Robert Putnam has become an academic celebrity in the US with his views on the decline of civic virtue. Nicholas Lemann says that his ideas are popular because they are politically convenientby Nicholas Lemann / August 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Why is there such a wide variation in the social and economic health of different regions and ethnic groups and, for that matter, of different societies all over the world?
A Harvard professor, Robert Putnam, has come up with an answer which has aroused academic and political interest on both sides of the Atlantic. It came to him, curiously, studying Italian local government.
Putnam discovered that local authorities in the prosperous north of Italy outperformed the ones in the benighted south. In itself this is not surprising, but the reasons given by Putnam are. In Making Democracy Work, he showed that northern success was not simply a case of the rich getting richer; regional government officials, for example, are less well educated in the north than in the south. Instead, he found the north’s secret to be a quality that Machiavelli called virtu civile (“civic virtue”)-an ingrained tendency to form small-scale associations. “Good government in Italy is a by-product of singing groups and soccer clubs,” he wrote. Civic virtue both expresses and builds trust and co-operation in the citizenry; it is these qualities-which Putnam called “social capital,” borrowing a phrase from Jane Jacobs-that create a fertile ground for political and economic development.
What causes some societies to become more civic-minded than others? In Italy, Putnam said, the north-south difference dates from the 1100s, when the Normans established a centralised, autocratic regime in the south, and a series of autonomous republics arose in the north. The southern system stressed what Putnam called “vertical bonds”: it was rigidly hierarchical, with those at the bottom dependent on the patronage of landowners and officials rather than on one another. In the north small organisations such as guilds and credit associations generated “horizontal bonds,” fostering a sense of mutual trust. Putnam stressed the “astonishing constancy” of the north-south divide: it survived the demise of the independent northern republics in the 17th century and the Risorgimento in the 19th century.
Putnam contested the prevailing view in the social sciences that civic virtue is “an atavism destined to disappear” with modernisation, which replaces small organisations that operate by custom with big ones that operate by rules. Instead, he said, even the biggest and most modern societies cannot function well if the local civic dimension is weak.
When Putnam brought his theory home to the US, it created a sensation. His article “Bowling Alone,” published in January…