Social capital confusion

Commenter Jarryd saw Postmodern Conservatism in Australia authors Geoff Boucher and Matthew Sharpe give a presentation based on their book, and came away unimpressed:

From memory the section we read was exploring the damaging affect of post modern conservatism and the actions of “neoliberals” through a list of fairly irrelevant facts like decline in church attendance etc. Everyone in the room was fairly confused about just what the intention of the piece was.

Boucher and Sharpe’s argument is confused, but the intention is clear: to find any fact or argument that can be used to discredit ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘postmodern’ conservatism.

The point of mentioning declining church attendance, along with declining political party membership, lower levels of institutional trust, and rising divorce is to argue that there has been a decline in social capital, which Boucher and Sharpe hope to pin on ‘neoliberalism’.

In their discussion of social capital, they draw on Robert Putnam, and his book Bowling Alone. On p.169 our authors tell us that:

For Putnam, this [decline in social capital] cannot be solely attributed to the rise of neoliberalism since since 1973. [italics added]

Actually, Putnam thinks that hardly any of social capital’s decline is due to market economics. He dismisses its role in two pages of Bowling Alone (pp.282-83), conceding only a loss of civic leadership as small town businesses are replaced with giant corporations. His main objection is that America has been a market society for centuries, during which social capital has gone up and down. ‘A constant can’t explain a variable’, he says.

Even I thought that this was a bit quick, but Putnam’s later work is even more unhelpful for Boucher and Sharpe. He finds that ethnic diversity reduces trust. Andrew Leigh has found similar results for language diversity here. This is evidence in favour of a social capital argument for the ‘monocultural assimilation’ Boucher and Sharpe attribute to conservatives.

Their unfamiliarity with the social capital literature means that the authors miss (or perhaps found and ignored) other material that complicates their argument. While fewer people are involved in some of the older political, religious and social organisations, volunteering increased during the Howard years. As noted on this blog, marriage and divorce rates are improving, from a family/social capital perspective. If ‘neoliberalism’ caused the previous deterioration in these statistics, is it also responsible for the subsequent improvement?

The point about declining church attendance is correct (the never attend rate increased from 38% to 42% during the Howard years, according to the AES), but it hinders Postmodern Conservatism‘s argument as much as it helps it. If as Boucher and Sharpe claim the right is trying to foster religion it clearly isn’t working. And if it is not working, do we need to worry about it? (For similar reasons, the right probably should not worry so much about ‘black armband’ history, which has left pride in Australia very high and coincided with record ANZAC day attendances.) And if we do need to worry about declining church attendance, would the right have a point if they wanted to boost religion?

Some of the intellectual untidiness in this book is probably because the two authors wrote different parts of the book, which don’t always fit smoothly together. That the project was over-ambitious did not help either: nothing in the academic background of either – mostly continental philosophy – suggests preparation for the task of analysing either right-wing thought or complex social science issues. But the sadder problem, from would-be academics, is that they show little sign of even being genuinely interested in their subject matter. They came to condemn, not to understand.

11 thoughts on “Social capital confusion

  1. They came to condemn and make a profit. They have a nifty idea and quickly summarisable slogan. Not quite as good as ‘Not Happy John’, but not bad.

    It would be amusing to write such a diatribe and have it sell, then donate the profits to the IPA. Or indeed, the IPA could adopt some nom de plume’s and write a series.

    Or is this what Mango McCullum really is? His views always have seemed a bit too silly and cliched to be those of a real person.


  2. Nice idea, but I doubt they will make a profit. Indeed, being motivated by profit is one of the few criticisms that cannot plausibly be made of most academic writers (except for those writing textbooks they will make compulsory in their courses). Books by academics rarely sell enough copies to give their authors even a minimum wage hourly rate for the time they had to put in.


  3. I had a quick look at this book in the bookshop and it looks as bad as you make it out to be.
    What I found really annoying is they wrote a bit about Hayek and then linked Hayek to Howard!!! How anyone could mistake a ‘big government conservative’ like Howard with a classic liberal advocacy of limited government and markets is beyond me. Just because the Left label Howard and Hayek as being of the Right, doesn’t mean they have much in common.


  4. The authors also appeared on Philip Adams’ “Late Night Live” on ABC Radio National, and again were similarly confused and contradictory. It was practically impossible, listening to them, to work out what their central thesis was, and even under Adams’ soft-touch questioning, seemed to lose the plot and find it difficult to respond at all coherently. I would venture that their work will be no great challenge to any conservative thinker of substance.


  5. Like johno, I’ve only had a quick read of this book. I’m not much for social theory, so I found it a bit convoluted. However, the stuff on Hayek and Howard was something I actually did agree with.

    Howard was Hayekian in some respects – deregulation and WorkChoices – but not in others. That’s why I thought their point that the Libs under Howard professed to be for small government but were actually big-spenders was a good one. That’s about the only good point though.

    The authors are having a book launch at Readings in Carlton next week. That’s on your own turf Andrew. You should go and give them an intellectual shellacking.


  6. Civis Vulgaris. In twelve years what did Howard de-regulate? WorkChoices was a change in regulations. There was no significant deregulation. Hawke remains the deregulation champion. Was Hawke Hayekian? 🙂


  7. Thanks for the smiley face to clarify the tone of your reply. Indeed, Hawke and Keating were the early market men but the Campbell Report was a Fraser gov initiative, and Howard was in favour of its recommendations. Or so I thought. And did you have a straight face when you wrote that WorkChoices was a mere ‘change in regulation’. I’m liberal, but that’s LIBERAL. 🙂


  8. Civis. Smiling faces are very important.

    I did have a straight face when I wrote that WorkChoices was a change in the regulations. It wasn’t deregulation. By one measure – the number of pages of legislation – WorkChoices increased regulation.

    Howard did make favourable noises about the Campbell Report, but was sacked by the electorate before he could do anything about it. He supported Hawke’s reform agenda, which partly explains why Hawke could do as much as he did. But, in government, he failed to delivery on liberal reforms.

    Maybe I should take my tongue out of my cheek and ask again in a serious tone – was Hawke closer to Hayek than Howard?


  9. It’s both disheartening and amusing reading people attack shortcomings in others all the while making it almost painfully obvious that they themselves are guilty to a greater extent of the same offenses. Labeling the book a polemic in the midst of what I can only call a tirade against the credentials, integrity and intelligence of two fairly highly regarded authors seems just marginally worse than their having the audacity to express ideas contrary to your own. Accusing Sharpe and Boucher of lazy, or worse, selective, research is, to say the least, an unfounded allegation, particularly when it’s fairly clear yyour own selection of material to attack was less than honourable, as Matthew Sharpe pointed out in his response (but then I’m not particularly impressed by refutation of misleading and out-of-context assumptions or quotes, though I appear to be in the minority feeling this way (though I’m sure your sycophantic groupies bring you boundless comfort)). Your appraisal of the book, far from being objective, was rather juvenile. To actually cite a commenter (Jarryd) who not only admitted he couldn’t follow the “humanities jargon” but nonetheless felt qualified to speak on behalf of all those present is hardly a reputable source and to treat him as such is rather pathetic. Casual charges of incoherence and desperation to find supporting evidence for a subject they understand only superficially are extraordinarily presumptuous and groundless accusations.
    Why would the authors bother to spend so much time pursuing the “therapeutic value in letting off steam about people you don’t like”? What an utterly absurd assumption, fantastic to the point where I must assume you would know with what incredulousness this would be received by less than devoted readers who could not possibly be convinced this would be a sincere premise for a book.
    A diatribe against authors of an alternative political perspective is not a critique or evaluation. Your review of the work left me rather underwhelmed and frankly further cynical of the reception of political debate by the Australian public. I sincerely hope it has not come to the point we dismiss such works through misrepresentation and closed-mindedness rather than an honest review based on reason and judgment. My objection is not that you disagree with the perspective of the authors, in fact I welcome such debate, rather I take exception at your feigning objectivity and reason in your evaluation where your actual argument suggests no such thing. Resorting to personal attacks and mere refutation is not respectable or dignified. come on. I saw no evidence of considered judgement. Not even minimal respect.
    You say this book will join your pile of disappointments, yet I’m of the impression no book presenting a similar perspective would be ‘worthy’ of your support. You don’t seem particularly open to a change of opinion, politically speaking. The pretension that your objection is based on their supposedly ill-informed opinions and questionable research I find ridiculous.


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