Let’s begin with two glimpses of the workings of the Italian state.
First, it was announced last week that passengers would be required to mount a bus only at the door in the front, and pay the driver on entry. The present system, in which tickets are bought in cafes and other shops and stamped at machines on the bus after entry from any one of several doors, has resulted in such widespread evasion that it’s calculated that only a minority of riders buy tickets on publicly owned buses. In Naples, three out of 10 play by the rules. The wonder is that three bother to pay.
Second, the ruins of Pompeii, buried by lava from the volcano Vesuvius in 79 AD and thus preserved as a Roman town, is one of the world’s wonders. It is also among its worst-preserved wonders. The Italian authorities have taken such poor care of it that several buildings have collapsed, and much-needed European Union money has been withheld because of the bureaucratic chaos.
The Italian state is one of the most swollen in the democratic world. It has some 330,000 police officers in a dozen different agencies, more than any other country in the EU and twice the number in the UK, which is slightly bigger in population. The private sector in health, education and welfare is tiny. The administrations, at district, city, provincial, regional and national levels, have their own councils, bureaucracies and, in many cases, police forces.
The largest issue: The state is not only hypertrophied, it is thoroughly politicized. There are more elected politicians in the country than in any other European state.
Yet – or therefore – it is often deeply inefficient and substantially corrupt. It’s corrupt openly and covertly. The politicians, the upper administrative class and the top judiciary have awarded themselves salaries larger than their equivalents in other – and richer – European states. Meanwhile, large amounts of the money allocated by the state for various projects are stolen. Several investigations are now going on into the misuse of funds allocated to Pompeii in the past few years. “Pompeii,” says Sergio Rizzo, one of Italy’s most prominent investigative reporters, “is a beautiful place but … it also reveals the workings of Italian chaos.”