Social Capital

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In essence, social capital is the strength of institutions, networks, and communities. A sense civic or community duty, and shame in not exercising it. It entails connections and support networks within communities, and the question: do people do good for society even when no one is looking, and do they feel a sense of shame for not doing so?

This article is somewhat based on this article. Social capital is explained by social scientist Charles Murray here 8:35-9:30.

Social capital is easier to maintain below Dunbar’s Number. Beyond that, institutions are necessary to maintain order. Institutions include: religion, government, the family unit, various community groups, and local businesses.

For the reason of Dunbar's number, social capital is easier to maintain in small towns, because people know each other and hold each other accountable (without government coercion). In large cities, institutions like government step in to compensate for the lack of social trust. This could explain differences in political attitudes.

A Collective Action is linked to the ability of a society to solve collective action problems, as part of game theory.

There are a large set of collective action problems in society. There are things we have laws against, like murder and stealing. But then there are subtle things, like how people behave as a crowd. Whether people take leadership roles in their communities. Whether people take care of the needy. Or whether people recognize each other on the street. Social capital is linked to these things.

An honor culture forces people to play by certain rules and standards in the absence of coercive institutions present to maintain a formal justice system.

Assessment Questions

Let’s try to ground the metric, and come up with survey questions for determining perceived social capital, broad enough to peek at its various faucets, but also specific enough to allow for concrete assessments.

  • You need help. Imagine either a serious and immediate need of money, or a recent and serious psychological trauma, or an eviction. What people/families/institutions/groups might offer you help if you asked for it? Be as comprehensive as possible, thinking outside the box, and describing the exact type of help.
  • How many people in your community do you know well enough that you would greet them if you saw them on the street? How many of these people would you call close friends?
  • You are eating outdoors, and you produce some trash. There is no trash can nearby. What do you do with the trash? If you throw it away, do you recycle?
  • If you have kids, state their age ranges, and whether you would allow the kid to play outside unsupervised. If so, how far outside your house?
  • What is your connect, if any, to charities?
  • You notice that an communal in your neighborhood is in a serious state of disrepair. do you have confidence that your neighbors would get together to restore it? And would you join in to help? Alternatively, there is a water shortage where you live, and there is a campaign to reduce water waste – would you your water use to help the community? Do you think others will?
  • How much do you worry about the safety where you live? What type of crime do you worry about, if any? Is there some sort of turmoil or unrest in your region that effects your community? if so, what? And what if anything are you doing to remedy it?
  • In what ways are you involved with your community? for example, are you part of a school’s parent-teacher council? Do you participate in a therapy group or similar gathering?
  • Who makes the rules in your government/community/etc, and do you trust each of these people? Do you have confidence that you can influence your government to bring about a desirable result? Your local government? Your national government?
  • Your mistake inconveniences a commuter and makes that person late for work. How much time are you willing to spend to help that person? how much of your income are you willing to give up to help that person?
  • Are there any ethnicities, classes, religious groups, etc., that you believe cannot be fully trusted, and if so, state what they are and what about them you are concerned with.
  • You hear the couple that lives next door shouting at each other. From what you can tell, it seem that they begin to enter into some sort of brawl/altercation. Do you intervene? If not, do you trust that someone else will? A member of the authorities, or a concerned citizen?
  • Do you think it is valuable to listen to most journalists?
  • How much do you agree with this statement: I would be happier if only I lived somewhere else?
  • What do you do for fun? Do you do it by yourself or with others? How much time do you spend on each of these?

Case Study: Japan

Japan has high social capital.

  • In Japan, young schoolchildren walk to school every day rather than riding the school but. This is possible because of two facts. First, parents do not worry about child predators, because of the low crime level. Second, the schools are in walking distance of the homes. Both of these facts are symptomatic of high social capital.
  • Crowd control in Japan is almost comedic in its quality. (See here and here). No one forced them to do this; they do this because of social capital.
  • The trains are all very modern and arrive on time. When they are late, formal acknowledgements are handed out documenting the delay.
  • Even menial workers take their job very seriously, and act professionally. Just search “Japanese train conductor” on youtube, and open any video.
  • Community exercising like this is common in schools and businesses. That is not gym class; that is the type of group morning exercises that a good chuck of Japan’s population takes part in every day.
  • There are a number of cultural idiosyncrasies, the likes of which would be uncommon in other such industrialized countries. Bowing is common. Children say the ceremonial, “itadakimasu” before every single meal. Who is watching, and forcing the itadakimasu? Nobody, people do it because it is tradition. And don’t get me started on office culture. You always hand someone a business card with two hands. When the boss enters the room, everyone stands.
  • Foreigners have remarked on an apparent lack of trash cans in Japan. Japanese will travel as far as they need to to find a trash cans.
  • People in Japan are taught from a young age to behave well for the sake of society, and to place it above themselves.
  • The reasons for Japan’s high social capital are not hard to see. Japan’s is among one of the most homogenous, intelligent, and educated population on Earth. It’s culture, despite what its media would have you believe, is quite modest and conservative. It’s culture goes back centuries, unbroken by upheaval despite word war.

Case Study: China

China has low social capital.

  • People drive with no consideration for others on the road.
  • China lacks good Samaritan laws. As per Chinese law, if you hit someone with your car, it hurts you to help them, as opposed to deliberately killing them. Search “Chinese hit and run” into YouTube. NSFL. I personally knew someone who got drunk and was run over by multiple cars in China – no one stopped to help.
  • In China, the atomic unit of society is the family. That is the base institution, the only thing that people trust. By family, I mean blood relatives; your mother takes precedence over your wife. Chinese citizens will not burn any bridges, but if they have to choose between you and their family, they will not care about you. This is a negative only because it is taken to the extreme, sometimes at the expense of society’s interest. Friendships can be put at the cutting block.
  • China is the most atheist country on the planet. Religion is banned. In fact, all organized practice that even approaches religion is banned. Put your own thoughts on religion aside; we’re talking about social capital here.
  • The government is a powerful institution. However, the government is rife with corruption, and cannot be trusted. Government officials care about retaining their own power, not the benefit of people.
  • Aside from family, the only true motivator is money.
  • The traditional Chinese Hutongs are being bulldozed and replaced by concrete skyscraper apartments. I have been in these apartments. They are extremely depressing and lack culture. They are not conducive to social capital, especially compared to the old Hutongs. They represent superficial increase in prosperity and modernity, at the expense of culture and community.
  • China crowd-control is the opposite of Japan’s. Lining up is uncommon. Swarming is common. People will not respect lines.
  • There is a “first-come-first-serve” mentality in China.
  • China’s one-child policy, and the cultural practice of treating children as an insurance policy, has its consequences. Namely, a huge number of abandoned children.
  • Chinese government policies have created nation-wide cultural problems, like ghost cities, and the shortage of females.
  • China’s social capital was destroyed mostly as a consequence of the Cultural Revolution, arguably the most horrific event in human history. As mentioned above, Communism destroys social capital in practice. All of the countries with terrible social capital were once communist.