In Sunday's colloquy with fellow Timespundit Gail Collins, David Brooks gave Mitt Romney a pat on the head for departing from the GOP Convention's dominant preoccupation with the pursuit of private gain. As a whole the GOP convention was "all about small business, as if commercial activity is the only sphere of American life," quoth Brooks. "But true to his faith, Romney is heavily committed to community. He spoke more about how to build social capital than all the Randians combined."
Yes, in his nomination acceptance speech Romney did have a few words to say about the joys of suburban community--"that new business opening up downtown...when we go to work in the morning and see everybody else on our block doing the same." And he even made so bold as to mention Americans living in poverty--though the only thing he had to offer those have-nots was the promise of jobs via school choice and the strenuous cuddling of the haves.
But the most telling line of the speech, summing up most of what he had to say about why he should be president and most of what the GOP is all about these days was: "President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. MY promise...is to help you and your family."
Never mind that, as Jon Stewart pointed out, all us familes actually have to live on this planet. Or that an awful lot of American citizens will be hard pressed to care for their families if the rising tides drive them out of their coastal homes. Me and my family is what the GOP is all about these days. Community, not so much.
It has, of course, been an article of Republican faith for the past generation that strong families are the backbone of America, that strong commitment to family guarantees the health of the nation. But when it comes to the building up of social capital, it is anything but clear that strengthening our commitment to our familes is a good thing.
In a famous study half a century ago, the political scientist Edward Banfield coined the term "amoral familism" to describe how family solidarities in a southern Italian village decreased engagement in and trust of the political community as a whole. Rather than see their futures wrapped up in the success of their country and civic community, the villagers sought to maximize their family's situation by any means necessary, no matter what the cost to the larger community.
Over the past few years, economists studying social capital around the world have been studying the question anew, and have generally found that Banfield was on to something. In an important paper, Alberto Alesina and Paola Giuliano looked at 80 countries and found that those where the family ties were weakest tended to have the strongest levels of civic and political engagement and generalized social trust. And vice versa. The top performers in terms of civic engagement were northern European countries: Denmark, the Netherlands, Lithuania, and Germany. At the bottom wer the Philippines, Venezuela, Egypt, and Zimbabwe. The U.S. (the greatest democracy in the history of the universe) came in 50th.
It is often thought that the GOP's social conservatives, who believe that government should act to support family values, are at ideological odds with the Party's economic conservatives, who want to get government out of the way of economic activity. But if the studies are right, the conservative social agenda actually serves the economic agenda--by weakening the attachment of Americans to collective (i.e. governmental) solutions to social problems. To strengthen family bonds is to weaken commitment to political and civic engagement, and to undermine trust in social institutions concerned with the general welfare.
As the attention of the nation turns to the Democrats tonight, it's worth noting that their platform, unlike the GOP's, has a section devoted to the common good called "Strengthening the American Community." There are those who think that, substantively, the Democrats don't offer much more than Republican inaction. Philosophically, however, they're on a different planet.