In praise of corruption

Theodore Dalrymple explains why straightforward corruption is to be preferred to honest bureaucracy. And you wonder why I love Italy, aside from the ability to be playing soccer in the sun one day and skiing in the Alps the next.

The thoroughly obvious corruption of Italian officials convinced the population that the state was their enemy, not their patron or protector, and they regarded it with profound mistrust. Accordingly, people of all classes evaded taxes, without moral opprobrium; everyone regarded the idea of revealing one’s entire income to the authorities and paying the taxes upon it as laughable in its naïveté. As far as possible, people concealed their economic activity from the eyes of the state, giving rise to Italy’s notorious “black” economy, a kind of parallel market, which is by common consent larger and more sophisticated than in any other European state. The size of this parallel market probably explains why the country, with an official per-capita GNP the size of Britain’s, looks very much more prosperous than Britain. The need to evade the depredations of the state and to make alternative arrangements for functions (like social security) that the state claimed, but usually failed, to carry out, meant that the Italian population had to fend for itself. With governments that fell like skittles—and quite long periods without any government at all—no Italian could possibly imagine that the politicians or the state they governed held the key to their prosperity….

In Britain, by contrast, the financial probity of the public administration, a legacy of the Victorian era (in which the state hardly impinged on the lives of individuals at all) misled people into a fatal misapprehension. They supposed that, because no public official ever asked for or expected a bribe, or could be easily swayed by other forms of illicit influence, public officials actually worked both for the public good and the good of individuals. People therefore came to believe in the beneficence, or at least the benevolent neutrality, of the state. Its officials were honest and fair, and therefore it was good.

For example, when you get a ticket in Italy, you don’t pay it unless your car has been towed and you have to ransom it, you simply throw it away. In like manner, it must be understood that the nominally high Italian tax rates only get applied to a portion of one’s income, so the practical tax rate is lower than the USA’s, let alone Britain’s. The government is hardly in a position to complain about the public’s attitude towards the law, since more than 80 elected politicians are either on trial or already convicted of a crime for which they will face sentencing when they lose office and the parliamentary immunity that goes with it. As the Italians say, it’s all just a casino.

In the USA, one’s apparent freedom is an illusion, whereas in Italy, it is the breadth and scope of the apparent government interference in one’s daily life that is illusory. An Italian communist is, by and large, rather less inclined to interfere with you than the average American Republican, let alone Democrat. And the various mafias are not only far more reasonable and open to negotiation than any US government agency, they’re far less likely to shoot you in the event of a disagreement.