Econoblogger-turned-Parliamentarian, Andrew Leigh, has released a new book about the erosion of social capital in Australia, titled Disconnected. It’s in the vein of his mentor Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, an examination of our decreasing propensity to engage with each other in all sorts of ways. Leigh wants to bring back “some of the sense of community and camaraderie of the past,” the “networks of trust and reciprocity” that he defines as social capital.

As you’d expect from Leigh, a lot of painstaking research has gone into the book, but it rarely gets weighed down in academic jargon. He’s managed to cobble together all sorts of data on Australians’ membership of organisations (like unions, political parties, churches and sports clubs) and our tendency to give money and volunteer, shedding a lot of new light on the subject. In some cases he uses census data, but he’s also convinced many organisations to give him their membership data, sometimes stretching back for decades. This book is not just a collation of previously available information, but a genuine contribution to our knowledge about Australian social trends.

In some ways, the story that emerges from this careful sifting of data is the one you’d expect. In most respects, Leigh finds, we were a nation of joiners in the post-war decades, but we’ve become increasingly atomised and disconnected from one another. Leigh sums up his findings as follow:

“Organisational membership is down. We are less likely to attend church. Political parties and unions are bleeding members. Sporting participation and cultural attendance are down. Volunteering is most likely below its post-war peak, though it did record a rise in the late 1990s. We have fewer friends and are less connected with our neighbours than in the mid-1980s. Other measures have flatlined, but few have risen.”

There are a few obvious responses to this litany of bad news. The first is: does it matter? Should we be concerned about diminishing social capital? On this point, Leigh is persuasive. He doesn’t suggest that we should pine for times past, or seek to reconstruct some post-war utopia. As Leigh says, life in the present is preferable to life in the past for many reasons, “yet these gains should not blind us to what has been lost in transition”.

He not only catalogues these losses but makes the case for why we should care. Diminishing social capital affects us as individuals, Leigh suggests, through the decreasing enjoyment and support we derive from our social connections, and the way these connections can help us in practical ways like finding a job. Social capital also breaks down “the walls of intolerance that spring up in a diverse society”, giving us another reason to be concerned about its erosion.

Another response to Leigh’s findings might be to question the value we should place on new types of connectedness. Leigh addresses the claim that new forms of social capital (Twitter, etc) have supplanted the old, but he’s sceptical of the extent to which the internet can replace offline connections. I found Disconnected to be marginally less persuasive on this point. Leigh skips over it a bit too quickly, without suitably addressing the question of whether the ‘weak ties’ we cultivate online can replace the ‘weak ties’ we once generated through organisational membership.

I find Twitter and all the rest incredibly useful. I’ve been exposed to all sorts of ideas that probably would have passed me by without the near-infinite recommendation engine of the internet, and I’ve met people I wouldn’t otherwise have met without Twitter. I obviously would not be writing this review if I did not have a blog to post it in.

Nevertheless, I find the claims of some social media advocates to be overblown, and am sympathetic to Leigh’s argument that the online world has not, and perhaps cannot, fully replace the diminishing social ties in the other aspects of our lives. Malcolm Gladwell’s recent, widely debated, piece in the New Yorker provides an interesting examination of the role of Twitter in nurturing ‘weak ties’. I just wish Leigh had explored this point further and made his argument more strongly.

Where Disconnected left me least satisfied was in its explanation of the causes of declining social capital. The glaring omission in Leigh’s explanation, in my view, is the role of rising economic inequality. He does address the idea that “economic rationalism” is responsible for diminishing social capital, but it seems to me like attacking a straw man. Leigh’s brief account of this argument quotes Eva Cox suggesting that “means-tested social welfare, privatisation of banks and airlines, user pays and private health insurance have contribution to a decline in Australia”.

Leigh responds to this firstly by suggesting that “when two people are repeatedly interacting with one another in a market, they are more likely to behave well towards one another”. True enough, but I would have thought this to be a somewhat trivial observation. If amiable customer-worker or boss-worker relations are sufficient to offset declines in other forms of social capital then the concept is less useful than I thought. The “barista with a smile” seems to me an inadequate substitute for the relationships we’ve lost in recent decades.

He then suggests that:

“It is difficult to see how… the privatisation of Qantas, national competition policy, the charging of tolls on suburban motorways, the imposition of an assets test on the public pension… could have reduced social capital”.

I found this suggestion surprising and disappointing. I don’t imagine that any of these developments, of themselves, has meaningfully contributed to the diminution of social capital. Yet I do think there is reasonable case to make that these are symptoms of a broader trend, a drift away from social-democratic public policy, a drift that has also seen rising inequality of income and wealth. I found it surprising that Leigh didn’t directly address this question, as he’s been one of the foremost Australian chroniclers of rising inequality and his discomfort with the trend is on record. If we accept that privatisation and deregulation might not have directly eroded social capital, might they have had an indirect impact via their effect on inequality?

Perhaps Leigh would suggest that the deregulatory agenda of recent decades has had no impact on inequality. Still, it is inarguable that inequality has risen (and, as I mentioned, Leigh himself is the source of some of the best studies of this trend). Even if we suppose that inequality is entirely caused by non-political factors, ‘exogenous’ as economists might say, could it not still be an important cause of diminishing social connectedness?

Leigh found a negative correlation between trust and ethnic diversity (though he prefers diversity to the alternative), with low levels of trust implying concomitant lower levels of social capital. Might there not be a similar relationship between trust and economic diversity (inequality)? We are left unenlightened on this point, and Leigh’s book is weaker for it, in my view.

I don’t wish to leave the impression that I didn’t find Disconnected fascinating, illuminating, useful and engaging. It is all of those things, despite what I see as its (relatively minor) deficiency.  I hope Leigh continues to contribute to the public debate in this way now that he is in Parliament.

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