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.
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.
In Italy today, parties representing taxi driver unions or shopkeepers aren’t about to favor making their clients’ lives more difficult through open competition. Public employees will resist cuts in jobs and benefits. Bankers will use their influence with legislators to avoid regulation. The rich will block higher taxes.
Giving voters a bigger say through direct instead of representative democracy can’t be the answer either. If put to a popular vote, what pensioner would be in favor of trimming the generous social contract he or she has come to expect even if the collective Italian purse can’t afford it?
As can be seen in California, where the direct democracy of the initiative process dominates governance, rational self-interest expressed by voters at the ballot box can add up to the wholesale madness of unintended consequences. As the result of a series of initiatives over the years slashing property taxes and seeking to punish criminals, California now absurdly spends more on prisons than on higher education, undermining the building blocks of its future.
Direct democracy is an especially bad idea in America’s Diet Coke culture, where people seem to want consumption without savings and government without taxes just like they want sweetness without calories. To make the situation worse, special-interest money, sanctioned by the US Supreme Court as “free speech” (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) easily distorts and manipulates honest discourse in any political campaign.
As difficult to swallow as his dose of discipline may be, the depoliticized democracy being practiced by Prime Minister Monti is the only possible form of government that can move Italy forward. And we will see more and more of it in the West for the same reasons we’ve seen it in Italy.
The whole idea of the US congressional “supercommittee,” which unfortunately has so far failed, is to take the politics of gridlock out of formulating a fair and common-sense policy to reduce long-term deficits.
In California, an independent bipartisan group called the Think Long Committee, with members ranging from Google’s Eric Schmidt to the former chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court to former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has been more successful.
It left politics aside and was able to reach a bipartisan tax-reform plan bridging the ideological divide that has paralyzed the state legislature for years. It will offer that plan to the public for a vote in 2014. The group has further proposed a more formal nonpartisan body, appointed by elected officials but composed of prominent citizens with expertise and experience, to watch over California’s long-term interests.
In none of these instances is anyone suggesting doing away with one-person, one-vote democracy and transferring popular sovereignty to a meritocratic elite, as is the case, for example, with the demonstrably competent Communist Party mandarinate in China. In every case, the ultimate say still resides with the voting public.
But in each case the “vetocracy” aspect is stripped out of policymaking. Instead of only pulling the lever out of narrow self-interest or being called upon to sift through the spin of special interests at election time, the public would be able to decide on considered policies proposed to them by bodies entrusted to take into account the long-term common interest.
The current travails of governance in the West suggest that an evolution of democracy is necessary in which institutions with meritocratic elements are established as a way to counterbalance the short-term, special-interest political culture of electoral democracy.
Meritocratic institutions with delegated authority, after all, are not foreign to democracies. We have independent central banks, higher courts, and powerful regulatory bodies in areas ranging from food and drugs to the environment and health.
Even in California’s radical democracy, key powers have been granted to commissions appointed by the governor that regulate development along the coast, oversee the state’s energy and water supply, and administer the University of California. All are accountable to the public because they are appointed by democratically elected officials, yet they are all insulated from the electoral process itself.
Italy’s experiment with depoliticized democracy will be closely watched as an antidote to the paralysis and dysfunction that afflicts the West today. If political decay can yield to good governance in Italy, everyone will benefit from the path blazed by Mario Monti.