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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 302-303

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Book Review

The Search for Good Government:
Understanding the Paradox of Italian Democracy

The Search for Good Government: Understanding the Paradox of Italian Democracy. By Filippo Sabetti (Montreal, McGill-Queens University Press, 2000) 313pp. $34.95

Among the many peculiarities of Italy's political history, the range of generalizations that it provokes is among the most remarkable. After emphasizing the uniqueness and complexity of Italian politics, writers (especially those using English) tend to reach toward behavioral laws about the role of political culture or amoral familialism, the nature of parties, the uses of corruption, or how to make democracy work. Sabetti rejects most of these well-known conclusions; yet he, too, begins with a paradox and raises it to a general principle in this passionate and informed book: Italy's political failures stem from its persistent search for good government.

After denouncing the "respectable bigotry" of many judgments about Italians, Sabetti candidly declares his own ambition "to open new territory in the study of the art and science of institutional design" (3, 5). He maintains that institutional focus throughout his study of the modern Italian political system. The result is an essay full of provocative interpretations and interesting examples. Focus on the institutional vertebrae of political action involves much detail, and Sabetti's determination to be fair necessitates nuanced concessions that consume additional space. Hence, despite carefully constructed signposts (six sections, ten chapters, multiple subheads, numbered points, and conclusions), many passages seem like digressions, and the whole somewhat disjointed. Nonetheless, all paths lead back to Sabetti's argument.

It begins with the Risorgimento. In his even-handed, brief account, the period's familiar compromises and failings are all understandable, although one--"constitutional design"--was nearly fatal. The leaders of the Risorgimento looked from the top down and created a centralized rather than a federal state. Sabetti uses Francesco Ferrara's memo about administering Sicily (Sicily and the South get a lot of attention) to show that other models were available, and he uses Carlo Cattaneo, the intellectual hero of this book, to define what should have been. After affectionately listing Cattaneo's many qualities and achievements, Sabetti does for him what dozens of commentators have done for Antonio Gramsci: He reassembles disparate writings into a coherent theory. Democratic institutions must be rooted in parish, neighborhood, and community, and government must be built upward from these grass roots (even cities need to be divided into self-governing villages). Cattaneo's arguments include brief forays into medieval and ancient history and allow Sabetti to inject references to political writers from Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini through Alexis de Tocqueville and to the contemporary theorists that he often cites.

After this prologue, Sabetti turns to the modern republic. Despite efforts to improve "the public service delivery system" and steps toward decentralization, republican government has not performed much better than its predecessors. As Cattaneo predicted, Luigi Einaudi asserted, and [End Page 302] Sabetti's theorists explain, these centralized bureaucracies, distant from the worlds that they serve, have little incentive to be efficient or responsive. Matters were made worse by Fascist measures increasing centralization and republican ones adding yet more responsibilities. These effects are shown concretely through an extensive comparison of the administration in Bologna with that in Naples and a discussion of city planning in Rome, examples that allow Sabetti along the way to refute common interpretations. Constrained by universal regulations, local initiatives fade into the old practices. Similar conclusions emerge from a detailed account of the war against mafia and the renewal of Palermo. If these discussions are discouraging, they also contain signs of hope, and Sabetti rarely misses a chance to undercut easy criticisms of Italy or disparagement of the South.

On every page, elements of the literature on Italian politics are challenged in their broad conclusions or specific interpretations, but the well-known studies of Banfield and Putnam each get a chapter. 1 Sabetti finds much to correct in both; he casts doubt on the failings they find...


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