Commentary. Is our goal to return to normal, or do we want to design a new idea for our society? The truth is we can never go back.

The post-epidemic recovery should focus on rights, not the economy

The appeal to rebuild the country after the epidemic promoted by Sbilanciamoci! essentially focuses on economic issues, and tries to relaunch the role of public intervention after decades of neoliberalism running wild. This can only happen if the new economic policies are supported by an adequate legal culture capable of regulating the intervention of the public institutions. This is why the dialogue between the economy and law appears to be a necessary prerequisite for any action towards change. This is demonstrated by our history, marked by the divorce between the economy perceived as a natural order and law as an instrument at the service of the political order. The awareness that the classical liberals (without “neo-”) still had, namely that there is a legal order of the economy, has gradually faded.

That’s why we should act on this front by relaunching the idea that economic governance is by no means predetermined, but is the result of well-thought-out political decisions for development. This is, after all, only a small step, nothing more than the demystification of a falsehood. And yet, as a result of reaffirming the political nature of economic choices (including those that define the present state of affairs), a series of consequences will no longer be able to be denied. The first one is that political choices—and therefore also economic choices—in constitutional states have to respect fundamental principles held to be inalienable. It is the latter that must direct the economy (and not only), and not vice versa. This means replacing “budget limits,” which have been senselessly introduced even in the Constitution, with the limits imposed by the respect for fundamental rights. This has already been clearly laid out by our Constitutional Court (“The guarantee of inviolable rights that has an impact on the budget, not the balance of this budget, conditions its due disbursement”—Ruling No. 275 of 2016), it is now a matter of following up on this principle in a coherent manner.

Therefore, the problem is not one of compliance with the more or less stringent rules on the stability of the public accounts—the basic issue is about priorities and how to achieve the aims established in the political process. It is possible to pursue the most varied economic and social strategies, but on condition that they respect people’s inalienable rights. This is a constraint which, in principle, should constrain the choices made by any majority, since it is the very foundation of the “social contract” which legitimizes the exercise of power by our rulers. It may not be easy to achieve such results in times of a development crisis (but who has ever said that governing contemporary societies democratically would be an easy undertaking?), but this does not impinge on the fact that it is an inescapable constraint.

Shifting the focus in terms of priorities—from the economy to rights—to ensure the minimum social guarantees necessary for living together would be a reversal that could put an end to the degeneration that has occurred in both the economic field and in that of rights. If we can draw one lesson from this terrible pandemic, it should be that letting the market have free rein has not only dragged us into an unprecedented economic crisis with no way out (not from this year, but ever since 2008), but has also produced a weakening of the support structure needed to guarantee the fulfilment of the main rights of those living together in society. After two months of lockdown, Italy is on its knees, and it will not be the free market or the initiative of the private sector that will get it back on its feet. It has come to the point that the neoliberals of yesterday, who demanded that the state should take more and more steps back, are now demanding, with the same arrogance, that the state give them the resources to “restart.” The time has come for a reflection that would lead us to more balanced solutions, not least because the return of the public sphere is now demanded by everyone. This is why the decision on how to use future resources must be taken. The pretext of leaving this up to individual freedom is no longer valid, nor will it be an autonomous economic initiative by private individuals: it is up to the state to decide how to distribute its scarce resources. Accordingly, constitutional priorities must be respected.

Nor is it difficult to identify these “priorities.” They are all linked to the fundamental value that our constitutional system has placed at its core: human dignity. It is the respect for homo dignus which is a reference point for all social policies—including in the economic sphere—and which legitimizes the intervention of the state and the use of the resources it provides. It should be kept in mind that our Constitution imposes the limit of respecting “human dignity” also on the free economic initiative of private individuals, while it entrusts “the law” (i.e. public intervention) with directing and coordinating both public and private activity “towards social ends.” What could be clearer than that?

There is nothing subversive in these observations, nor are they aimed at imposing a “managerial” turn on the economy of this country. They merely re-establish the conditions of compatibility for a sustainable and constitutionally-oriented development.

But what are the fundamental rights that give shape to this notion of dignity? The answer is—once again—spelled out clearly in the Constitution, leaving no room for any misunderstanding.  These are the “inviolable rights of man, both as an individual and as a member of the social groups in which his personality finds expression,” and it is with reference to these rights that the “imperative” duties of social, economic and political solidarity, referred to in Article 2 of the Constitution, must be respected. In the allocation of resources, one cannot avoid giving priority to the inalienable rights that are necessary for the full development of the person.

With reference to the social, economic and political choices that must be made according to these principles, priority can only be given to the three sectors that make the principle of equal social dignity effective: healthcare, work and culture. It is precisely these inalienable rights that have been most sacrificed by the arrival of the pandemic: hospitals stretched to the breaking point, work suspended or confined to the home, school and university lessons only at a distance. We have paid a terrible price for years of privatization policies for health facilities, of “flexibility” and reduction of guarantees in the world of work, of cuts in funding, bureaucratization and a lack of interest in any serious cultural and educational activity. It is from this point that we must start again if we want to give dignity to the “recovery” after COVID-19.

At this stage, emergency measures will have to be put in place to prevent the collapse of the system and ensure people’s survival. But everyone is aware that the choices that will be made will also represent the beginning of a new cycle. This is why, in addition to the short term, we need to look towards the future that we want. And this is where the final question arises: is our goal to return to the crisis of “before,” or do we want to try to design another idea of society? Actually, the first option is just a grand illusion, because history cannot repeat itself (if not as a farce, as someone once pointed out), and therefore a return to the past would do nothing but sanction the definitive abandonment of any idea of progress and the handing over of our future to power relations and nothing more, to an economy that affords us no rights. It would be better, then, to change—“to plan for the reconstruction of a better country, of a healthy, just and sustainable Italy” (as we read in the appeal from Sbilanciamociamoci!).

We must not harbor any illusions: a program is not enough to change the course of history. It is not the ideas that are missing, and the Decalogue of Sbilanciamociamoci represents a true government manifesto for change. The basic problem is that even the best proposals must find the driving force to carry them forward. This is where another issue comes into view: to be able to guarantee the effectiveness of rights, including those that are supposed to be inviolable by rulers, there is a need for good politics, for politics that is aware that ideas, for better or worse, are worth more than interests. It is on the terrain of cultural hegemonies that the real game must be played. We must gear up for battle.

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