A truly civil society

In our recent discussion of Robert Putnam’s ethnic diversity and distrust research, Eva Cox had this to say:

I suspect also the lack of bridging social capital in such diverse areas may also be fired by too much neo-liberal emphasis on markets that place risk on individuals, encourages self interest and undermines social cohesion.

This is an argument Eva has been pushing for more than a decade, with most publicity surrounding her 1995 Boyer Lectures ‘A Truly Civil Society’, later published as a book of the same name, which I gave a rather harsh review in the March 1996 issue of Quadrant.

Eva took a contrary position in the social capital and trust debate of the time. When most other writers were emphasising the bottom-up nature of these social phenomena, Eva took the top-down view – they would be increased by more state activity rather than less. One chapter is even called ‘The Companionable State’. People acting freely without the state could be bad. ‘Competing marketers in head-on battle destroy society’, she told us, to no doubt much nodding of heads in Glebe and Fitzroy.

There are many of us who feel pessimistic about the future, who feel society is gradually coming apart at the seams. The idea of the social is losing ground to the concepts of competition, and the money markets are replacing governments. The social aspects of humanity have somehow disappeared…

A decade on Eva’s pessimism seems distinctly misplaced. In a chapter she wrote for Robert Putnam’s Democracies in Flux she reported on the standard interpersonal trust question for 1983 and 1995, in which 46% and 39% respectively thought that most people can be trusted. In 2005 it was up to 53%. There is other evidence suggesting that our social capital is improving. The Giving Australia research project reported that volunteering and donations had both increased since the 1990s.

Other aspects of Eva’s theories have also been discredited. ‘Telling us not to trust government spills over into not trusting our neighbours or even ourselves’, she said. Yet it now seems that to the extent that there is spillover in trust between spheres of life it goes the other way, that trust at a local level leads to trust in government. She thought that ‘ever longer hours of paid work’ put social capital at risk, but HILDA has shown that people who work long hours tend to be better connected than those who work shorter hours, and those with the most time – the unemployed – suffer worst from social isolation.

As I pointed out back in 1996, Eva does not understand markets – that they are fundamentally an other-person orientated institution, which promote co-operation with customers and within firms. And to the extent that markets do allow self-interest space, there is little reason to believe that this encourages people to act self-interestedly in spheres of life where that is not appropriate. Even having babies and raising children, the most generous thing most people will ever do, is on the rise again.

One change over the last decade makes me hesitate to declare complete victory. This is that, in line with the broad ideological thrust of a A Truly Civil Society, the Howard government has been on a huge spending spree. Interestingly, much of that has been directed through the institutions of civil society, in family benefits and the outsourcing of services (Eva would presumably prefer direct government control). I think this trend has worrying long-term implications in the politicisation and bureaucratisation of non-government institutions. But perhaps in some way it may have contributed to the good social results we have seen since the 1995 Boyer lectures.