The Brass Tack

Let's get down to it.

Informal safety networks may be declining

Posted by srconstantin on July 13, 2009

That’s the gist of an article in the New York Times’ Economix blog: people are becoming less able to depend on family and friends in hard times. Why? There are more non-family households; social capital has declined; perhaps social insurance programs have “crowded out” informal generosity. (Empirical evidence shows that family members give less to single mothers on government aid.)

This reminds me of Sunday’s article on David Cameron, whose brand of conservatism focuses on building up local institutions:

Speaking to Charlie Rose in April, Brooks described Cameronism as the “natural alternative” to the “technocratic” politics of Barack Obama and summed up Cameron’s philosophy this way: “You’re going to champion the technocrats in government; I’m going to champion every other institution in society, whether it’s family, career associations, the church — every other association you can think of.” A pragmatic kind of communitarianism runs through a lot of Cameron’s policies. His advisers, particularly the party’s shadow education secretary, Michael Gove, argue in defense of local institutions, from schools with competitive enrollments to small post offices, whose contributions to community cohesion don’t appear on the bottom line and are often invisible to orthodox Thatcherites.

A nuanced conservative argument seems to be shaping up here: traditional social institutions help people survive hard times, and government should be in the business of defending them, not altering them, even inadvertently through poverty aid. We don’t always see the contributions of community or family ties, but because we know so little, we should be wary of shaking them.

On the other hand, this also reminds me of Richard Wright’s Black Power, which I just finished. It’s an account of his travels in Ghana (then the Gold Coast) on the eve of decolonization. And one thing I remembered from his interviews with locals was that nobody could ever get rich because tribal culture insisted on a rich man giving generously to hordes of nephews and adoptive children. Extended family members had such heavy obligations to each other that investment was near impossible. The downside of increasing and strengthening traditional social ties is this kind of rigidity. You can’t start businesses or engage in meritocratic practices if family really comes first. It’s an ordered world, a world where people are less isolated, but it’s also a poorer, less competitive, less free world.

This seems like the right place to bring up Adam Smith and necessitudo, a word to describe patron-client relationships among the Romans. In pre-commercial societies, like the Romans or the Akan, personal relationships were based on necessitudo, or need; family members did each other favors, marriage was an economic arrangement, children were household workers, and all had extensive traditional obligations to each other. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith observed that commercial society would weaken those ties, and that was a good thing, as those ties would be replaced by weaker ties of “sympathy” between co-citizens, the kind of ties that allow strangers to make fair contracts and voters to enact government policies that benefit the public. With necessitudo out of the picture, personal relationships could be based on affectionate sentiments instead of economic need. The result is a more socially fragmented and impersonal world, but a more stable and trusting one — the rise of civil society.

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