Faced with having to wait until they are the age of their grandparents to become senior, many of Italy’s best and brightest leave. Universities in America and Britain are full of Italian academics too ambitious to sit around for decades to get tenure in Italy. International bureaucracies such as the World Bank, IMF and OECD are replete with Italians wielding PhDs. Brussels is another escape hatch: Italy is a great provider of dedicated Eurocrats. Perhaps the single most damning indicator of Italy’s current economic health is that it is the only net exporter of graduates among rich European countries, something more commonly associated with developing countries than with developed ones…Many of Italy’s graduates leave to escape the system of raccomandazioni, or connections (often through families), that rules the labour market. Examples of such practices can be found in every country, but Italy is different for two reasons: raccomandazioni are ubiquitous and rarely questioned. It might be tempting to ascribe this preference for connections over qualifications to what Edward Banfield, an American sociologist, called “amoral familism”. In a book on poverty in southern Italy, “The Moral Basis of a Backward Society”, published in 1958 but still controversial today, Banfield argued that Italian family bonds are so tight that they prevent people from coming together to create outcomes that benefit a larger number. The thesis was intended as an analysis of a single village but has often been read as a condemnation of an entire nation. (Read more.)
More than 60 years after publication, the idea of amoral familism remains in intellectual currency. That is a rare thing in the social sciences.