Sturzo: Close the Fountain? Abuse of Power

“We take a practical example: a public fountain was built in a village. The fountain is a common good that is resolved in the good of those who go to fetch water. If the fountain was - for abuse of power - closed to the public with iron gates, whose key was in the hands of a few or just one person, would cease to be a public good, but neither would become a private good; that fact would morally lead to an act of arrogance, in violation of a legal right of the community" (L. Sturzo, Del metodo sociologico, p. 67).

What does Sturzo say? First, the availability of water is an essential part of the concept of common good. Second, that any monopoly or oligopolization of the fountain does not transform the common good in the private good, but simply indicates their “abuse of power". Third, what may appear to be moral “arrogance" in law means “breach of law": the exclusion from a common good such as water is a crime.

On the other hand, Sturzo in the same year warned Italian politicians, “The state is by definition unfit to operate a simple shoemaker's shop." Beyond the ideological tendencies, against which all run the risk of being terribly exposed, especially these days (on June 12 and 13 Italian people voted for a referendum on the privatization of water net), I think that is not important if the State or a private entity manages the public good of water. In either case you have to pay the investment made by someone else. We just have to choose whether to pay private bills or public tax.

Where then is the risk of ideological drift? In allocating the State's monopoly of public service: if we call it baron or “State", in any case it is always a “master." Men are men, perhaps the government officials are virtuous by nature? Does the public service of the State mean that managers nominated by the national and local party leaders will manage it? And then, who said that the parties know more about who are the best social entrepreneurs? Perhaps the social optimum is an attribute of the "State"? Of the stratified (polyarchycal) society, divided according to the principle of subsidiarity?

In the Sturzo's perspective, the task of the State is to establish through democratic and participatory method the rules of play and to respect them. The State defines the playing field, opens the lines of competition, prevents oligopolies, acts as the arbitrator, punishes those who break the rules and, if necessary, ejects them out from the field.

The arbitrator may not even play! This is the first ethical and social nature lesson of Sturzo and the social market economy. We all know that individuals wish to maximize profits. However, if the public has decided not to play, it will arbitrate better. If, however, it also claims to be a player, it can never be an impartial arbitrator. On the basis of Sturzo's teaching, while I do not trust the private sector, the idea that the public might be a referee and player terrifies me.

We can resolve the problem of speculation of private only with the rules and an impartial arbitrator who makes them respected. This is an issue of ethics applied to policy. In Sturzo, ethics is not a list of good intentions, but an institutional system that allows freedom and justice. We all know how difficult it is, but that is the art of politics. Even for Michelangelo, sculpting “The Pietà" was not just a simple walk.

Flavio Felice is an adjunct fellow at AEI.

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