With the decline in both formal and informal socially cohesive activities, there has been an institutionalization of the services free and voluntary associations used to provide. The expansion in social services programs has not resulted because of a decline in the moral fiber of society, but in a decline in the social fiber of society. Just as childcare and food preparation have been “outsourced” to specialists through restaurants and daycare, matters such as providing counseling and providing food for elderly neighbors are now the responsibility of government institutions. The lapse in personal care within a social network has not negated the demand for those services. Faced with such abandonment, government social programs have been forced to step into the breach. However, while a praiseworthy goal, social services provided in this manner have several disadvantages. The first is an issue of cost. The “transaction costs” of providing social services is much higher when done institutionally then when it is done personally. For example, take the “Meals on wheels program” which provides food for the elderly. The meals must be prepared in a centralized cafeteria, packed for travel, and delivered to a variety of widely separated and sometimes distant locations. Compare the costs of preparation and transport to the much simpler and cost effective process of having a neighbor run an extra helping of food over. The past is often looked back on with nostalgia, seen as a golden age when everyone gave. The reality was that everyone gave because everyone got. A housewife might prepare extra food for an elderly neighbor because that neighbor’s son had fixed a broken window in the past. Generalized bonds of reciprocity made it possible for such exchanges to occur.

The post-industrial “growth” of the economy has been based upon the expansion of the service sector. I do not believe that a large proportion of the economic activity which resulted was created so much as it was commoditized. Previously non-wage labor that already existed within the physical economy was transferred into the monetary economy. Repeated arguments have been made that such a transition is a good thing and actually leads to greater efficiency. While the market may possess better information and collective judgment then the planned or regulatory economy, the relative value of market judgment compared to a personal recommendation can be seen in the statistic that the vast majority of job seekers (despite electronic job seeking, despite enormous databases of digitized information) still find employment through a personal contact. Personal contacts (and there associated social networks) provide better, more nuanced, and more specific information then any institutionalized system. Thus, in terms of making effective decisions about who needs/deserves aid, the previous system of social contacts is much more effective then the current regulatory scheme for distributing social services.

Putnam’s solution of a proliferation in institutional remedies for the dearth of social capital also ignores the dynamics of giving as well as getting.

It is a peculiarity of American society that donation must be done in the abstract. For someone to accept a donation, for someone to accept a gift which cannot be reciprocated, for someone to accept charity is a difficult task. For a gift to be accepted, the person accepting the benefice must be regarded (and regard themselves) as deserving of the gift, because of special circumstances. Outside of these special circumstances, any person with a scintilla of responsibility feels that an obligation has been generated through the acceptance of a gift. It is not by accident that institutions are the greatest philanthropists. It is because it is difficult to feel gratitude to something which is an abstraction. While individuals may donate vast amounts of money each year, that money is filtered thru institutions, to prevent that obligation from forming. For the nature of obligation is reciprocal. To paraphrase many old proverbs, once you save a life, you are responsible for it. To give aid is to not only generate an obligation on the part of the recipient, but also on the part of the giver. Once you have saved some ones life, you continue to be responsible for saving it, if only to make sure your original action continues to be meaningful.

Filtering benefices thru an institutional structure not only deprives two people to form a reciprocal bond, it also reduces the ability of the community to evaluate the trustworthiness of others, thus stranding everyone in a perpetual state of distrust.

Most people do not volunteer alone. People volunteer because of the sense of connection it furnishes. Volunteering is seen as useful and valuable because of the relationships it establishes. To see volunteering as an abstract “good”, a good deed that you do in the abstract, is to miss its essential nature. When you do good, you are doing good for someone. You are establishing a relationship with the person you help. This is not to say that all volunteering directly benefits only a single person, or only a specific group of people. However, when volunteering is held to benefit the common good, it is considered “civic” volunteering. The bonds established by civic volunteering are broader and more communal. However, volunteering of any type does not only establish relationships with those you aid. Volunteering also establishes relationships with fellow volunteers.

Volunteering provides a bonding experience not only because it creates a sense of shared experience, but also because it creates a sense of shared adversity and difficulty. This shared adversity and difficulty in turn is then conducive to the generation of a sense of trust. Distrust of strangers tends to originate from the fear of unpredictability. Shared adversity leads to observation of how strangers act under stress, and the behaviors they are likely to display when upset. Not all strangers are trustworthy. Being able to observe someone in a situation where it is possible to betray trust, to fail on obligation, makes it possible to evaluate strangers and assign trust accordingly.

Part of the reason for the decline of trust in American society is that we no longer have shared experiences that would allow us to evaluate the quality of strangers. We like and trust our co-workers more not because we like their company as people, or that our coworkers are fundamentally more trustworthy, but because the history of shared experiences we have gives us a baseline to evaluate their trustworthiness. Americans have listed the workplace as a great local for social cohesion not because it has become a more social location, but because it has become one of the only arena within which we are provided an opportunity to evaluate the trustworthiness of strangers.

The number of people the average person knows is actually quite low. But for every person someone knows, there is a much larger number of people that person knows about. Gossip, while perpetually disdained, is actually part of a much larger mechanism for maintaining social cohesion and socially correct behavior thru peer pressure. Information on wrong-doing or non-compliance with social norms is rapidly spread thru a social network so that perpetrators are rapidly known outside those with direct experience with them. Accompanying the decline in common interactions with strangers that would allow us to evaluate them and determine them as a “neighbor” and thus inherently trustworthy, instead of a “stranger”, and thus inherently untrustworthy, has been a decline in activities wherein which we talk about other people. The positive feedback loop between the two is especially strong because it is necessary to have “known people” in common for it to be possible to gossip about them, and effectively transfer information thru the social network.

Trust tends to radiate thru social networks. Knowledge that a person has behaved in a trustworthy manner toward someone else is typically a good indication that the person will behave in the same manner to you. Reinforcing this dynamic is a coercive force. Mutual awareness of shared acquaintances forms restrictions upon social behavior. The threat of knowledge of wrong doing being made known thru the social network serves as a deterrent of wrongdoing.

Most crimes are crimes of opportunity. The common criminal is not someone who seeks out crimes to commit; rather the common criminal is someone who has encountered an opportunity and taken it. As with any risky undertaking, the utility of committing a crime can be determined by comparing the potential reward to the potential likeliness of consequences, and their associated severity. Which bit of information would serve as a more effective deterrent to murder? Knowing that all murderers are executed, or knowing that all murderers are caught?

The state of generalized distrust has a positive feedback loop built in. Distrust results in a failure to interact. Failure to interact means there are no situations in which trustworthiness can be evaluated, perpetuating the state of distrust. With no such situations, people remain strangers outside the social network. Strangers outside the social network are not subject to the coercive pressure of the social network because there is less chance of evidence or narrative of wrongdoing filtering back to the wrongdoers own social network. Thus, the disincentive for crime, the risk of being “caught”, of experiencing negative social sanction, acts much less strongly in a fragmented network, and a larger number of opportunities are judged to be “worth it”.

I do not mean to take the Confucian-Legalist line and say that all people are criminals, constrained only through the action of the state. Most people, when confronted with a moral quandary, will act morally. The problem lies in the way that people frame criminal opportunities. Anything that is a “victim-less crime”, or seems to impart only minor harm upon the victim does not seem to “trigger” a moral quandary. If people are able to frame an opportunity in a manner that it is not a moral issue, and instead merely becomes a imposition, a transgression merely against courtesy, (when stealing bandwidth over a wireless network) or a clever solution which lies within the formal rules (such as is the case in many accounting scandals), then it can be justified as non-criminal. When the judgment of others upon the action within the social network is not considered, it becomes much easier for personal sophistry to justify taking a criminal opportunity.

Protecting the privacy of criminals, especially within a criminal’s personal social network, is counter-productive. Unless information about wrong-doing is shared within a communal network, the exercise of community sanction (and its related ostracism) cannot occur, and the deterrent effect of the example of punishment is lost.

References Putnam, Robert: Bowling Alone
Kunstler, Howard: The Geography of Nowhere.

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