Building Social Capital

Money may make the world go round, but it's never been that way in America. Sure, we generate lots of capital, but it's our wealth of social capital-the values citizens possess and the linkages we make through churches, civic clubs, fraternal organizations, and other voluntary associations-that has made this country exceptional. Social capital is vital for solving social problems. Bible-based groups, for example, have done far better than government in helping addicts and alcoholics break their habits. When we believe social capital to be inadequate in dealing with a particular problem, such as child care, the conventional tendency is to turn to government. The compassionate conservative prescription is different: build social capital.

Harvard's Robert Putnam generated a lot of comment four years ago with his much-publicized article “Bowling Alone.” He observed declining membership in traditional groups (fraternal organizations, mainline churches, bowling leagues, etc.) and contended that social capital had shriveled. Others, however, noted that Putnam had checked Little League participation but missed youth soccer leagues, checked the YMCA but missed health clubs, checked the League of Women Voters but missed the Christian Coalition, and so on. The “bowling alone” thesis, in short, was far too sweeping, but one part of it is true. Studies show that six of seven adults have significant social affiliations and other marks of social capital-but one of seven does not, and that one is usually the person in greatest need of help.

What happens to the young woman surprised by pregnancy and abandoned by both boyfriend and parents? She often has an abortion alone at an assembly-line business. Or the convict released alone, without a mentor who can help him find a place in society? Or the welfare mother in an apartment alone, with a baby who doesn't stop crying? Or the elderly person dying alone, connected by tubes to hospital equipment but disconnected from children and grandchildren? Nongovernmental solutions to these problems do exist in my town of Austin [Texas] and countless other cities. More than 3,000 crisis pregnancy centers across the country help women who do not want to have abortions but need compassionate alternatives. Hundreds of churchbased programs are helping welfare recipients gain independence. Hospices are meeting the needs of dying individuals who want to spend their last days connected to people instead of machines.

Some of these organizations have internal barriers to expansion and replication. Others face harassment from bureaucrats committed to governmental expansion. What holds many of them back, however, is a lack of volunteer time. Individuals with the faith and will to contribute can do more, but they run up against a firm barrier: well over 40 percent of what Americans earn is sucked up by government, and many families depend on two or three jobs to make ends meet. Defenders of government dominance argue that some of that money comes back to community groups-but most of those groups are safe, bureaucratic outfits that get little bang for the buck. Lower tax rates would allow more mothers to spend their days with their children and in volunteer efforts. More fathers could drop that second job and volunteer to help children of absent fathers. To encourage volunteers to create social capital in other ways, the federal government should at least offer an exemption from some taxes. For example, a person volunteering at a poverty-fighting organization for at least an hour a week over a year could be exempt from paying, say, $250 of his tax burden. That inducement would be small enough to minimize cheating but significant enough to recognize the social contribution being made.

Liberals may oppose even such small steps, and larger ones down the road, but conservatives have no sound reason to do so. Yet the main obstacle to their adoption may be conservatives who argue that compassionate conservatism is for wimps. That attitude reflectssheltered lives; some conservatives have never seen the toughness it takes to turn a life around.

Ten years ago I gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., on the importance of reclaiming compassion as a conservative principle, and since then I and others have been rolling that big rock up a steep hill. We're close to the top now and should make it, unless conventional conservatives mistake Sisyphus for a sissy.

Marvin 0lasky is a senior fellow of the Acton Institute, professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, and editor of World magazine.