The Downer Side of Centralization and Lost Social Capital

Having spent the better part of today reading through the 32 experience studies that Rhode Island’s municipalities recently provided to the state may account for some of the anxiety-attack-like symptoms that I’m experiencing.  The beautify day taunting through my windows has likely contributed, as well.

And let’s face it: Anxiety has become a characterizing feature of our society.  It’s been since college that I’ve looked toward the future with a sense of confidence and security, and that notion provides a serviceable model for explaining many social trends, of late.  With the housing bust, the higher-ed bubble, and continued high unemployment, it’s as if the United States is emerging from that post-college fantasy that the future will pay the present’s debts, that some greater force in the universe will ensure forward motion.

I spent some time with such thoughts this weekend, after watching Peter Robinson’s excellent interview with Charles Murray.

Murray’s made a bit of a splash, recently, with his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  The premise of the book, as has been widely discussed, is that the United States is dividing more profoundly along cultural lines than economic ones.  The behavior that has traditionally ensured stability and social advancement has been relatively consistent among upper classes while collapsing among those who cannot afford to squander opportunities.

What particularly struck me was the conversation in segment 5 of the interview, in which Murray explains why a more conservative response to this bifurcation is preferable to a more European welfare-state solution that transfers wealth from those who are doing better than ever to those who are struggling in greater degree.  His answer itself is very conservative in a traditionalist sense:  “The problem with the welfare state is that it drains the life from life.”

That is, real happiness, meaning a lasting satisfaction, is not possible without challenges and responsibility.  If the government takes the place of the family or community in providing a sense of security, it removes that opportunity.  We are individually constituent to our families and our communities in a way that we are not to the government — especially the federal government, and even more a federal government sufficiently powerful to protect the people from themselves.

In this, Murray cedes too much. Here’s the quotation from the book with which Robinson kicks off this part of the interview:

Over the course of the twentieth century, western Europe developed an alternative to the American model, the advanced welfare state, that provides a great deal of personal freedom in all areas of life except the economic ones.

I’d propose that, if Murray’s assertion isn’t entirely false, then it’s only true on a temporary basis.  To some extent, individualists and secularists proposed the state as an alternative to “social capital,” which Murray and Robinson describe to mean communities in which neighbors help each other, but also have their hands in each other’s business — in which healthy behavior is enforced through a sense of responsibility and shame, about personal behavior as well as economic laziness.  To escape that stultification, progressives handed the security that tight-knit communities once provided off to a more-distant state and an impersonal, centralized bureaucracy.

The neighbor stopped watching your kids play, but she stopped watching you, as well, so there wasn’t that judgmentalism, enforced through gossip.  The trade-off, arguably, has been a necessity to pull your children closer to you and order their activities.  That manifested in the locked doors and fenced-in play-dates facilitated by helicopter parents; it has also manifested in a vaster distance between classes.

A scene comes to mind from The Hairy Ape, by the old leftist playwright Eugene O’Neill, in which the working class protagonist, Yank, discovers that he nearly doesn’t exist in the sight of New York’s elite.  However he might attempt to assault them, he finds himself deflected, eliciting no more response than a dismissively cordial, “I beg your pardon.”

The scene is surreal inasmuch as a violent man on the street could clearly have an effect on even the richest gentleman to pass him by, whether by attack or by impression.  To the extent that we close ourselves in, relying on government rather than neighbors, we bring O’Neill’s stage directions to vivid life.  Yank finally attracts the attention of the police when he causes an aristocrat to miss his bus.  In a society with no shared culture, no shared public space, he wouldn’t even manage that much.

Violence, of course, is not the only way to have an effect, and it’s conceivable that the opportunity for advancement evaporates as the “social capital” that Murray laments losing does the same.  The thing with judgmental neighbors is that they might just judge you to be good, and they might do so irrespective of your background.  When we aren’t left to interact in resolving our own local problems locally, the curtain closes.

As it does so, the opportunity lost isn’t merely economic, and it isn’t merely the “life of life.”  The other liberties, those intended to be secured in exchange for economic freedom, have a limited lifespan apart from opportunity.  The vices that we are supposedly free to claim come at a cost that society will not forever bear (even if it wishes to do so), and they have a way of turning into prisons even for those who can afford them.