Everett Carll Ladd is at it again, gleefully puncturing the conventional wisdom that civil society in America is dying on the vine. Ladd, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut, where he is director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, argues that civil society is thriving in America, and that conservative and liberal commentators alike exaggerate a decline in social capital and civic participation. Contrary to common belief, he shows that America is still a “nation of joiners,” as it was during Tocqueville’s day.
Drawing on opinion surveys by Gallup, Princeton Survey Research Associates, the National Opinion Research Center, the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia, his own Roper Center, and leading media organizations, Ladd has compiled a remarkable set of data about voluntarism, group membership, charitable giving, and civic participation. The Ladd Report belongs on the bookshelf of anyone concerned about the present and future of civil society.
Among his most dramatic findings:
“By any measure the reported rates of voluntarism in the United States are extraordinary.” A University of Connecticut survey for the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal in 1997 found that 68 percent of Americans had volunteered or contributed to help the needy in the past year, 53 percent to help religious organizations, 51 percent to help the elderly, 50 percent to help people who are sick or helping to fight disease, 49 percent to help schools and colleges, and 48 percent to help youth organizations like the Boy or Girl Scouts.
Rates of voluntarism are not only high, they are rising. For example, according to a Washington Post-ABC News survey, 58 percent of Americans said in 1997 that they had volunteered for a church, charity or community group in the past year—up from 44 percent in 1984.
Real per capita charitable giving doubled between 1960 and 1995, while total giving tripled in real terms during the same period.
“America continues to stand out as a nation of joiners.” Other countries are seeing sharp increases in both voluntarism and charitable giving, but the United States is still ahead by a mile on both measures. As a percentage of the population, for example, roughly three times as many Americans volunteer as do Germans and Frenchmen. Eighty-two percent of Americans told the World Values Survey they belonged to at least one voluntary group, compared with 54 percent of Britishers, 41 percent of Italians, and 36 percent of Japanese.
Ladd dispels two common myths spread by professor Robert Putnam of Harvard University. The first is that plummeting PTA membership—from 12 million in 1960 to 7 million today—is a prime example of civic disaffection. Ladd shows instead that it’s a sign of disaffection with the national PTA, which is closely linked to teachers unions. Parents haven’t stopped participating in their children’s schools. Rather, Ladd shows, they’ve joined independent parent-teacher groups that aren’t affiliated with the national PTA. Gallup polls for Phi Delta Kappa show attendance at PTA-like groups rising from 36 percent in 1983 to 49 percent in 1994. The same polls show other signs of increasing parental participation: a rise from 62 to 87 percent in the number of parents meeting with teachers or administrators about their own child, from 42 to 79 percent in attendance at a school play or concert, and from 16 to 27 percent in attendance at a school board meeting.
The second myth is that America has become a nation of loners, as described in Putnam’s famous Journal of Democracy article “Bowling Alone.” Ladd shows that a depletion of social capital cannot be inferred from the decline of any individual civic activity. “Bowling leagues are down, but U.S. Youth Soccer has emerged de novo and engages more than 2 million boys and girls, together with an army of adult volunteers.” Labor unions are on the wane, but environmental groups are on the rise. Scouting has declined slightly, not because of civic decline but because of competition from sports and other organized youth activity.
Meanwhile Ladd marshals other evidence that Americans remain actively involved in civil society. He shows that more than four out of ten American adults, and nearly half of teenagers, go to church every week. A 1997 survey by the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal found 45 percent of adult respondents saying they had attended a public meeting on town or school affairs at least once in the past year, with 41 percent attending one or more meetings of clubs or civic organizations.
The biggest disappointment of The Ladd Report is that it doesn’t explain how this flourishing civil society can coexist with what Francis Fukuyama has labeled “The Great Disruption”—skyrocketing rates of divorce and illegitimacy, rapidly declining fertility, and an explosion of crime that have rocked the United States and almost all advanced economies except Japan since the 1960s. How can the American social fabric be so tightly woven and simultaneously be so tattered and torn?
The first possible explanation is that there are really two American cultures—one where Tocqueville’s “nation of associations” is flourishing and growing more vigorous, the other where civil society is disappearing and a Hobbesian war of all against all prevails. Some of Ladd’s data suggest this might be the case. For instance, he shows that voluntarism and charitable giving are highest among college graduates, higher-income people, and regular church attendees. A whopping 50 percent of those who attend church weekly volunteer for at least two organizations, compared with 15 percent of those who never attend church. Only 13 percent of Americans who go to church every week fail to give to charity, compared with 44 percent of those who never go to church. Perhaps Ladd’s next book could more thoroughly compare the state of civil society in religious and secular America.
In testing a “two cultures” hypothesis, it would also be interesting for Ladd to explore the connections between civil society and family structure. Fukuyama, in both The Great Disruption and his earlier Trust, explains “the paradox of family values” in societies such as China and southern Italy, where tight family bonds are accompanied by a virtually nonexistent civil society as no one trusts each other outside the family. Conversely, one often sees in America what I refer to as the “Mitch Snyder syndrome,” after the homeless advocate who devoted his life to helping the needy after abandoning his own wife and children. This is an ethic of voluntarism and outreach to the poor combined with personal irresponsibility in living up to one’s own commitments and obligations. Even so, one might hypothesize that in a free country such as the United States, those who keep their promises within the family also tend to uphold trust and reciprocal obligations outside the family, and vice versa, and that the vitality of civil society will correlate strongly with the vitality of marriage.
Fukuyama, in The Great Disruption, offers a second possible explanation for the coexistence of flourishing voluntary associations with collapsing marriage, declining social trust, and rampant criminality. He argues that the great vice of our times, moral relativism, has affected civic life as much as family life. We live, Fukuyama suggests, in an age of “moral miniaturization: while people continue to participate in group life, the groups themselves are less authoritative and produce a smaller radius of trust.” In Fukuyama’s analysis, not all group memberships are equal, and we cannot calculate our social capital by totting up the collective amount of voluntarism or charitable giving or associational memberships. “A bowling league or a garden club might be, as Tocqueville suggests, schools for cooperation and public spiritedness, but they are obviously very different institutions from the U.S. Marine Corps or the Mormon church, in terms of the kinds of collective action they foster.” Soccer Moms may be actively involved in civic groups, but in a climate of easygoing nonjudgmentalism that Alan Wolfe finds to be so rampant in suburbia. And today’s soccer league lacks the moral force of yesterday’s Boy Scouts or Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Fukuyama attributes the Great Disruption in the United States and most other liberal capitalist democracies primarily to three forces. The first is this moral relativism, what Fukuyama calls the “no limits” approach to freedom of choice. It takes to an extreme the individualistic premises of liberal democratic regimes and now threatens the social and ethical basis of constitutional government. The second is the emergence of the birth control pill and the large-scale entry of women into the workforce, which together have disrupted traditional economic relationships and social understandings within the family. And the third is rapid technological advance, and in particular, the transformation from an industrial to an information-based economy. Just as the Industrial Revolution disrupted the customs and shared moral values of village life, so has the Age of the Microchip disrupted the customs and shared moral values of the industrial city.
But in the same way that the Industrial Revolution was followed by a great period of moral uplift in Victorian England and America, when crime and illegitimacy rates fell sharply, so Fukuyama suggests the Great Disruption of the last 30 years could lead to a “reconstitution of social order.” Already, he shows, America has turned the corner on crime and welfare dependency, and illegitimacy rates have stopped rising. And other countries are beginning to follow.
There is a long, long way to go, of course, to repair the social fabric. In a dazzling display of erudition, philosophical power, and intellectual breadth, Fukuyama describes man’s nature as a social animal, shows how recent scholarship in fields ranging from evolutionary biology to game theory to business management confirm our understanding of this natural sociability, and shows how moral order frequently emerges spontaneously in the economic marketplace.
But as Fukuyama acknowledges, man’s sociability alone will be insufficient to reconstitute the social order. Sociability can take many forms—drug gangs, for one—and these forms can be destructive in a culture of moral relativism or a political regime where bullies prevail. Ultimately, he argues, the reconstitution of social order will require a return to religiosity and moral judgment, as well as a return to the rule of law in public policy. “States that fail to provide for public safety or stable property rights tend to breed citizens who distrust not only the government but also each other and find it difficult to associate.”
Adam Meyerson is vice president for educational affairs at the Heritage Foundation.