Remarkably enough, that’s what’s happened in Italy. Just before ceding power to Silvio Berlusconi’s lot, Romano Prodi’s centre-left government has – without any warning or discussion whatsoever – published the income details of every Italian citizen on the tax authority’s website.
Now you might assume this was a case of demob-happy politicians using their last days in power purely to amuse themselves with ludicrous legislation – the Italian parliamentary equivalent of telling your clients what you really think of them after handing in your notice (normally you’d expect elected officials to be above this kind of thing, but you never know with Italy).
But no. This was, apparently, an attempt to improve transparency in a country where tax evasion is rife (as Berlusconi and Prodi both agree). The finance ministry said publishing people’s tax contributions would help to elucidate the shadowy world of Italian tax returns. ‘It's all about transparency and democracy. I don't see the problem,’ the (remarkably unruffled) tax minister told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
The move certainly went down a storm – within hours the site had been so deluged by visitors that it fell over completely. Which is hardly a surprise; after all, if you could find out what all your friends and work colleagues are earning, wouldn’t you be tempted to sneak a peek?
On the other hand, despite our prurient interest in other people’s money, we wouldn’t want every uomo, donna, and cane knowing about ours. So we’re inclined to agree with those Italians who are absolutely horrified by this outrageous invasion of their privacy. As consumer groups point out, the government didn’t even bother asking permission first – and possessing this kind of information would surely make life much easier for thieves. Sure enough Italy’s privacy watchdog soon submitted a formal complaint, eventually forcing the government to take the site down last night.
Generally speaking we’re all for transparency and accountability. But if everyone knew what everyone else got paid, we dread to think what would happen – bosses would be besieged by angry workers demanding to know why they earn less than the guy in accounts, dinner parties would be disrupted by arguments about who should have brought the most expensive wine, and everyone will unite in disgust at the huge salaries paid to professional footballers (oh, hang on). It’d be like throwing a massive hand-grenade in the midst of our social fabric.
So if Labour loses the next general election, let’s keep a close eye on Darling during his last few days in power...