Last week, Istituto Acton’s close Italian ally in defense of liberty, Istituto Bruno Leoni (IBL), presented the 2008 Index of Economic Freedom in Rome. The IBL invited speakers to discuss the decline of economic freedom in Italy over the last 12 months. Il bel paese ranks as the 64th freest economy in the world, with Hong Kong at number one and the U.S. at five.

Italy’s economic problems were blamed on corruption and weak law enforcement. While corruption to some extent reflects individual moral failings and certainly does affect economic growth, the reverse is also true: corruption tends to flourish in environments already hostile to markets and free competition.

Bad and excessive regulation tends to create opportunities for the arbitrary use of power when dealing with citizens and companies. This, in turn, distorts market incentives and deters investment but it also creates mistrust among people and alienates them from the governing institutions. Better and less regulation, on the other hand, not only boosts economic growth but could tackle a more deeply-rooted crisis of political and social ethics.

Not surprisingly, a labor union representative at the IBL event argued for stronger government to fight corruption at the expense of additional economic reforms. He unfortunately missed the point: The lack of economic freedom simply leads to more opportunities for the moral evils that already plague Italy.