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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Balancing Budgets: Italy vs. Wisconsin

In what could be dubbed a tale of two states, Scott Walker of Wisconsin bragged about bringing the budget into balance without raising taxes while Silvio Berlusconi broke his pledge not to raise taxes in order to balance his budget for 2013. Walker relied on spending cuts and constricting the collective bargaining of government employees, while Berlusconi agreed to a package of tax increases, spending cuts and fewer labor protections to make up for $76 billion (54 billion euros) by 2013. The tax increases include raising the value-added tax from 20 to 21 percent and imposing a “solidarity tax” of 3 percent on state residents who earn more than $420,000 (300,000 euros). The latter tax would run through 2013. At a news conference in August, 2011, “Berlusconi acknowledged that he had pledged never to raise taxes, but that the attention of world markets had forced him to do so.” Was breaking his pledge a vice or a virtue?

Scott Walker would undoubtedly say “A VICE!” To be sure, there is merit in Walker’s feat in balancing a government’s budget without asking more from residents in terms of taxes. However, there is also merit in Berlusconi’s decision to “spread the pain” fairly even to the rich. Solidarity is a value that implies that we are all in it together so everyone sacrifices—not just those least able to do so. Choosing a spending-cuts-only approach wherein sustenance of the poor is compromised while the rich are not asked to contribute evinces not only a certain set of priorities, but also a certain value-set, which is antipodal to the principle of solidarity. From this standpoint, Berlusconi’s breaking of his pledge can be pardoned.

However, if excess government spending (i.e., not affecting the sustenance level) exists, it may be unnecessary to raise anyone’s taxes to balance a budget. To be sure, legislatures can pad lobbyists’ pockets by inflating budget items, and it is virtuous to cut such spending particularly to balance a budget. Also, labor unions can gain excessive power and demand too much from governments as well as workers. For example, in Wisconsin even part-time temporary instructors at public junior colleges must pay union dues amounting to a significant part of their pay per class. Someone teaching one class for one term only has different interests than a career instructor who teaches full-time at a college, yet the teachers’ union does not discern this difference. The problem comes in when a supermajority in government goes beyond correcting for such excess power in seeking to balance the budget on one segment of the population while another segment is allowed to go unaffected. The basic principle of fairness is violated in such a case.

The core principle not to be violated by any government may be put as follows: Instead of affecting the safety net on the sustenance level, taxes should be raised on those residents able to afford the additional tax. Being able to afford a tax justifies not depriving the poor of basic living requirements such as food, shelter and medical services. Contributing where one is able without undue hardship and a human right to sustenance can be said to be the two pillars of the principle of solidarity. Without this principle, a society is merely the sum of parts—a mere aggregate wherein selfishness rules rather than bows to a higher good. That is to say, solidarity thwarts misordered concupiscence while being necessary for genuine society.


Rachel Donadio, “Italian Senate Approves Austerity Plan,” New York Times, September 8, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/08/world/europe/08italy.html