In the 1990s I was interested in the social capital literature, as a way of empirically addressing some of the ‘communitarian’ criticisms of liberalism that I was writing about in my eventually abandoned PhD. Social democrats – such as Eva Cox in her Boyer lectures A Truly Civil Society – thought that there was a positive relationship between big government and social capital. I thought the opposite was more likely.
Over Easter I read this article by Isabelle Stadelman-Steffen using OECD social spending data and the results of European and World Values Survey questions on volunteering.
Overall for ‘social’ volunteering – for social welfare, health or community action on poverty, employment, housing or racial equality purposes – there was clearly a negative statistical relationship with public welfare spending. This is consistent with the ‘crowding out’ hypothesis, that to some extent the state displaces voluntary activity. In further support of this hypothesis, a large welfare state had no statistically significant crowding out effect for other voluntary activities.
This effect is driven by lower volunteering by high socioeconomic status individuals. More welfare spending is associated with greater volunteering by low socioeconomic status individuals. Possibly they are in a better financial or social position to contribute to their communities. So there may be some ‘crowding in’ as well.
These arguments aren’t particularly compelling on the big policy questions. Welfare states arose not because there was no volunteering and mutual help but because these were inadequate to the scale of the problem. And it isn’t worth spending billions of dollars on social welfare to get poor people to do a bit more for their communities. But I like to see empirical data on old contested questions.