Barney Frank, the former Democratic congressman, was fond of saying “‘government’ is the word for the things we do together.”
It’s a perverse notion, historically ignorant, eerily authoritarian and socially insidious. Conservatives too often lend credence to this view, however, by granting Frank’s premise, and trying to counter the left’s “collectivism” with fierce individualism. But the individual, the man standing alone, is not the counterweight to the Leviathan state.
Community is. Civil society is.
So it was welcome when the Joint Economic Committee, under Sen. Mike Lee, published a paper and held a hearing titled “What We Do Together: The State of Associational Life in America.”
Lee’s report was based on the crucial premise that “what happens in the middle layers of our society — what we do together in the space between the individual and the state — is vital to sustaining a free, prosperous, democratic, and pluralistic country.”
The report found many signs that the institutions of civil society are withering, and that the horizontal bonds that tie neighbors and countrymen together are fraying.
This isn’t just a gut worry or a feeling. The report is chock-full of data; church attendance is down, as are measures of family strength and neighborliness. At Lee’s hearing, Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone,” spelled out a real consequence, measurable in dollars, of the dissolution of civil society.
In four crucial categories of social capital, according to Putnam, baby boomers lag their parents in consequential ways: spouses, children, close friends and community involvement.
Putnam highlighted the boomers’ declining number of close friends. “The birth cohort of 1950–59 had an average of 2.1 close friends in 2004, when they were about 50,” he testified, “compared to 3.0 close friends for the birth cohort of 1930–39 in 1985, when they were about 50, i.e., about 30 percent fewer close friends.”