The idea that to change a political landscape one must first influence people’s minds relies on the premise that what one reads influences what one thinks. In other words, if “ideas have consequences,” then books have consequences, too. The fate of Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873) in Italy, however, may prove this to be an unfortunately naive assumption.

Manzoni’s masterpiece, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) (1827), was made compulsory reading for second-year students of Licei classici—classically oriented high schools for academically gifted students—in 1923. The novel is frequently acknowledged as the touchstone of the “proper” Italian language. Manzoni crafted his words in the fashion of the contemporary Tuscan language, considered the most literary among the dialects spoken in Italy at the time. By the era of national unification, only some two hundred thousand Italians out of a population of twenty-five million spoke Italian correctly. Manzoni gave the newborn country its greatest gift: a language.

Manzoni gave the newborn country its greatest gift: a language.

Although the country’s spoken language was only truly unified in the 1950s and ’60s through the influence of national television, Manzoni’s prose set the example to follow. A great number of mannerisms and figures of speech that Manzoni invented for The Betrothed have entered the daily parlance of millions. The literati got their Italian from Manzoni, and, soon enough, newspapers were being written and (eventually) radio news was being delivered in Manzoni’s Italian.

Though Italians clearly appreciate The Betrothed for its literary and linguistic merits, they haven’t been particularly receptive to its message—at least, not its political message. The Betrothed unapologetically conveys Manzoni’s distrust of political elites, and an entire chapter of the novel expounds upon the basic tenets of classical economics. The book’s central argument is to criticize what F. A. Hayek describes as mankind’s “ingrained propensity . . . to interpret everything anthropomorphically.” Hayek understood that social phenomena may have no single cause or creator. Indeed, we tend to simplify the issue and rush to find something or somebody to blame. Through the fictional universe of The Betrothed, Manzoni puts this basic human tendency on trial, providing a sharp political allegory on the dangers of overbearing and misguided governmental regulation.

The Betrothed is set in 1628, and begins in a little hamlet forty miles north of Milan. At first glance, the titular betrothed do not seem likely characters for a romantic novel: Renzo Tramaglino is a silk-weaver, his promised Lucia Mondella a peasant. They are good, common people who seek a peaceful existence and are ready to start a family. Their wishes, however, are dashed by a local nobleman, Don Rodrigo, who falls for Lucia after a fleeting encounter on a country road. His henchmen convince Don Abbondio, the cowardly parish priest who was to marry the couple, that “questo matrimonio non s’ha da fare” (the wedding should not take place), one of many phrases from the novel that remain in daily Italian parlance. With the threat of Rodrigo hanging over both, Renzo and Lucia are forced to separate.

Renzo journeys to a plague-infested Milan, but soon finds the city inhospitable and settles instead in Bergamo, where he then becomes sick with the plague. Lucia repairs to a nunnery, but is soon evicted and lands on the street. Through a series of miraculous coincidences, however, she eventually reunites with and marries a now-healthy Renzo at the novel’s conclusion.

In the 1843 edition of the novel, Manzoni added as an appendix a short historical essay that tells the story of the 1629 Great Plague of Milan (on which the novel is partly based). It describes how the people of Milan ignored the many complex causes of the plague (for one, the War of Mantuan Succession, which brought foreign troops to Italy) and instead clung to the more satisfying belief that it was spread by evil people. This thirst for a guilty party led the town to sentence two men to death. The two men, Giangiacomo Mora and Guglielmo Piazza, were of course perfectly innocent but pled guilty under duress of torture.

Manzoni was outraged by these events, but understood that human nature, rather than the institution of torture or public ignorance, was to blame. “Man,” he reasoned, “is only too liable to deceive himself, to deceive himself terribly. . . . [S]uspicion and exasperation, unless they are restrained by reason and charity, possess the sad virtue of causing the unfortunate to be seized as criminals upon the vainest pretext or the rashest assertion.” When people are baffled by events out of their control, they tend to look for scapegoats instead of attempting to understand the causes of the upheaval. Finding a guilty party becomes an all-consuming passion.

In one of the most famous chapters of The Betrothed, poor Renzo finds himself swept up in a mob revolt against the bakers, who have been charged with hoarding flour and bread. This uprising was based on the historical Tumulto di San Martino of November 11 and 12, 1628. Manzoni’s knowledge of history— specifically, the French Revolution—led him to believe that “in popular uprisings there are always men, inspired by hot-blooded passions, fanatical convictions, evil designs, or a devilish love of disorder for its own sake, who do everything they can to make things take the worst possible turn.”

The economist Deirdre McCloskey writes that the twelfth chapter of The Betrothed, which sets the stage for the mob uprising, is something that an economist “could reprint . . . for a lecture in Economics 101,” demonstrating Manzoni’s careful understanding of the role of prices. The chapter opens with a description of the “second year of bad harvest,” which produced a scarcity of wheat and, therefore, bread. As with the plague, the shortage was a by-product of the War of the Mantuan Succession, which devastated Milan’s countryside. There were also other less visible consequences of the war: unbearable taxation, the destructive behavior of quartered troops, and the like. With the miserable harvest came a shortage of wheat, precipitating a “painful, salutary, inevitable consequence, a rise in price.”

Manzoni knew that higher prices would draw grain from foreign countries, as the lure of profit would outweigh the trouble of transport and storage. He also knew well that a price rise would raise the incentive for local producers to grow more grain. And yet, for this healthy adjustment process to develop, the price must be allowed to rise. Unfortunately, as Manzoni writes, an abrupt increase in price inevitably produces

a common conviction that it is not in fact the shortage of goods that has caused the high prices. People forget that they have feared and predicted the shortage, and suddenly begin to believe that there is really plenty of grain, and that the trouble is that it is being kept off the market. . . . The storehouses and granaries were known to be full, overflowing, bursting with grain.

As Manzoni explains, this widespread conviction strengthens “certain official measures which the multitude always regards (or always has regarded up to the present day), as fair, simple, and ideally calculated to bring out the grain that has been secreted.” This is, of course, the common rationale for price controls. And yet: “all the official measures in the world, however vigorous they may be, cannot lessen man’s need for food, nor produce crops out of season.” The measures have unintended consequences: they were “certainly not calculated to attract imports from other areas where there might conceivably be a surplus. And so the trouble continued and grew worse.”

Supposedly benevolent interventionism initiates a vicious circle of delusion.

Of course, Manzoni knew that it is not only the people who fail to understand the necessity of price increases. The government, subject to the same delusion, merely faces a different set of incentives. The mob, hungry and needy, is compelled to conjure up easy scapegoats. Officials should perhaps know better, but in fact share the same, basic assumption with the mob: that they can save the day with the stroke of a pen.

Indeed, the Spanish authorities (then ruling Milan) fixed the price at a level that would have been “right” if cheaper grain were available. Of Grand Chancellor Antonio Ferrer, the man responsible for price regulation, Manzoni wrote: “[he] was behaving like a lady of a certain age, who thinks she can regain her youth by altering the date on her birth certificate.”

This supposedly benevolent interventionism initiates a vicious circle of delusion. Fixing a low price of bread does not make bread magically appear on the dinner table; rather, these measures merely consolidate the popular belief in an almighty government. In doing so, intervention breeds intervention—with much conceit and little benefit:

On 15 November Antonio Ferrer published a proclamation . . . according to which no one who had grain or flour in his house was allowed to buy any more . . . . There was also a fresh order that the shops must be kept well supplied with bread . . . . Anyone who can suppose that such a proclamation could be carried out must have enviable powers of the imagination.

The Betrothed is, of course, about more than economics. The novel shines for its characters and its beautifully crafted plot, which marches on with the precision and consistency of a Swiss clock. And yet, one may marvel at Manzoni’s success in penning a wonderful parable on the unintended consequences of governmental economic intervention.

Consider the following passages, in which Manzoni describes with crystal-clear rigor the perverse after-effects of government meddling. Public authorities commanded bakers to produce bread, but to do so “they had to take steps to see that the raw materials were available.” Because of the shortage, people were busy making bread out of non-traditional foodstuffs. For example, as Manzoni writes, “it had been decided to start using rice as an ingredient in the so-called ‘mixed loaf,’ ” and the authorities required that whoever owned rice must supply it for the common good, or pay a penalty. But what about the price, then? The government resorted to fixing its price, forcing people to sell it, or to take “greater financial penalties and corporate penalties up to service in the galleys.” Intervention breeds intervention indeed:

there is in fact a necessary connection between all those strange provisions. Each was an inevitable consequence of the one before, and all followed logically from the first, which fixed a price for bread which was so far removed from the real price—by which we mean that which would have resulted from the relationship of supply and demand.

Taking the free-market path, a “salutary” rise in price would have attracted grains from other parts of Europe to Milan. Instead, as Manzoni writes, “since the prices of bread and flour were kept so low in Milan, the natural consequence was that processions of people from the country came into town to buy those goods.” How was the problem solved? By prohibiting people from bringing bread outside the city.

Manzoni believed in free trade. He understood that goods will flow either “with the favor of the law, with flying colors, in the light of the sun” or “in spite of the law, under the guise of smuggling, under the shine of the moon,” and was troubled by the fact that legislators did not also understand this basic economic truth.

The scion of a great family of the Italian enlightenment (his grandfather was the legal scholar Cesare Beccaria), Manzoni was primed in classical liberal thinking from an early age. The author developed his worldview while in France with his mother and was particularly influenced by the contemporary historian and linguist Claude Fauriel, who would later translate Manzoni’s own writings into French. While in France, Manzoni absorbed the ideas of “The Ideologues,” whose leader, Destutt de Tracy, wrote A Treatise on Political Economy (later translated into English by Thomas Jefferson). And his background in economics wasn’t trivial: Manzoni studied the works of Jean-Baptiste Say and Adam Smith. But his success as an economic preacher was, alas, limited.

Manzoni was primed in classical liberal thinking from an early age.

When The Betrothed was entered into the Italian high school curriculum in 1923, the economist Luigi Einaudi had great hopes: “whoever can infuse in our youth the spirit of the economic chapter of Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed would fully achieve the civil and spiritual end” of free-market reform:

To succeed in making those immortal pages to be thoroughly appreciated would mean to have deeply penetrated the spirit of science and to partake of a true economic sense of history and of life . . . a renewed economic teaching would play a not inconsiderable part in the mental development of Italy’s new generations.

After the Second World War, Einaudi—who in rapid succession became the Minister of Finance, the Governor of Italy’s Central Bank, and finally the first President of the Italian Republic—rescued his country from inflation and debt, thereby laying the foundations for Italy’s “economic miracle.” In 1961, he wrote a salient column that clearly explained the uselessness and idiocy of blaming price changes on those who profit from them. In it, Einaudi laments that “Alessandro Manzoni had already shown this to advantage in the well-known twelfth chapter of his Betrothed, but I have the impression that this chapter was too often paid no heed whatsoever during the last two wars.” Manzoni may have prophesied his own fate, when, commenting on the greater scarcity that interventionism induced, he observed that “The mob had thought it could create times of plenty by looting and incendiarism; the government thought it could prolong them by the threat of the lash and the galley.” Neither the people nor the elites seemed to get basic economic principles right.

This is certainly the case in Manzoni’s native Italy, even today. Although generations of educated Italians have read The Betrothed, its argument for classical liberal economics appears not to have not left much of a mark on the general voting population. Judging by their electoral choices, they have rejected the basic realities of the price system and the benefits of an unrestricted market. In the late eighties, before a crisis shattered the illusion of regulation and prompted the privatization of many state-owned businesses and institutions, the Italian government controlled companies producing everything from the iconic Alfa Romeo sports cars to pasta, tomatoes, and panettone cakes. Then, as now, Italians haven’t been inoculated against conspiracy theories and still have a strong taste for plots and unnamed men behind the proverbial curtain in public affairs.

The Betrothed’s inclusion in Italian high school curricula clearly has not led to a greater acceptance of the author’s free-market economics. Indeed, perhaps the tribute paid to Manzoni by the Italian education system has ironically led to its own unintended consequence: the novel is now considered tedious homework by legions of Italian youths. A few years ago, Umberto Eco facetiously proposed that the book should be banned by law, so that Italians may rediscover the guilty pleasure of reading Manzoni. Perhaps, in that case, they might also rediscover its message.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 6, on page 35
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