PRIME MINISTER Aldo Moro’s center-left coalition government has been plagued all year long by scandals involving former and present cabinet members and other high-ranking public officials. The disclosures have further weakened a government which was already considered “as fragile as a sheet of cigarette paper,” and which is under the constant harassment of the Communists and the right-of-center Liberals. The scandals also nourish the natural cynicism of the voters, who are convinced that the principal function of any government is to fill its pockets.

Above all, they illustrate what many intellectuals and political thinkers believe to be the country’s central problem: Italy, which Bismarck referred to as “not a country but a geographical expression,” has still not achieved genuine national unity; it remains a welter of particular and regional interests and areas whose people believe in the family, the province, and the party, but still tend to consider the state an enemy.

The lack of public spirit is aggravated by an antiquated, cumbersome bureaucracy. Italy’s post-war development in the private sector has been phenomenal, but the machine of state has not kept up. The country is still strapped in the straitjacket of a bureaucratic code imposed by the Piedmontese oligarchy which unified Italy in 1861. The code can be summed up in one phrase: “I have a regulation for everything.” Controls originally intended to protect the citizen against a corrupt government have ended by paralyzing government action and fostering corruption.

The party takes care of its own

The case of Giuseppe Trabucchi, a Christian Democrat senator who has served as minister in four cabinets, illustrates the growing abyss of distrust and disillusionment between the Italian people and their political leaders. In July, Trabucchi sweated out a five-day session of both houses of parliament which debated whether to lift his parliamentary immunity so that he could be turned over to a constitutional court and tried on charges of corruption. As Finance Minister in 1961, one of Trabucchi’s responsibilities was the state tobacco monopoly. Mildew ruined the domestic crop that year, and although there was a stockpile sufficient to meet a two-year demand, Trabucchi imported tobacco from Mexico.

He made it possible for one of his Christian Democrat cronies, who operates three importexport firms, to buy the Mexican tobacco and sell it at state-supported prices without going through the state monopoly. The import-export man made a tremendous profit at the state’s expense. The transaction would probably have been forgotten had not Trabucchi fallen victim to one of Italy’s most effective bulwarks against the shortcomings of government, the anonymous denunciation.

The parliamentary vote was 461 against, 440 for Trabucchi, but he was saved from impeachment by a ruling that an absolute majority of 477 was needed, and the total against him fell short by sixteen votes. Trabucchi admitted that he had gone beyond the letter of the law, but insisted that he had acted in the public interest. He was rescued by an almost unique example of party discipline among the Christian Democrats.

The strength of an Italian party depends on its ability to protect its own, and abandoning Trabucchi to a possible jail sentence would have been considered a betrayal by the rank and file. Also, the ruling coalition feared that allowing the Trabucchi case to go to trial would provide a platform from which the opposition could seriously threaten the government. Political scandals are a potent weapon of the Communists, who are untainted by participation in the government.

The wages of sin

The severity of recent sentences has surprised some Italians and may have been one of the factors that saved Trabucchi from the jaws of justice. In 1964, Professor Felice Ippolito, the secretarygeneral of Italy’s Nuclear Authority, went on trial on charges of misappropriating $1,800,000 of the authority’s funds. He had been a heavy contributor to various political parties and newspapers. He said in his defense that he had acted with the approval of his minister to prevent the complete paralysis of his agency. The rigid regulations he was subjected to, Ippolito said, had been drafted in the nineteenth century and were hardly designed for a nuclear agency. He had accepted building and engineering contracts from Euratom, and his dynamic leadership had been highly praised. Nonetheless, he was sentenced to eleven years in jail. The transition from respected official to convict was too much for him, and several months ago he was transferred to one of Rome’s neuropsychiatric clinics.

This summer, an internationally known research biologist named Domenico Marotta was accused of embezzling $1,400,000 in state funds, including United States research grants, while head of the state’s Superior Institute of Health. Despite his age, seventy-eight, and the now classic defense that bypassing the bureaucracy is the only way to get anything done, he was sentenced to six years and eight months.

Italy’s racket buster

Every month there are fresh accusations against officials and members of the government, and Rome’s public prosecutor, a racket-buster type named Luigi Giannantonio, has let it be known that he is investigating a score of other cases. Former Ministers of Industry Emilio Colombo and Giuseppe Medici have been accused in the press of leniency toward an insurance company which bilked its stockholders of huge sums.

Italians react with scornful resignation to a state apparatus that can breed so many scandals. “There have always been scandals,” they say; “in Italy such things will never change”; and “here it is a natural thing to ‘ungersi’ [grease oneself].” Such an attitude leads to disregard for the laws which the lawmakers are the first to dismiss, and becomes an obstacle to political progress.

Another obstacle, in the opinion of many, is the long rule of the Christian Democrat Party, which for seventeen years has been at the source of patronage, favors, and temptation. It should not be forgotten that the Italian Republic is only twenty years old and was preceded by a generation of fascism in which the bureaucracy was part of the police state.

Italy also has been poor, and the civil service became a method of survival dependent on favoritism and political patronage. A few years ago, a postmaster general boasted that since he had been appointed, there had not been a single unemployed person in his province. Whenever unemployment reaches uncomfortable proportions, the government remedy is to hire unneeded civil servants who might otherwise join the Communist ranks.

It is no accident that 80 percent of Italy’s civil servants come from the deprived southern half of the country. A job as an usher in a ministry is still considered ideal for a Calabrian villager whose only alternative is to work as a tenant farmer. In a state competition last summer to fill 700 vacancies for the job of school porter, there were 60,000 applicants.

The conviction that nothing can be accomplished without favoritism is also symptomatic of the public administration. Italians believe that going through channels is useless, and almost every member of parliament hires a staff member to write letters of recommendation for his constituents. Public agencies have special offices to process such letters, which arrive by the thousands. Political connections rather than merit have become the norm. Recently, 100 teachers who had failed a civil service examination appealed to an undersecretary and had the decision overruled. In a few offices, employees protected by political figures come to work only on payday.

Petty dishonesty and the acceptance of bribes have become the standard rather than the exception. A commentator on Italian affairs named Domenico Bartoli recently published a letter from a civil servant who complained that he was the only honest man in his department. He said he was forced to suffer the derision of his co-workers, who called him “a toothless one who does not know how to chew.” He was the only one in the office who did not own a car, he said, and to avoid ridicule, he pretended that his doctor had prescribed long walks for an arthritic condition.

Government at a snail’s pace

There are 1,329,000 Italians working for the state, and they represent roughly 10 percent of the total labor force. They include 6300 magistrates, 202,000 civil employees, 428,000 teachers, 58,000 laborers, 310,000 military, 318,000 employees of autonomous agencies, and 6700 miscellaneous workers. Despite the many able and brilliant men included in this figure, civil servants work in an atmosphere which can best be described as archaic. The administration teems with obscure offices which were set up temporarily but were never disbanded. At the Ministry of the Interior there is still a commission for the award of subsidies to the victims of the Risorgimento, an extreme example of an administration determined never to change. The Minister of Finance explained in an October television address that no tax reform has been possible up till now because his department has not been able to afford the equipment to improve its operations. A recent survey compared the productivity of the Italian tax bureau with the Internal Revenue System in the United States. It was found that the Internal Revenue Bureau examines 100 million American tax returns with a personnel of 57,000, while 30,000 Italians examine about 4 million Italian returns, a ratio of productivity of one to twelve.

The succession of scandals has made the administration even more sluggish. No public official will make a decision now unless it is confirmed by all his superiors. A man who had been promised a pension in two years was told last month that it would now take five years.

The increased caution has led to another sort of scandal. Two years ago in northeast Italy, the Vaiont Dam over the Piave River cracked and swamped the community of Longarone, killing about 2000 people. The Minister of Public Works promised that “in five months your community will be completely rebuilt.” A dismal two-year anniversary of the disaster was held in Longarone in October. Almost nothing had been done. Refugees are still living in prefabs on state charity.

The money to rebuild Longarone has been voted by parliament, and scale models of a shining new town can be seen in an architect’s office. But the bureaucratic machinery is grinding at its normal pace. It has taken two years for survivors to obtain certificates of death for members of their family so that they could qualify for state aid.

Resistance to reform

Since the war, thirteen commissions for bureaucratic reform have broken their lances against the shield of Italian special interests. There is now a Ministry for Bureaucratic Reform, whose head, Luigi Preti, is known as Luigi Quattordici because of his thirteen predecessors. He has a program for cutting the size of the public administration by 20 percent and for making it more honest and efficient, but his approach to his work is unusual. He considers that in the present political climate, bureaucratic reform is impossible.

Everyone pretends to want bureaucratic reform, Preti explains, but in reality everyone is against it. The trade unions are against reforms that will eliminate thousands of jobs. Each minister agrees that the number of civil servants should be reduced in every ministry save his own. Members of parliament are against a reform that would eliminate privileges and patronage.

Preti has arrived at the sad conclusion that were he to press for reforms now, he might take one step forward and two steps backward. “If I propose an increase in working hours, the result might be a reduction in working hours,” he says. As if to confirm his pessimism, parliament in October voted itself a $500a-month pay increase, bringing salaries up to $1400 a month, the highest in Europe. As a Western diplomat noted: “It is one thing to diagnose the illness; it is another to find the cure.”