Doing As the Romans Do

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But no one is paying the tribute.  Even as the government pushed through the new measures, it knew that no one would comply with them.  Just this week, The New York Times reported, “On a recent morning, Maurizio Compagnone, an employee of Italy’s internal revenue service, stood before a classroom of middle school students in a leafy neighborhood here, preaching the virtues of paying taxes. ‘You may think, “I’m 13, why should I care about taxes?” he said with earnest enthusiasm as the students looked on, slightly bored. ‘But you can take a step in the right direction. You can change the behavior of the people around you, your parents and friends.’”  “And the children shall lead them” seems to be the philosophy of the Italian government.  Only there are no children, and if the people of Italy were to comply with the government laws, they’d starve.

So what’s a poor Italian to do?  Go to work, and leave the government to fend for itself.  I have never seen so many working poor as in Italy.  Where Los Angeles’s impoverished areas are hangouts for drug pushers and gang members, Rome’s seem to be thriving market areas where hustlers sell prints of the city at jacked-up prices, and where the police look the other way.

My wife and I bought a couple of paintings from a nice enough young man who told us he was an art student.  We probably paid too much for them, and he probably wasn’t an art student – when I returned to the site of the purchase five minutes later to ask for directions, the young “artist” had vanished into the night.  But so what?  At least he was selling something.  I’ll still frame the paintings, and I’ll still put them up.  And if he can keep that cash rather than handing it over to a 65-year-old pensioner, more power to him.  If Italy’s lucky, he’ll use the money to settle down and get married (Italy’s Catholicism means that unlike Britain or the Netherlands, people still wed) and pop out a few baby Italians, who will then use papa’s entrepreneurial skill to produce goods and services others want to buy.

The lesson for the U.S. is clear: no matter how hard government cracks down on tax evasion and black markets, such activity will only rise with the growth of big government.  If we want a functioning system, we must give people a stake in that system by protecting their right to earn.

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  • UCSPanther

    It appears Italy has forgotten one key lesson of the fall of their ancient empire: The price of setting up a social structure (Bread and circuses) that drains the strength of your nation over time until its fall.

    You can also bet that this "underground economy" is also going on in other countries, especially ones with heavy tax rates (IE Sweden), and it is so prevalent that many revenue agency employees are resigning themselves to the fact that enforcing tax laws is an exercise in futility.

    • JasonPappas

      I find mixed reports on Sweden. It doesn't seem so straight forward to compare Sweden with other countries. You'd think a cost of living comparison should be straight forward. Yet I read vastly different reports. Does anyone have a good article on the actual cost of living in Sweden?

      Generally, the Scandinavian countries have maintained a dedication to the work ethic even in the face of paternalistic government. There are some cultural differences that keep them from becoming as poor as other welfare states. It's something I think we should know more about–not because they are a model to emulate–but because they are an interesting exception.

  • Hikerdude1776

    The entire Planet seems to have embraced "Insanity" . Criminals are now considered victims . Victims are now considered criminals . Common sense has been replaced with
    political correctness ( the greatest distortion of truth ever invented ).
    American Christian Infidel
    Michael Canzano

  • Ann

    The black market is raw capitalism—long live freedom—long live capitalism—keep going Italy — even in Cuba they have pure raw capitalist Black Market—!!!

  • mrbean

    Ah yes, let us do as the Romans did, go to the feast and commit gluttony and then to the vomitorium, and right back to the feast and….. and…..,

  • Malcolm

    As an inveterate tourist, I had similar experiences in money changing in Third World countries. When I went to Brazil, the official exchange rate for the cruzeiro was just a third of the black market rate. Exactly the same thing applied in Tanzania. Most other African and South American countries were more reasonable, but there was still a very substantial difference between the official and the market rate, and the only way to travel comfortably was to break the law. Not only that, but the only way the locals could obtain foreign goods was also to break the law. The governments were robbing both the citizen and the visitor.
    Personally, I am normally in favour of obeying the law, but if a country has a substantial black market, it is because it needs it.

  • avantibev

    First off, Mr. Shapiro, count yourself blessed to be able to travel to la bella Italia.
    My Italian immigrant Nonno went to his small Michgian store every day until a few weeks before his death. Even though my uncle and cousins were running the family store by then, Nonno thought it important to greet each customer and (probably) keep an eye on the cash register. :-) He was well into his 80's when he died. My point is that it is STATISM and "SOCIALISME" that has wrought this indulgent early retirement. It is not an inherenet flaw in the Italian character. My Southern Italian ancestors carved out a hard scrabble life from the sea and rugged land but they fed their families without a massive bureaucracy handing out bread and circuses. Blame the system of so-called enlightened progressives for bringing this upon an otherwise creative, energetic, talented populace.