All governments are paternalistic governments

Italy is the new avant-garde of paternalism: how the new government turns a liberal idea into its opposite

The Italian government will introduce a minimum income in 2019. The catch is: if you spend your money unethically, it will be withdrawn again. And as one can imagine, the father state decides what is good for his children.

The Italians prefer it hot than cold. And the cold time is yet to come. Many will starve, and some no doubt more than others. But the hard times will pass, and it looks like this also applies to those who bite hard, not just in the winter months. In 2019 the Italian government opens the state treasury and introduces a basic income, as the Movimento Cinque Stelle once promised. The limit is 780 euros - anyone who earns less (or nothing) a month, shows the will to work and has no property worth mentioning will in future receive money from the state. We call it “citizens' money”, although it should actually be called a minimum income, because not everyone gets it.

Acting politicians are selling the project as a revolutionary idea, which of course is not true. In fact, it is a guaranteed (albeit not unconditional) basic income that other European countries have long known, for example Switzerland with its generous social welfare benefits compared to other countries. The idea of ​​a minimum income can be welcomed or rejected, it is interesting what the Italians are doing with it. The real question here is whether they are pioneers again - who are galloping in the wrong direction. Because this time the devil is in the details - or rather: Father State.

The highest moral authority

The new government, in which representatives of the right-wing conservative Lega also sit, has launched the minimum income on the basis of a clear premise: that no “immoral expenses” will be made with it. The beneficiaries receive a kind of credit card or an app - both systems trace exactly what the chunk is spent on. If it turns out that someone uses his or her money on disreputable products or services - well, then that someone will be held accountable: he or she will lose the right to the citizen's money.

What should be considered immoral? Of course, cigarettes, gambling, TV fees, video games. This could also include alcohol, pornography, prostitution and any online purchase in general, from which foreign companies mostly also benefit. As you can imagine, the Italians should find ways to cover up the traces of their money flows - after all, we are top class in such matters. This does not, however, solve the more weighty problem, and one question remains: What moral role should the state play in the life and in the personal decisions of its citizens?

It would have been easy to organize the money distribution differently. The government could have given out food or rental vouchers to people in need - in which case the state would not rise to the highest moral level. But this idea was never up for debate. What is legal is not legitimate; what is ethical is legitimate; and what is ethical will in future be defined by the father state in Italy.

The citizens? Children!

Not everyone will care that the state keeps an eye on what citizens do with their money. To some it might even seem sensible, because he acts like a strict but benevolent father who keeps an eye on his children. After all, the money he distributes comes from other citizens. And that's exactly the point.

The government acts as if the money is theirs and not the citizens who shell out taxes with their hard-earned money. In addition, the state presents itself as the authority that knows better than the citizens what is good for them - the infantilization of society that Silvio Berlusconi once initiated is taking the next stage in Italy. If the child behaves badly - well, then we will cut the allowances for him! This is how it learns something.

This attitude that the state adopts towards its subjects has a name: paternalism. It is based on the assumption that humans are weak, vulnerable beings with limited rationality who are defenseless against the injustices of the world. This being needs a companion who shows him where to go and how to distinguish between good and bad.

Paternalism belonged to the form of rule of the Ancien Régime. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel summed up this view when he wrote: "The state not only defines society under legal conditions, but also, as a truly higher moral community, conveys unity in morals, education and general ways of thinking and acting." What was already out of date in the 19th century, the new, presumably reformist government in Italy is trying to revive in the 21st century.

Luigi Di Maio, Minister of Labor and figurehead of the Movimento Cinque Stelle, should actually pause for a moment - hasn't the Movimento, which sees itself as a digital avant-garde, been committed to the democratization of everything and everyone? And wasn't it precisely this Movimento that recommended cultivating a strong distrust of all forms of institutionalized politics, because in the end a few (instead of the many) always decide? And now, of all people, Di Maio wants to go down in history as the protagonist of a neo-moral Italian paternalism? Italy has surprises in store for everyone - even for the Italians themselves. A few months ago no one would have bet on such a twist.

Perversion of liberal intention

The motto of Di Maio's movement was "uno vale uno", in other words: "Everyone is equally important." Anyone who believes that those people who benefit from a minimum income are ignorant of their own needs and interests are violating this rule. Politicians are more important and they should decide for the poor citizens. The citizen is not a responsible person, the citizen is a ward.

Mind you, the mistake is not in the concept of the minimum income per se, but in linking the minimum income to a paternalistic state. The idea was brought into play by liberal thought leaders in the 20th century as an alternative to the actually existing welfare state, by Milton Friedman and Friedrich August von Hayek. Hayek described it as early as 1944 in his classic “The Path to Servitude” and replicated it a good three decades later in “Law, Law and Freedom”: “There is no reason why in a free society the state does not protect everyone from severe privation should offer: in the form of a guaranteed minimum income or a minimum that no one needs to fall below. "

But this liberal basic intention was aimed in a different direction than the Italian one: The minimum income was supposed to protect people from the grasp of the state and free their best energies. Instead, the Movimento Cinque Stelle, which has started to reform the Italian state, is merely expanding its sphere of influence. And the Italians learn: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Damiano Cantone is a philosopher and teaches, among others. at the University of Trieste. Translated from Italian by rs.