The Accelerating Depletion of America’s Social Capital
Gary North – April 25, 2015
The West has moved from dawn to decadence, as Jacques Barzun so aptly put it in the year 2000 at the age of 94.
He was not the first scholar to see this. In 1941, Pitirim Sorokin said much the same thing in his little masterpiece, The Crisis of Our Age.
This crisis is only marginally about the economy. Therefore, it is only marginally about politics, which in our day is mostly about divvying up the political spoils — as politics always is. The spoils are generated by the market. Politics is mostly about moving market-generated capital to the state.
But what about capital that is not generated within a market in which ownership rights are legally exchanged? It is not tied to the market, and therefore it is not the target of politicians. I am talking about social capital. What is social capital? It is that form of capital — productive arrangements, mostly — that is not bought and sold in an organized market. Social capital is not owned by anyone, and therefore it is not for sale.
It can be squandered. This is the central fact of social life. It must steadily be replaced, moment by moment, century by century. As with all valuable assets, some individuals do most of the spending, and other individuals do the most of the accumulating. A good society is marked by an increase in social capital. The problem here is obvious: it is easier to squander than to accumulate. It is easier to knock down than to build up. Children learn this with blocks at an early age. Then they forget.
In my view, meaningful reform must begin in four areas: individual, church, family, and state. State comes last. For a generation, I have had this slogan: “Politics fourth.” In this sense, I am an Edmund Burke conservative and an Adam Smith libertarian. They were friends, and they agreed on most things.
I believe in the pursuit of contentment — not happiness. Happiness is a chimera, a will-of-the-wisp. Chase it, and it will elude you, and probably entrap you. I see contentment in these areas:
I separate business (putting food on the table) from calling (the most important thing you can do in which you would be most difficult to replace).
I see the free market as an aspect of business. I see politics as the means of defending personal choices in all five areas. I see politics as defensive: the realm of negative sanctions. It is the coercive arm of “thou shalt not.” The longer the list gets, the stronger the state must get, if we assume that the state is the sole agency of enforcement — a common though erroneous assumption today. The move toward tyranny is marked by an ever-increasing list of forbidden practices, the suppression of which is said to be the primary jurisdiction of the state.
Here is the correct model. In the garden of Eden, only one piece of private property was forbidden to the resource managers. Everything else was open to development. But the negative sanctions for violating the forbidden resource were extreme. It had to do with the sovereignty of the owner.
What I am saying is this. The central social problem of our era — declining social capital — cannot be solved by either the free market or the state.
If I were to teach a course on the central problems our age, I would structure the course like this:
The world we have lost.
How we lost it.
How to restore it.
I would assign six books. The first of these books is de Tocqueville’s first volume of Democracy in America. That was published in 1835. It shows more clearly than any other book the world we have lost. It became a classic from the day it was published. I can think of no other book in American history that was instantly recognized as a classic, and which has maintained that position ever since. It has never been out of print.
The heart of the book, or at least that section which is most remembered and most quoted, has to do with the voluntary associations of American life. Americans did not turn either to the free market or the state as the best way to solve local problems. They did it through voluntary nonprofit associations of all kinds. They resorted neither to coercion nor profit-and-loss statements. That is why his book is the most important book ever written about American social capital.
The second book would be Sorokin’s Crisis of Our Time. He was the founder of Harvard University’s Department of sociology. The breadth of his knowledge was staggering. His basic thesis was this: the West has become overwhelmingly materialistic, and materialism cannot support any society. When materialism becomes dominant, this threatens the entire social order. He did not believe that Western materialism would persevere. He thought there would be some kind of a moral transformation.
The third book would be Edward Banfield’s The Heavenly City Revisited (1974). The first edition was published in 1968. The central insight of his book is the distinction between lower-class and upper-class. He said that it has to do with time perspective, not net worth. The rest of the book is excellent, but this is crucial to understanding the nature of social capital. As a society becomes more present-oriented, it becomes more lower class. As the elite becomes more present-oriented, the rest of the society follows the lead. Banfield was a political scientist at Harvard. This book was so controversial that students basically forced him off campus. He taught for several years at the University of Pennsylvania. Then, when the late 1960’s finally cooled, and began turning into the “me decade,” he returned to Harvard, where he finished his academic career.
Fourth, I would assign Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone. He is another Harvard professor. His field is public policy. This book is not about public policy. It is about the disintegration of neighborhoods — the social bond.
Fifth, I would assign Charles Murray’s 2012 book, Coming Apart. This book is a masterpiece. It is about the social arrangements of people who live in super ZIP Codes, where the extreme rich live, and those ZIP Codes in which lower middle-class whites live. Murray was a Harvard undergraduate in the early 1960’s. He received his Ph.D. in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is located just down the road.
Finally, I would assign Frances Fukuyama’s book, The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order (2000). The reason I would assign this book is simple: he shows that, beginning around 1960, the whole Western world began to suffer the same kind of social disintegration that Murray talks about in his book. In other words, this is not exclusively in American problem. The same kinds of demographic and social changes took place in Western Europe. Whatever the causes were of the squandering of social capital in the United States, similar causes were operating in Western Europe. This is not a uniquely American problem. It is a crisis in Western civilization. That was the point of Sorokin in 1941. Fukuyama received his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard.
The curious thing about this is the fact that Harvard was the source of so many of these books.
I would not expect most subscribers to read Murray’s book. I think every subscriber should watch this 47-minute video. This is a good interview conducted by a competent interviewer, and Murray is on target with his answers. This video will introduce you to the basic problems that are facing the United States today, and not just the United States, but virtually the whole of Western civilization. Murray and I are in agreement: there is no political reform that is going to have anything more than marginal effects, for good or evil, with respect to these trends.
The trends are downward.
One of the remarkable facts that came out of Murray’s research is this: the super-rich who live in the super ZIP Codes have adopted a personal lifestyle that leads to behavior that is consistent with what de Tocqueville was writing about in the 1830’s. They are married. They may suffer divorces, but they remarry, and they do their best to stay married. This is no longer true in lower middle-class white America.
The most curious thing that I got out of this book is the disconnect between the official moral relativism espoused by the products of America’s elite universities vs. the actual practices in their lives. The problem, Murray says, is that the official worldview of the elite has filtered down to the lower middle class. The ethical relativism of the elites is more a matter of theory than of practice. But for the lower middle class whites of America, there is not a lot of theory, but there is a great deal of practice. The lower middle-class whites are destroying their lives, precisely because they have adopted the outlook of the elites, and they have lived lives consistent with this outlook. The elites have not. He came up with one of the most remarkable slogans I have ever heard. Of the people who live in the super ZIP Codes, he says the following: “They should preach what they practice.”
Murray does not think that today’s elites who live in the super ZIP Codes can maintain the cultural order. He compares America, and by implication, Western civilization, with the Roman Republic in the century before Christ. There was a transition to Empire, and that transition eventually led to the dissipation of Roman society. It was still rich in the early years of the Agustus Caesar, and it got even richer. But the moral foundation was gone, and the long-term results can best be described in terms of the dissipation or squandering of social capital.
If I were to assign one book on the fall of the Roman Empire, it would be Charles Norris Cochrane’s book, Christianity and Classical Culture (1941). That book shows that at the very heart of Roman society there was a loss of confidence in the close relationship between personal morality and the world around us. There was a loss of confidence in the strict morality of the older Roman Republic. The Roman Empire was replaced by Christianity, or at least captured by it and reformed. It never returned to the old Roman gods and the old social order. In other words, at the heart of the decline of the Roman Empire, according to Cochrane, was moral relativism. That is what Murray thinks the West is facing.
I think you should watch the video. As you watch it, think in terms of what kind of transformation would be needed in the United States, and then the rest of the Western world, in order to restore what was better in 1960, and yet avoid those things that were worse. He dates the transition with the assassination of Kennedy. I have said the same thing for 40 years. This marked the transition from can-do liberalism to New Left politics. It was associated with the loss of trust by the sons and daughters of all liberals in the political and educational institutions that had educated their parents. The incarnation of the old liberalism was Lyndon Johnson, and the New Left drove him out of office in 1968.
There was a hiatus of about ten weeks. The event that marked the transition to what is known as “the sixties” was the arrival of the Beatles in February 1964. That was more important as a representative of the social change that was about to take place than the election of Johnson later in the year. Johnson extended New Deal liberalism, and accelerated it. The war in Vietnam undermined the public’s confidence in his presidency, and he disappeared into obscurity. He truly became the forgotten man at the Democratic national convention in 1968. He was still the President, but he was invisible.
Murray is a libertarian. He has no program of reform. About the only thing he recommends is that people who live in the super ZIP Codes should do what they can to teach lower middle-class whites in the poor ZIP Codes. That is perhaps the most utopian recommendation I have ever seen. It is basically the revival of the soup kitchens of late Victorian England, where the wives and daughters of the ruling class would ladle out soup in the soup kitchens for the poor. This may have assuaged their consciences, but it had no visible effects on the poor.
In short, Murray believes in a kind of personal evangelism. He does not call it evangelism, but that is what it is. The problem is this: there have been elites in history who have sacrificed their lives and their wealth to preach the gospel of deliverance, but it is a deliverance based on a concept of a sovereign God who intervenes in history and offers the promise of personal restoration. The kind of evangelism that he is talking about involves little personal sacrifice, other than time, and also the willingness to interact with one’s social inferiors. This form of evangelism has never worked, and I do not expect it to work in the future.
Watch the video.
The Christian church did not restore the Roman Republic. This is the problem with all forms of conservatism that look backward to seek out the ideal order. History does not move backward. Post-revolutionary France was not an extension of the old order that prevailed prior to the revolution. Similarly, Russia today is a better place to live in the Soviet Union, but Russia is not an extension of pre-revolutionary czarist Russia. China today is surely not the restoration of pre-Mao China, let alone the China of the emperors.
We know what we had before. We lost it. Anyway, we lost a large part of it. Our neighborhoods reflect this loss. We can trace how it happened, although there be a lot of debate about that. It had to do with a shift of theology, a shift of educational resources, a dramatic expansion of the power of the state, and the triumph of what is generally called Progressivism. If you want to date it, it was the presidential election of 1912. That was followed by the Federal Reserve System and the federal income tax in 1913.
Programs of reform focus on the wrong problem: politics. Remember my slogan: “Politics fourth.” Before that must come ecclesiastical reform, educational reform, moral reform, the restoration of voluntary groups, and the restoration of the idea of industriousness. These things are only peripherally related to politics. I realize the public schools have political backing, but the problem is not political backing; the problem is man’s faith in the messianic character of American education.
We need to know what we have lost. We need to know why we have lost it. Only then will it become clear that there must be a restoration of liberty. This means a restoration of personal responsibility on a scale that is almost unimaginable today. It is going to come, but only after the great default has at last bankrupted the federal government.