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|Necessary State Intervention - Who Decides?|
Corriere della Sera - April 21st 2008
Commentators and scholars of
The returning finance minister succeeded, before the election campaign, in reviving the debate about state intervention in the economy, in his book “Fear and Hope”. His boss made his own views clear when he declared himself opposed to the sale of the government’s 49% holding in Alitalia to Air France/KLM. Nevertheless, Mr Tremonti is sensitive to foreign criticism that he may be protectionist or an old-fashioned believer in state meddling. In response to an article in the Financial Times, he sent that British paper a letter on April 16th in which he pleaded “not guilty”: he says that all he favours is “rule-based trade versus unregulated free trade”, and a philosophy of “market if possible, state if necessary”. Why should anyone object to that?
Mr Tremonti’s claim that all he wants is “rule-based trade” is meaningless. There is no such thing as trade that is not based on rules, except for smuggling and the commerce in illegal drugs. All legal trade is subject to rules agreed to in the World Trade Organisation. Any disputes over whether countries are obeying those rules are supposed to be adjudicated by the WTO’s tribunals. So the “unregulated free trade” that Mr Tremonti claims to oppose simply does not exist. The real question is whether Mr Tremonti accepts the rules that do exist, or whether he would like to change them. If so, he should say so and his proposals can be debated.
Similarly, to say “market if possible, state if necessary” tells us nothing. Who decides whether the state is necessary? What defines that necessity? Is it really necessary in the case of Alitalia, in a world in which other European countries have been giving up the idea of national flag-carriers? That is what an honest debate should be about.
The real question that both Italians and Japanese should ask is: in whose interests are such interventions in Alitalia and J-Power being conducted? Is it in the true interest of citizens, of passengers and customers? Or is it in the interest of a smaller, special lobby group? If it could be justified as being genuinely in the national public interest then the state might well be “necessary”, to use Mr Tremonti’s word. But this needs to be justified, clearly, every time the government claims the right to interfere.