Adam Smith on that Genoa bridge

Smith had it all figured out almost 300 years ago

The death toll of the collapsed motorway bridge now stands at 41 and counting, with recriminations flying all over the place.

I’m following the story with particular attention, for I myself must have driven on that bridge a dozen times. That adds an element of personal frisson, accompanied by a sigh of relief: it could have been me.

Then of course one’s imagination kicks in with a cringing effect: fancy driving through beautiful Liguria when suddenly the bridge collapses in front of you.

You hit the brakes with ankle-breaking force, but it’s too late: the car tumbles over the edge and here you are, falling 300 feet to your death, the ochre, pink and tawny colours of Genoa flashing before your eyes…

Who’s to blame? This question is vital, if only to have a chance of preventing such tragedies in the future.

For Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new Interior Minister, the answer is clear: the culprit is the EU, with its miserly subsidies and suffocating restrictions on budget deficits.

Now Mr Salvini isn’t a huge admirer of the EU, and I sense a kindred spirit there. The EU does attract strong emotions, one way or the other.

Hence those who, like Mr Salvini and me, detest that wicked Leviathan may be tempted to blame the EU for all the world’s ills. Yet we ought to be aware of this natural tendency and keep it in check.

The EU can indeed be blamed for a lot – but not for everything. I don’t blame it for my bad health, too much weight or shortish stature. And Mr Salvini shouldn’t blame it for the Genoa catastrophe.

This is what he actually said: “If external constraints prevent us from spending to have safe roads and schools, then it really calls into question whether it makes sense to follow these rules. There can be no trade-off between fiscal rules and the safety of Italians.”

His second sentence rings true, but with one minor amendment: replace ‘fiscal rules’ with ‘budgets’. Yes, a civilised country should never use shortage of money as an excuse for putting people’s lives at risk.

The full stop at the end of this statement means that there’s no need to go into the details of Italy’s financial dealings with the EU, such as what kind of infrastructure subsidies she receives or whether or not she’s a net contributor to the EU budget (opinions and calculations vary).

It simply doesn’t matter. Europe’s fourth largest economy must find the money to keep its motorway bridges from killing people.

Looking at the published photographs of the Genoa bridge a month before the disaster, one doesn’t have to be a structural engineer to see that a collapse is imminent.

The whole central section had lost much of its underside, with rebar, no longer covered with cement, sticking out. Any civilised country, a word combination I insist on using, would have condemned that bridge years ago.

Italy didn’t, which brings into question the extent to which she’s civilised – now, not in Roman times. The blood of those 41 victims (and counting) is on the hands of whatever Italian authorities, local or central, are responsible for maintaining infrastructure.

As to the budgetary constraints, Mr Salvini should take his cue from Adam Smith, whose advice would have prevented the tragedy: “What is prudence in the conduct of every private family, can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom.”

In other words, a country should run its budget on the same principles as families run theirs. The principles are simple: unless a family is so rich that money is no object, it prioritises its outgoings.

Junior wants his own car? Sorry, no money for that. Yes, a five-star hotel would be nice, but we can only afford a B&B. And yes, dear, you’d look smashing in a Savile Row suit, but our budget doesn’t stretch beyond M&S.

But – critically – if Junior needs an operation, and the NHS has a two-year waiting list, then money must be found somehow. Mum going back to work, Dad doing night shifts, the house re-mortgaged, the car sold – whatever it takes. The boy needs urgent help.

Without looking at Italy’s budget in any detail, one can state with absolute certainty that many of its items are less important than keeping motorway bridges from becoming death traps.

In fact, I’d be happy to lend Mr Salvini a helping hand pro bono publico and suggest areas where savings could be made. At a guess, reducing the number of immigrants would be a good start, and I bet my euros to his cannoli that the welfare budget could stand some squeezing.

Yet come to think of it, I too blame the EU – for providing a ready excuse to the likes of Mr Salvini, a way of abrogating their own responsibility.

If the new Italian government detests the EU as much as it claims, it should do the honourable thing, get out – and take care of its own motorway bridges.

If the EU collapses as a result, it’s no big deal. No one will die.

1 thought on “Adam Smith on that Genoa bridge”

  1. “If external constraints prevent us from spending to have safe roads and schools, then it really calls into question whether it makes sense to follow these rules.”

    Kick-the-can down the road type of highway maintenance. Money allocated [?] but not spent probably used to prop up the EU welfare state?

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