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Pollitt on Putnam

Summary:
Lately, I've been intently reading the social science of trust.  Katha Pollitt's critique of Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone may not be the most insightful, but it's definitely the most entertaining:Putnam argues that declining membership in such venerable civic institutions as bowling leagues, the P.T.A., the League of Women Voters, the Boy Scouts, the Elks and the Shriners is an index of a weakened "civil society," the zone of social engagement between the family and the state. Why should you care about the leagues? Because, says Putnam, they bowl for thee: A weak civil society means less "trust" in each other, and that means a less vigorous democracy, as evidenced in declining electoral turnouts.It's the sort of thesis academics and pundits adore, a big woolly argument that's been pre-reduced to a soundbite of genius. Bowling alone--it's wistful, comical, nostalgic, sad, a tiny haiku of post-industrial loneliness. Right-wingers like Francis Fukuyama and George Will like it because it can be twisted to support their absurd contention that philanthropy has been strangled by big government. Clintonians and communitarians like it because it moralizes a middle-class, apolitical civic-mindedness that recognizes no hard class orrace inequalities shaping individual choice: We are all equally able to volunteer for the Red Cross, as we are all equally able to vote.

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Lately, I've been intently reading the social science of trust.  Katha Pollitt's critique of Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone may not be the most insightful, but it's definitely the most entertaining:
Putnam argues that declining membership in such venerable civic institutions as bowling leagues, the P.T.A., the League of Women Voters, the Boy Scouts, the Elks and the Shriners is an index of a weakened "civil society," the zone of social engagement between the family and the state. Why should you care about the leagues? Because, says Putnam, they bowl for thee: A weak civil society means less "trust" in each other, and that means a less vigorous democracy, as evidenced in declining electoral turnouts.

It's the sort of thesis academics and pundits adore, a big woolly argument that's been pre-reduced to a soundbite of genius. Bowling alone--it's wistful, comical, nostalgic, sad, a tiny haiku of post-industrial loneliness. Right-wingers like Francis Fukuyama and George Will like it because it can be twisted to support their absurd contention that philanthropy has been strangled by big government. Clintonians and communitarians like it because it moralizes a middle-class, apolitical civic-mindedness that recognizes no hard class or
race inequalities shaping individual choice: We are all equally able to volunteer for the Red Cross, as we are all equally able to vote. Putnam's prime culprit in the decline of civic America--television--is similarly beyond the reach of structural change. It's as though America were all one big leafy suburb, in which the gladhanders and do-gooders had been bewitched by the evil blue light of Seinfeld and Friends.

At least Putnam doesn't blame working mothers.

She continues:
Putnam seems to place both the burden of civic engagement and responsibility for its collapse on the non-elite classes. Tenured professors may be too busy to sing in a choir (Putnam's former avocation): The rest of us are just couch potatoes. Although Putnam is careful to disclaim nostalgia for the fifties, his picture of healthy civic life is remarkably, well, square. I've been a woman all my life, but I've never heard of the Federation of Women's Clubs. And what politically minded female, in 1996, would join the bland and matronly League of Women Voters, when she could volunteer with Planned Parenthood or NOW or Concerned Women of America, and shape the debate instead of merely keeping it polite?
The academic in me notices that Pollitt doesn't really argue against Putnam so much as tease him.  But if you had to reinterpret her through an economic lens, the argument would be along the lines of: Civic associations are so boring and old-fashioned that we shouldn't join them even if they do have positive externalities.  Or maybe: You shouldn't call them "positive externalities" until you've shown that the status quo is better than my alternative, which it isn't.

A fair esoteric reading?  It fits the conclusion:

Putnam's theory may not explain much about the way we live now, but its warm reception speaks volumes. The bigfoot journalists and academic superstars, opinion manufacturers and wise men of both parties are worried, and it isn't about bowling or Boy Scouts. It's about that loss of "trust," a continuum that begins with one's neighbor and ends with the two parties, government, authority. It makes sense for the political and opinion elites to feel this trust--for them, the system works. It's made them rich and famous. But how much faith can a rational and disinterested person have in the set-up that's produced our current crop of leaders?

Love your neighbor if you can, but forget civic trust. What we need is more civic skepticism. Especially about people who want you to do their bowling for them.

P.S. Next week my homeschoolers are taking three APs, so expect light posting.
Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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