Robert Putnam, social capital, and immigration

So I just read Robert Putnam’s E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century.” (links to related material are available on this site at the social capital decline page).  Before I comment, let me give a personal note, which will explain the angle from which I’m looking at this.

I can get along with almost anyone, quite happily. Naturally, there’s a special edge to conversations with attractive young women (of all races), but for almost anyone, there are interesting details of their lives to explore. In the extensive travels of my younger days (“seeing the world,” as the saying goes), I interacted with tour guides in southern China, the daughters of illiterate peasants; Chinese girls selling paintings on Tiananmen Square; huge crowds of Chechens, mostly vacationing teachers, in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria in the Russian North Caucasus; a Buryat or Mongoloid ethnic in Sibera; Tuvans; Malawian peasants; Malawian government bureaucrats, and teachers; Rhodesian exiles scattered around Malawi; backpackers in Europe who came from Australia, Poland, Britain, Ireland, Canada, Japan, Korea, Germany; talkative Italian old men on the streets of Rome; vendors all over the place; taxi drivers all over the place; students of English; grad students of many fields; the congregation of a certain black Baptist church in Northeast DC; college students of all majors; former prisoners of conscience sitting next to me on a bus in Tajikistan; singer-songwriters at a festival in Dombai in the Russian North Caucasus… the list goes on and on.

I can get along with almost anyone, quite happily. But I can even more happily immerse myself in writing or reading books. A few years ago, I discovered audiobooks. It was just after my divorce, so I was glad to be distracted from my own thoughts at the time, but the habit stuck, and I soon noticed that my long-standing dislike of eating alone had been reversed. On a certain day, I suppose it must have been in early 2007, a girl from Harvard, quite attractive, was to meet me for lunch. I was working at the World Bank, and she wanted advice on how to get a job there. During the morning, I found I was resenting it. Why? Because I was in the middle of a brilliant novel, which I would have been able to “read” (listen to) during my lunch break, but for her. Then it hit me. Wait a minute, I thought. Am I actually resenting the chance to go to lunch with a cute girl? Well, yes, I was. It sounds rather brutal, but in the past six or seven years, the conclusion is undeniable that few people can compete with an audiobook for entertaining, enlightening, and edifying me. There are some: many friends, all far away alas, for ten minutes of whose company I’d go ten hours without any entertainment at all. Bluntly put, everyone else is (at least as a conversational companion) an inferior substitute for having the best thoughts of mankind fed into my ears via wires. I was grateful for their company in my younger days only because the iPod hadn’t been invented yet. (That’s not the insult it may seem to be, because I am not denying their inherent value, which is very great. But the value of my casual interaction with them is limited.)

These experiences color my reading of Robert Putnam’s work. For Robert Putnam, “social capital” is good. When I eat lunch with someone, he’d nod his head in approval, especially if that person is as different from me as possible. When I eat lunch alone with an audiobook, he would shake his head with dismay. He could doubtless understand the logic of “revealed preference,” i.e., if I could have invited people to lunch but chose to eat alone instead, I must be happier that way. But I suspect he wouldn’t believe it. And it’s true, of course, that revealed preference can’t be applied straightforwardly to social capital issues, which always involve the interests and choices of multiple people. A decline in social capital might reflect that (a) we’ve found something to do that we like better than interacting with each other, or that (b) we’ve gotten worse at solving the coordination problems involved in interacting with each other. An economist would say that (a) is unambiguously good, while I think Robert Putnam, a bit paternalistically, would object; but even an economist would agree that (b) is bad. Putnam is aware of some potential downsides of social capital– gangs, for example– but I don’t think he adequate appreciates the scarcity of time.

More relevant personal experience. I am a convert to Russian Orthodoxy, and would only marry an orthodox Christian. She need not be a Russian: Greeks and Romanians and Bulgarians and Antiochian Orthodox from the Middle East are in communion with us… though there is something special about the ROCOR liturgy! Anyway, this takes some of the interest out of social interaction with non-Christians, Protestants and Catholics. I won’t be marrying any of them, or getting introduced to people I might marry, or meeting people I could set up with my single Orthodox friends. I also feel that only with other Orthodox Christians are the things that are most real and important to me mutually understood. On certain high ethical, let alone theological, questions, I would regard only fellow Orthodox as trustworthy interlocutors. I would dearly love to be in a place where there was a Russian Orthodox congregation. I would do anything I could to avoid moving to a place where there was no Orthodox congregation at all. In that sense, I value social capital very highly. I also value very, very highly the company of the few people– it might be literally as few as one in a million, or as many as 1 in 1,000, possibly even 1 in 100, depending on the topic; but always a very small minority– with whom I can have real, cutting-edge intellectual conversations. (The classroom setting is a special case: there, people are forced to pay attention to topics they might ordinarily hate.) But social capital in the sense of trusting one’s neighbors is almost totally irrelevant.

Putnam, I suppose, would have to regard my conversion to Orthodoxy as a setback for social capital, since it’s one reason I lose interest in my neighbors (except as potential proselytes: but that’s only at rare moments). The Greek philosopher Plato told a story, in The Republic, about some people who are imprisoned in a cave, and watch shadows of replicas of real things, cast by a campfire, moving about on the cave wall. They call those shadows by the names of the real things– “trees,” for example. Then, one of these prisoners is given the chance to leave the cave and go out into the world above, and see real trees, and birds, and the sun. Enthralled and excited, he goes back to tell his fellow former prisoners. Naturally, they mock his wild tales, and say that all that he got for going up there was to have his vision spoiled. Robert Putnam would say that the man’s journey to the outer world was detrimental to social capital.

Enough of my priors. The linked article seems to be a lecture converted into an article and published with the Nordic Political Science Association. First, Putnam cites a variety of evidence that social capital is good, e.g., for health and income; second, he cites past evidence that ethnic diversity causes social isolation; third, he presents his own statistically impressive research which finds not only that ethnic heterogeneity is inversely correlated with inter-racial trust, but that people of the same race trust themselves less in the presence of ethnic heterogenity. Now, in a way, this rings very true to my experience. Ethnically super-diverse Fresno, California, is not a terrible place, but it does strike me as being a fairly low-social-capital place. And I do feel a bit lonely here. But I don’t think I would be better off in high-social-capital Bismarck, North Dakota. I do all right with my reading and writing and blogging and solitary hikes in the mountains and hundreds of Facebook friends, and being invited to the annual Swedish picnics, or being able to sit down in the restaurant down the street, or having people feel the need to introduce themselves because they hadn’t seen me before, would not raise my quality of life. It would be mildly pleasant but also a distraction from the things I really care about. And if the homogeneity of Bismark, North Dakota meant that there were no Orthodox churches and no arcane intellectuals, I’d be far worse off than in Fresno. Diversity probably does reduce my “generic” social capital, such as crude measures of trust or number of friends might pick up, but the kinds of social capital I really value are possible only because of diversity.

Am I just wildly atypical? Maybe. But I see my own story as part of a broader American story in which the both comforting and stultifying conformism of the 1950s gave way to a more liberated and freewheeling America where people could pursue their own hobbies and follow their own beliefs and experiment with their own lifestyles with less constraint from the side of public opinion. “More liberated” should be qualified, in that tolerance for diversity was sometimes imposed by laws and regulations, e.g., anti-discrimination laws. This diversity had a cost, and the great merit of Putnam’s research is that he’s showing that the cost may have been a good deal larger than has usually been guessed, and at any rate is too serious a matter for responsible people simply to ignore it in the interests of political correctness. But Putnam doesn’t have a way to measure the benefits of diversity, or at least the types of benefits I see as important, that is, the formation of new communities that entirely transcend neighborhoods and are based on higher values. This is why I was unconvinced by a certain crucial paragraph, in which Putnam addresses the possibility that his results are biased by self-selection:


People mostly choose where to live, and that simple fact opens up a hornets’ nest of methodological problems with correlational analysis since people with a certain characteristic may choose to live in distinctive areas. For example, the fact that people with children live nearer to schools does not mean that proximity to a school caused them to become parents. In our case, however, selection bias is prima facie implausible as an explanation for our results. For selection bias to produce a negative correlation between diversity and sociability, paranoid, television-watching introverts would have to choose disproportionately to live in mixed neighbourhoods. Phrased differently, a self-selection interpretation of our results would require, for example, that when non-whites move into a previously all-white neighborhood, the first whites to flee (or the most reluctant to move in) would be the most trusting, and
the last to flee would be the least trusting; or alternatively, that ethnic minorities and immigrants would selectively choose to move into neighborhoods in which the majority residents are most irascible and misanthropic. Common sense suggests that the opposite is more likely; if anything, selection bias probably artificially mutes the underlying causal pattern. In short, taking self-selection into account, our findings may underestimate the real effect of diversity on social withdrawal.29

No, no, no! It’s perfectly reasonable for very sociable people, who like to know the neighbors, to pay top dollar to live in communities full of people they can get along with, while solitary types don’t bother to evaluate community quality and just look for convenience and cheap rents. I am quite willing to live in diverse neighborhoods precisely because I’m absorbed in my own projects and so it doesn’t really matter who lives next door. (I’m not “irascible” or “misanthropic,” by the way– this is one of places where the far-fetched value-judgments that Putnam gratuitously associates with crude measures of trust are rather grating.)

Putnam has another arrow in his quiver, by the way: happiness. He finds that self-reported happiness is also negatively associated with ethnic heterogeneity. That would seem to refute my suggestion that the inverse correlation between social capital and diversity is just a matter of people pursuing their own dreams and finding community in more geographically dispersed but spiritually unified higher communities. But I don’t put a whole lot of stock in self-reported happiness. It’s not just that it’s hard to assess one’s happiness, or even that people in different situations might regard different answers as socially desirable, but that the scales involved are too arbitrary. “Are you very happy, somewhat happy, or not very happy?” Uh, compared to what? If you consider the well-known negative correlation between happiness and inequality, it seems like one obvious interpretation is that inequality changes the scale in people’s minds. If a very happy (e.g., because rich) person moves into my neighborhood, I might be just as happy as before in absolute terms, or even more so, but relative to him I now consider myself only somewhat happy. Inequality opens our eyes to what’s possible.

While Putnam connects his findings to immigration– he bends over backwards to stress the benefits of immigration, but admits that his research highlights hitherto-underappreciated downsides, and nativists who spin Putnam’s research into a restrictionist message are not being particularly unfair to him– I think the results would actually be much more suited to fueling a counter-attack against desegregation, and especially against affirmative action and government-imposed diversity. Just based on Putnam’s results, it doesn’t really matter how diverse the country is; what matters is how diverse neighborhoods are. As I see it, immigration is almost orthogonal to this, because immigrants can resemble natives more than natives resemble each other. (Only “almost” because the racial/ethnic composition of immigrants is different from that of natives, with a resulting increase in diversity unless policy is specifically designed to prevent that.) Thus, in my case, most immigrants from Russia, Romania, or Greece are candidates for being my most intimate comrades in a way that most Americans are not. Swedes and Norwegians in Minnesota might have more in common with immigrants from Sweden and Norway than with native-born Asian-Americans, and so on. If open borders were combined with explicitly allowing private discrimination on the basis of nationality, as I suggested in a recent post, we could have our cake and eat it too, organizing enough neighborhood-level segregation (but not against natives!) to make people feel more comfortable, while still opening up the vast opportunities of the American economy to foreigners, and of course, allowing US citizens who like living among foreigners (or particularly types of foreigners) to get what they want, too. Be that as it may, if Putnam’s findings mean anything, they mean that segregation is desirable, at least in some ways, and if that’s worth acting on in the policy arena at all, the moral is to roll back laws against private discrimination. Restricting immigration is an enormously inferior substitute, which achieves the objective of segregation, if at all, far less directly, far more coercively, and at a vastly greater cost to human welfare.

The next argument will probably strike most readers as too clever by half, but to me it seems plausible. You might even encourage a valuable solidarity among native-born Americans of all races, without this taking the form of resentment against or dislike of immigrants. Thus, suppose residential discrimination in the form of “No immigrants persons of foreign nationality need apply” (not “immigrants” because I’m not proposing to allow discrimination against naturalized citizens) advertisements became common. People who liked living in such communities as a way of sheltering themselves from the immigrant tide would, of course, tend to live alongside black and Hispanic people, who would qualify for such residences. They might start to associate native-born black and Hispanic people with that comfortable sense of home, in contrast with the fascinatingly exotic, and useful, but forbiddingly mysterious immigrant masses thronging the streets.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

9 thoughts on “Robert Putnam, social capital, and immigration”

  1. Like you, I am not convinced that “social capital” in the manner that Robert Putnam defines it is intrinsically worthwhile.

    On a somewhat related note (not directly relevant to your post) I think that people who invoke Robert Putnam often argue that the decline in social capital leads to lower rates of economic growth (considering the importance of trustworthiness and trust), higher rates of crime, etc. In other words, even if social capital is not intrinsically worthwhile, its indirect effects make it so. If so, however, then the alleged decline in social capital is not an additional reason to oppose immigration, because it’s subject to the same critique of double counting as I subjected IQ to.

    1. But, as usual, more evidence for such mechanisms makes attributions of causality more powerful and resistant to rival explanations, and so the evidence is useful.

  2. “Just based on Putnam’s results, it doesn’t really matter how diverse the country is; what matters is how diverse neighborhoods are.”

    How could data from surveys within the U.S. show the effects of diversity differences across countries? In the article he says:

    “Across countries, greater ethnic heterogeneity seems to be associated
    with lower social trust (Newton & Delhey 2005; Anderson & Paskeviciute
    2006; but see also Hooghe et al. 2006).”

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