Ode to the Road Part 5 – Social capital

Social capital, the soft edge

In my opinion, the great political dichotomy has a big effect on whether social capital is nurtured or disregarded:

Greatest good for the greatest number            Respect for individual person’s autonomy

(Centrally planned, doing the expected)            (Market economies, individualism)        

China                        Europe            Australia        USA                

The right-wing market economies not only don’t see reason or have the long-term patience to foster building economically irrelevant social capital, but actually go out to actively destroy it. Consider Professor George Irvin, of University of London, who in 2010 paints a grim picture of what’s around the corner for Europe:

…the finance-induced, long recession is now being used as an excuse for dismantling the European postwar welfare settlement. The cost of this long recession will be borne far more by labour than by capital, far more by ordinary working people than by the bankers who caused it. Perhaps most disturbing is that Europe’s ‘social model’ will be so deeply damaged by lack of public finance that it will, in effect, cease to exist, or else become a patchwork of support programs for the ‘deserving poor’ [those in work] as in the Anglo-Saxon countries. The deficit-cutters are burying Social Europe.

The extreme-left “greatest good” countries do attempt building social capital, but their efforts of imposed change are often misguided so there is always justified distrust about the wisdom so generated. However, life is more nuanced than that, and the fact that social capital generated centrally is suspect doesn’t mean the whole concept of social capital is useless-just that it can be done badly. Universal free healthcare, state pensions, legislated maximum working hours, holiday and childcare benefits and decent maternity provisions done well (as Europe has done) are useful tools in creating smaller gaps between rich and poor, which always leads to a happier society. The fact that so many centrally planned economies fail doesn’t mean that these tools are of the devil and that the individualistic right-wing extreme is the best way to go, but that is a difficult message to sell:

The story of “Freedom” of the right against the economic and social failures of so-called communist countries is an obvious, intuitively appealing, easy story to sell and for the imagination very hard to get past. So how can we convince someone on the right edge of the seeming dichotomy that things are not so black-and-white? Perhaps the best way to raise the level of the conversation is to show to the devotees of free markets how socialism and capitalism are not mutually exclusive terms but actually need each other, and do this using their own language. For the populist, watching Michael Moore’s documentary called “Sicko” can show how everyone can benefit from good public healthcare, and that the markets really fail society on that one-this will immediately cut the ideologue’s oxygen. For the ones with academic bend show how under certain conditions monopoly may be the best arrangement, but without government regulation monopoly will always be less helpful to society than it could be. For the more open minded discussion partner tell the story of the Norwegian teachers that go to the house of the student who can write before they started learning to write in school, and ask the parents to stop the private teaching and think of the other kids and their feelings. Show how this can be viewed as a hammer blow to the individual rights, but results in a very well adjusted society.


Europe has that “je ne sais qoui” (have you asked yourself why is this phrase, meaning “a certain something”, taken from French?) quality that I think is due largely to the spades of organic, time tested, naturally evolving social capital. This capital is not for the creation of accounting profits or growing the economic pie-this profit goes straight to the people, bypassing all the quantifiable amounts that go into accounts. It requires the subject to have extensively experience it before it can be understood, but once understood, very hard to give up. Ask about it, and even the most articulate sympathisers of this way of life will struggle to put it in words, hence the French phrase. Usually words like balance, long-term, wisdom, natural approach, intuition will pop up. Perhaps the best way of transferring a sense of this powerful force is listing some of the small ways it manifests itself in European life:

-Appreciation of quality over quantity, even in un-quantifiable ways, something that would be heresy in pure consumer societies.

-High percentage of the population that is conversant in multiple languages, and used to the kaleidoscope and influence of multiple cultures, resulting in a more open minded, flexible thinking.

-Acceptance of investment in assets that have better returns in longer term

-More tolerance of income-redistribution that benefits the whole society (what in the USA the “tea-party” likes to call communism, but really just long-term investments on the behalf of the public).

-Healthier work-life balance and more natural lifestyle like the siesta, acceptance of natural beverages like beer and wine, encouraging cycling, stair-climbing and walking as commuting options.

-Members of families plan the day to make sure they’re sitting down to eat together, because some convenience, income and individuality is worth giving up for the strength of the nuclear and extended family (or other social) connections.

-The collective recognition of the importance of quality, local, fresh foods to health and happiness. It was fascinating to hear a Swiss guest of ours describe how even uber-efficient European supermarkets are still forced to carry local produce, because if they didn’t, the consumer backlash would be not worth contemplating.

-More natural and efficient approach to male and female roles, (while must be equal, they are allowed to be different) and issues such as alcohol and drugs.

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