How Public Welfare Enhances Social Capital

Lamenting the atomism of modern society, the decline of community, associations and other forms of “social capital,” is such a common refrain on both the left and right that one wonders why they haven’t put aside their differences to form a club! I hear there are some vacancies down at the YMCA, and I bet you rates have never been so good. Call it… the Enemies of Anomie & Toastmasters Society.

Yet theorists of social capital spend more time writing about it (in itself a highly autonomous practice) than they do actually forming new co-valent social bonds. Perhaps it’s because, for both camps, the decline is seen to have been caused by such deep and hard to resist forces that they are equally resigned to pontification.

On the right, the deep source of creeping atomism is the all-encompassing, bureaucratized welfare state. Redistribution in this view is inherently trust-reducing due to its zero-sumness (Mary robbing Peter to pay Paul). For example, its argued that universal social programs crowd-out private safety-nets, like religious organizations or the family, destroying unseen pro-social externalities. In some accounts this merely accelerates a feedback loop of eroding social norms that was initiated the second Western Civilization embraced value pluralism.

Surprisingly, many on the left have come to similar conclusions, if only in a different vocabulary. Habermas, for example, has argued that state welfare systems “colonize” more natural forms of solidarity, contributing to their “reification” — an objectifying process by which implicit social relations are made explicit and impersonal, sapping them of their moral character. Readers of Sweet Talk might know this as a re-balancing from the sacred to the profane, the inherent transcendental and instrumental duality of all social relations.

Heady stuff. But is any of it accurate? Is it an inexorable law of late capitalism that we become individuated narcissists? Is there some theorem in Public Choice that says more welfare = less social capital? The answer to both is a big fat no.

In fact, the inverse relationship between social capital and the modern welfare state has been greatly exaggerated. There are three main reasons for this tendency, which I explore below: Continue reading “How Public Welfare Enhances Social Capital”

Rule of the Buffers

Let’s take up the case of this poor woman, who has four children and is receiving government aid per capita. Why is the relationship I have with her a simple triangle, with her at one vertex, me at the other vertex, and the state at the top, taking from me and giving to her? Where is her family? Do they have no influence on this person? Failing that, is there no extension of the family, say, a local congregation of religious people whose purpose in life is to please their transcendental reality by helping the poor? Or a YWCA? Even in the absence of those basic institutions, we have still more buffers between the individual and the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-compassionate state.

Where are her buffers?

What I like about David’s characterization of welfare above is the “simple triangle” framing. I can think of no better way of describing the conceptual scheme of modern individualism in the context of redistribution. Your historically literate redistributionist will point out to various schemes for taking care of the poor throughout the reign of Christendom; my father remarked that tithing for the poor used to be quite common.

But when tithing for the poor was a common practice, the model of institutional relationships was nothing like David’s simple triangle. There was definitely a thick layer just above the level of the individual, whose existence apart from such institutional relationships was hardly acknowledged.

Which brings me to Mark Weiner’s argument that draining the power of that layer to strong-arm individuals just is the chief accomplishment of post-Enlightenment governance, and allowing individuals more scope apart from their clannish obligations is a noble and dignifying task.

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic Weiner’s argument that thick clannish obligations can be suffocating. If Deirdre McCloskey is right, such restricting obligations may have (and in parts of the world, continue to) reduce the scope for innovation.

On the other hand, as McCloskey herself would be the first to point out, such clannish connections also play a vital role in local, regional, and global commerce by creating thick trust networks. And deeply connected communities have been shown again and again to be more resilient against disasters.

It also seems to me that a problem with David’s critique might be that modern poverty of a more persistent sort often arises precisely because the institutions of a particular community have become hollowed out, and there’s very little community left to speak of. One may shake their fists at modernity for bringing this about, but I suspect it is not unique to modernity; we’ve simply reached a level of affluence where such a thing is not fatal, though not exactly pleasant either. Nevertheless, the question remains of whether those of us who have found ourselves in more fortunate circumstances have any responsibility to those who do not.

I do not have a problem being a vertex on David’s simple triangle, within reason and if the person (people) on the other end are actually getting help. It seems to me that many schemes in this country that have tried to help have ended up making things much worse—public housing in particular comes to mind, and the black hole that that quickly became, sucking in generations and not letting go. It’s why I’d prefer Liz’s simple triangle whereby we’re just giving cash in some amount.

I also think community-level entrepreneurship is important. I saw some of this in DC—a church would sponsor a group that would tutor children in the projects with the hope of both providing them the education they deserved and building a relationship with them and their families. Such efforts seemed to have trouble struggling against the black hole, but were not entirely without hope. I hope those efforts continue, and that many of the bear fruit.

That’s Right, Senator: Buffers

Elizabeth Bruenig wrote some nice things about our very own Adam Gurri at The Week, revisiting some of the hoo-ha at BHL last week. The question she asks, however, begs the question. Policy-wise, “What [should Libertarians, were they in power] do about poor children?” Well, that’s an awfully big a priori, there, with some straight lines drawn straight through some rather opaque boundaries, not the least of which is family.

She cites Rand Paul’s dancing around the issue, like a good politician should, when tackling the issue of unwed motherhood under state support. The aspiring presidential candidate advocated for absolutely no change in the status quo while sounding some boilerplate Libertarian guff. “…[W]e have to get that message through…” he says. Who’s “we,” kemosabe? (apologies to Bill Cosby). The problem of unwed mothers perpetuating poverty by essentially making themselves open wombs for whatever reason is not going to have a solution which an undefined or (as the case has been) over-defined “we” can accomplish for her.

Let’s take up the case of this poor woman, who has four children and is receiving government aid per capita. Why is the relationship I have with her a simple triangle, with her at one vertex, me at the other vertex, and the state at the top, taking from me and giving to her? Where is her family? Do they have no influence on this person? Failing that, is there no extension of the family, say, a local congregation of religious people whose purpose in life is to please their transcendental reality by helping the poor? Or a YWCA? Even in the absence of those basic institutions, we have still more buffers between the individual and the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-compassionate state.

Where are her buffers?

See, we daydream, I think, about finally resolving the problem of poverty, of seeing the poor lifted up and out of poverty, especially when we define poverty as the absence of the pursuit of eudaimonia or arete. In a just society (important qualifier), however, the power to influence the lives of poor people for their own good is not in power structures, but in family structures. Willi Cicci was trying to explain this to the senator, but he didn’t have the vocabulary to pull it off, as Michael Corleone, also, ultimately failed in doing with his own wife–because he was evil, as she correctly evaluates. The point is made, even though the movie is about a descent into evil: there’s nothing the state can do to break the power of a structure which is not about power. It was Kay who attenuated the evil of Michael Corleone, not the federal government. Babies, you see, are going to keep being born, regardless of state policies. Poverty and wealth are existential realities which may or may not persevere for any amount of time, but babies keep pushing us forward. In other words, as posterity unfolds, likewise poverty and wealth.

The state, on the other hand, can foster the flourishing of family structures, mostly by keeping its fat fingers out of the family pie, and by keeping injustice from spoiling the pie. That, I think, is difficult enough. To feed poor people?