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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bowling Alone

How Do We Accumulate Social Capital?

Many afternoons my junior high school friends and I assembled at the Bloomfield (Connecticut) Bowling Alley to plunk down our quarters for shoe rental and then to bowl a few strings. So as not to make that four-mile bike ride in vain, we scheduled our outings to avoid conflict with the various leagues that had priority. I don’t know if today’s adolescents care for bowling, but according to sociologist Robert Putnam, they need not much worry about preemption by league bowlers. Americans increasingly are abandoning league bowling, just as they are withdrawing from other sorts of recreational, charitable, fraternal, and civic organizations. Do these retreats matter? According to Putnam, yes.

Face-to-face group activities are valuable because they help breed social trust. Cooperation is unlike an ordinary consumer good which, once expended, is gone. Rather, it more resembles capital assets that yield ongoing dividend flows. Accordingly, Putnam employs the term social capital to refer to enduring trust relations. Social capital is a near kin to what economists have dubbed human capital: those personal capacities that afford continuing returns.

Some investments in human capital, such as apprenticeship in a craft or long hours practicing the flute, enable their possessors to perform one particular kind of activity. Other kinds of human capital can be profitably deployed in many arenas; such is the theory behind an education in the liberal arts. But whether narrowly or broadly focused, human capital is a kind of property that brings benefits to its owner. Thus, there is no mystery about why people invest in accumulating human capital; they do so for the same kinds of self-interested reasons that motivate them to buy mutual funds or washing machines.

Social capital, however, is not similarly assignable. That is because it is manifested in persistent relationships within interactive communities. Whether I am able to take advantage of opportunities for profitable transactions with my fellows does not depend so much on whether I am content to cooperate with them as it does on whether they are inclined to trust me (and others) as potential partners in joint activities. If we are all mutually suspicious, then we will tend to wall ourselves off from one another and lead cramped, parched lives. Conversely, if we customarily accord each other the benefit of the doubt, then our chances of gain from cooperative interaction are good. Generalized social trust, therefore, has the nature of a public good, one available to many if available to any.

How a social order secures for itself an adequate supply of public goods is one of the most persistent conundrums confronted by economics and political philosophy. When benefits are indiscriminately enjoyed by all, there is a powerful incentive to withhold one’s own contribution in the hope of freeriding on others. The customary remedy is coerced subscription. More often than not, that approach leads to overpayment or buying the wrong things entirely.

Putnam offers a different approach to the problem of accumulating social capital. It is the product, he maintains, of repeated interactions among individuals engaged in purposeful activity. More specifically, it is a byproduct. Without ever consciously aiming at the establishment of trust relations, that is what joiners and doers achieve. Moreover, if they genuinely cherish their lodges, volunteer fire departments, and bowling leagues, they achieve it painlessly, with no perception of sacrifice.

The author supplies a wealth of data indicating that since the 1960s American social capital has been significantly depleted. The material served up in Bowling Alone goes down so easily that readers are apt not to realize how much information they are receiving. Interpretation, though, is often double-edged. For example, are virtual conversations in Internet chat rooms better understood as manifestations of connectedness or instead as a further atomizing of Americans? If millions of women have exited their clubs and charities for roles in the workplace and soccer-mom service, can we be confident that the transformation constitutes a net diminishment of social capital?

Even the book’s title is problematic. Leagues may have dwindled, but a visit to your local bowlarama will reveal that their place has been taken by groups of friends out for a good time, not one-to-a-lane solitary keglers. Because the waning of old organizational forms is more readily observable than the gestation of new ones, Putnam’s verdicts may be overly pessimistic.

It is easy to identify vulnerable patches in Bowling Alone, but that fact should not overshadow the book’s considerable merits. Free markets are central to the thriving of a liberal order, but so too, Putnam reminds us, are the nonmarket relationships we freely take on. No contemporary theorist has so comprehensively and eloquently underscored the importance to a society’s health of rich networks of voluntary association. He may perhaps be faulted for insufficiently attending to the ways in which the welfare state has displaced the functioning of private associations, but the clear thrust of Putnam’s message is pro-freedom. As such, Bowling Alone makes a substantial addition to the intellectual capital of liberalism.