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The Paradoxical Role of Social Capital in the Coronavirus Pandemic

Words made minutely different can mean wildly different things. A beautiful instance of this truth occurs in the Nativity narrative of the Gospel of Luke. In the King James Version (known to us all from “A Charlie Brown Christmas”) the angels proclaim, “On earth peace, goodwill toward men.” Other translations, in more militant Bibles, render the Greek phrase as “Peace on earth to men of goodwill.” Very much like the question about whether Edwin Stanton sent Lincoln, on his deathbed, upward to the angels or outward to the ages—a thing that might be the subject for a book—the small difference in the Biblical words implies a large difference in our vision. Is the happy news that of Heaven’s dispensation of ever-increasing trust toward all people? Or is it a special favor restricted to those already possessed of good will toward us?

This Christmas conundrum comes unseasonably to mind as we contemplate the state of the world in this unimaginable year of 2020. Thinking about the pandemic that has swept the world in so many scarring ways, one of the most vexed and significant questions about it is the relation between good will and good health—that is, the relationship between the perniciousness of the plague and the presence or the absence of social capital in the places that suffer it. Are places that have high levels of social trust and strong institutions of civil society doing any better than those that don’t? Does good will toward men help fight the virus, or does it make no difference what the angels sing?

By social capital, academics generally mean all the parts of society that, without being explicitly political, foster links and bridges of common sympathy and trust. Created as much by volunteer fire departments and by amateur opera societies as by government—by block parties more than by political parties—social capital in this sense is essentially what Frederick Law Olmsted, in building Central Park, called “commonplace civilization.” (He included in that category “game clubs, boat clubs, ball clubs and all sorts of clubs.”) The seemingly political, cosmopolitan coffeehouse became the nineteenth-century citadel of social trust. Social capital is what enables us to act with an idea of citizenship, instead of clannishness, so that, in things small and large, we have our neighbor’s back and our neighbor has ours rather than being forever at one another’s throats.

It’s a complicated, multifarious, and at times chimeric concept. It was early on articulated by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who meant by capital really what a Marxist means by capital: something that the people who have it won’t share. But, as time went on, the concept expanded and almost inverted in meaning, so that for the American scholar Robert Putnam it has a wholly positive sense: “the specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks.” Meanwhile, the question of how much religious groups foster social trust by being inclusive—or decrease it by becoming exclusive—is a hot one, as the quarrel over the angels suggests.

We are all inclined to gauge social capital by our own measure. Mike Lee, the conservative Republican senator from Utah, only three years ago sponsored a Senate study of social capital among the states that found, perhaps not surprisingly, that religious Utah ranked very high, while skeptical New York ranked very low. But the concept is, historically, as observational as it is statistical: we know that coffeehouses increase social capital by reading the memoirs written in them more than by studying civic statistics from Warsaw and Berlin.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has probably offered the most clarifying contemporary sense of the idea: his so-called capability approach emphasizes our access to the civic goods that social capital creates. There’s no point having a lot of social capital in the bank if you can’t write a check on it yourself; no advantage in living among the linking and bridging networks that the Putnamians celebrate if you are left out of them. But the positive good of social capital for Sen is just as real as it is for Putnam. Successful developing economies, Sen writes, “went comparatively early for massive expansion of education . . . in many cases before they broke the constraints of general poverty.” He continues, “our conceptualization of economic needs depends crucially on open public debates and discussions, the guaranteeing of which requires insistence on basic political liberty and civil rights.” A common passion for public health, an alertness to threats against it, above all, an investment in education: these are not for Sen the windshield ornaments on the engine of human development; they are the engine itself.

Now, all general truths about the pandemic are premature. But the empirical results so far seem at least to suggest an intriguing paradox: that places with a great deal of social capital got hit worst by the virus, and then recovered fastest. This is reportedly the case with the secular, social-democratic countries of the European Union, none of them particularly religious, but many of them rich in shared networks of trust.

It’s a paradox of place: people who were not socially distanced at the start of the plague had an easier time learning to social-distance by its end. A striking study in Italy, for instance, found that places with high existing “civic capital” tended to “display greater mobility”—that is, people travelled around more—than places without it. But, “as soon as the threat of the virus became real, communities with high civic capital started to self-restrain and to internalize the risk of propagating the infection through social contacts.” Translated from the academese, people who are used to going out a lot stopped when people they trusted told them that doing so was a good way to get sick. That’s a process familiar to New Yorkers. Cursed by our density and our place as a cosmopolitan crossroads to suffer worst from the plague, our capacity for self-regulation under rational government direction has moved us dramatically forward, or, rather, downward. We had, through nearly all of April, above a twenty-per-cent positive-testing rate; now, by living behind our masks and (mostly) staying out of bars, we have driven the number below one per cent.

What is true of cities and regions is true of countries. Those of us who call Canada home have witnessed, secondhand, the difference between a nation that, however many social frictions it may have, still retains high levels of social capital—maintained by universal health care, a strong family-allowance program, and a still animated tradition of genuinely cross-partisan citizenship—and a nation like the United States, which does not. Canada got COVID-19 early, and badly—especially in Montreal—but since then the country has largely recovered and reopened. Toronto, which was early afflicted, has reported minimal new cases and several days of zero deaths. (The success is, of course, limited and partial; new hotspots keep springing up, and have to be tamped down, and stamped out.)

Canada is renowned as a civil society in every sense: the most famous Canadian joke asks how you get twenty Canadians out of a pool; the answer is that you ask them to please get out of the pool. But that element of Canadian-ness is not some genetic trait. It is a social condition earned and banked over hundreds of years of hard-earned social trust, carpentered over centuries of negotiations, some explicit and some empirical, among conflicting linguistic and national groups. Politics in Canada still largely function as a way of smoothing out, not aggravating, group conflict. It is just not possible to make mask-wearing a party issue in Canada; Conservatives and Liberals alike see the sense, and just put the damn things on. And Canadians trust the expertise of experts, perhaps because they can partake of a strong, affordable, state-subsidized university system. (My fellow-expatriate David Frum has written entertainingly about just how invested Ontario’s civil servants are in the business of enforcing a quarantine of new arrivals from the States.)



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