- - Friday, February 22, 2013

Italians vote this weekend, and responsible citizens will find nothing much on the menu. As in America, the likely preference will continue stumbling down the tax-and-spend path that has crippled economies on both sides of the Atlantic. The European stagnation and the prospect of recession in a key trading partner threatens the prospect of a recovery here.

Given the candidates, the free-market think tank Istituto Bruno Leoni is pessimistic about the outcome. “Whoever ends up winning, the Italian elections will see no emergence of a political landscape conducive to reform,” Alberto Mingardi, the institute’s director general, tells The Washington Times.

A left-wing coalition made up of the Democratic Party, the Left-Ecology-Freedom party and the Italian Socialist Party leads the polls. This hapless bunch rallies around neo-Keynesian “stimulus” spending, just like the Democrats here. If it fails to win a clear majority, the coalition is likely to merge with a more moderate faction, the Civic Choice Party of Prime Minister Mario Monti. That moderation, such as it is, won’t do much good, considering Mr. Monti failed to push through meaningful economic reforms even with a majority. There’s no reason to think he would do better as a junior partner.

The alternative candidate with the best chance, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his People of Freedom Party, runs second in the polls, but he’s not much of an improvement. Despite talking a good game at times and running on a platform of promised fiscal reform, Mr. Berlusconi’s record has “proved beyond doubt he is not able to constrain government spending,” as Mr. Mingardi puts it. The bureaucracy thrived, if little else did, during his three terms in office.


The third-place candidate, with 20 percent support, is a joke, literally. The Five Star party is led by Beppe Grillo, a retired comedian, and is pushing populist ideas such as protectionism and bank nationalization. The strongest voice of the free market comes from FARE, which advocates smaller government and lower taxes. It’s unlikely to attract even 4 percent of the vote, the minimum needed to gain a voice in parliament.

European voters are addicted to the handouts from their governments, not realizing the gifts were bought with borrowed money. Now that the bills have begun to come due, the eurozone faces a financial crisis with Italy, Spain and France playing central roles. With Italy in its sixth consecutive quarter in recession, the country’s public debt is 130 percent of gross domestic product. The official unemployment rate stands in double digits at 11.2 percent. The youth unemployment rate is almost off the board, a staggering 35 percent.

So far, Italy has addressed its problems by seeking tax increases, rather than scaling back the bureaucracy, which is corrupt and, worse, incompetent, hurting the functioning of markets. Deep structural reforms, particularly in the labor market, are crucial to restoring competitiveness to Italy’s economy, and hope for the millions of young Italians fruitlessly searching for employment.

What’s most troubling about the election is that Europeans are sticking to the tax-and-spend polices that never work. Instead of encouraging alternative free-market voices in the political system, voters are shunning those who point out there’s no free lunch. Our future may not be much brighter. A rough time is coming in 2016.

Nita Ghei is a contributing Opinion writer for The Washington Times and Policy Research Editor at the Mercatus Center.