What has (Local) Government Done to Our Ice Cream?
By Alberto Mingardi
To paraphrase Einstein, two things are infinite: the universe and the creativity of politicians. My own country, Italy, offers plenty of examples of such a creativity. Let me just point to a recent one.
Together with pizza and spaghetti, “gelato” may be one of the few Italian words almost universally understood.
Though the Chinese are generally credited for creating the first ice creams, Marco Polo is believed to be the one who introduced these tasty concoctions to Italy. These attributions are ambiguous, but they make up for a nice story – and, obviously, for the Italian being proud of another exquisite contribution to food culture.
This might explain why most of us here in Milan were quite astonished learning that the local government prohibited the sale of ice cream cones after midnight, in some city areas for shops that do not already have tables outside in the open. Nor surprisingly, people voiced their disappointment and the mayor promptly agreed to extend the curfew.
The issue is less trivial than it appears. Milanese residents understandably want peace and quiet at night. Clusters-however small-of chatty human beings gathered in front of curbside shops are noisy. Local governments are thus pressed by different interest groups to pursue different policies. Were cities just gated communities, it would be hard to question the property owners’ right to stipulate a covenant which bans activities they do not like. But cities are not gigantic gated communities, they are political arenas that replicate, on a smaller scale, all the intricacies of national politics.
The political dimension is always about conflict. Owners of disco-pubs and senior couples do have very different priorities, and politicians choose to prize one over the other, depending largely on the feedback they expect on election day.
The lesson of this little Milanese story, is not that local communities should have no right in approving rules that discipline their living together.
The problem lies in the politicians’ over-confidence in their power to solve conflicts by emanating new rules. In our polities, big or small, it appears that the rulers’ Pavlovian reaction to any issue (public nuisance included) is “ban and/or regulate”. Reducing noise by limiting ice cream consumption appears a ridiculous resolution. A little bit of self-mockery could help administrators to understand that sometimes there are no solutions but only trade offs.