winter gaggles of Chinese tourists.

All the strikes and animosity took aim at the reforms proposed by the “un-democratic” government of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and his so-called technocratic cabinet – even as he was hectoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel to loosen up Germany’s fiscal authoritarianism and allow some breathing room for growth in the eurozone. Because elected politicians couldn’t get their act together, Mr. Monti was appointed by President Giorgio Napolitano late last year to formulate and implement key structural reforms before a new election takes place in 2013.

Alas, the protesters have the wrong target in their sights. Italy got into its mess not because of too little democracy, but too much of a decayed form of governance. Italian electoral democracy – like that in the US – is so politicized along partisan lines that it became dysfunctional and wholly incapable of meeting the tough challenges facing the country.

Monti, whose fair-minded wisdom and long experience as a European commissioner make him more a meritocrat than a technocrat, is certainly right when he declares that “the absence of political personalities in the government will help rather than hinder a solid base of support” for reform. He understands that Italian democracy, like American democracy, has become a “vetocracy,” to use a phrase coined by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama.

In a vetocracy, elected politicians are so captured by short-term populist sentiment and organized special interests that the mere formulation of a policy that seeks compromise for the long-term common good is eviscerated by the parties in play even before it can be put to a vote in parliament. Any bill that gets through is so shorn of substance as to be meaningless. So what remains is the status quo.

In his seminal “The Rise and Decline of Nations,” the social scientist Mancur Olson described how this powerful accretion of organized interests in democracies over time has dragged down states time and again because it inevitably produces unsustainable deficits and drains an economy of vigor by protecting “rent-seeking” cartels.

THE MONITOR'S VIEW: Europe’s big question

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