Reflecting on his observations of strong civic culture in the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville cautioned that “there is no country in the world in which everything can be provided for by the laws, or in which political institutions can prove a substitute for common sense and public morality.”
In other words, if all aspects of one’s life are consumed by politics and the works of government, they end up crowding out the space they share with family, community, faith, meaningful work, and all forms of personal attachments in one’s life. On the other side of the ledger, this trend encourages greater fragmentation and isolation among individuals that are offered no way of connecting to a community beyond the impersonal relationship offered by one’s government.
A recent report by the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) proves positive Tocqueville’s warning. The key findings of the report show that despite gains made in lessening the harsh effects of poverty, the trade-off has been that “non-disabled working-age adults have become increasingly reliant on welfare and experienced stalled employment growth.” American Enterprise Institute Scholar Robert Doar makes specific note of the report’s implication that “the combination of safety net program benefits and wage subsidies may be keeping people from taking a job or working more hours” because they are given no tangible benefit from trying to rejoin the labor force.The CEA report makes one thing clear, government spending and the growth of new entitlement programs are—at least—inefficient tools for helping Americans feel connected to their communities and inspired to engage in meaningful work.
U.S. Senator Mike Lee’s (R-UT) Social Capital Project hopes to outline a better, more localized path toward reemphasizing the importance strong civic culture touted by Tocqueville nearly two centuries ago. Rejecting the disconnected nature of top-down government planning, the Social Capital Project’s stated mission is to “investigate the evolving nature, quality, and importance of […] the web of social relationships through which we pursue joint endeavors—namely, our families, our communities, our workplaces, and our religious congregations.”
The project’s latest release, a detailed index of the state of social capital across the nation, shines a startling light on the state of our civic institutions. When compared to a list of states most and least dependent on federal funding to support economic and welfare efforts, states receiving more federal funding such as New Mexico, Mississippi, and Kentucky also tend to have weaker civic life than states receiving less federal funding such as New Jersey, Delaware, and Illinois.
While far from being the sole reason civil society is weaker in some states than others, dependence on government finance is ultimately a deconstructive force for reversing the breakdown of our shared institutions. Social scientist Charles Murray elaborates that before the rise of federal welfare programs, “if you had somebody who had a human need, that person had no choice but to go to neighbors, friends, community, philanthropic agencies,” but “the welfare state gave all sorts of ways in which you didn’t have to do that any more; in which [the government] took human needs and said, ‘This bureaucracy downtown will handle all that stuff.’”
It should therefore come as no surprise that such a stark change led to the negative social changes mentioned above. In spite of the ill effects that prior top-down programs have had on the strength of American civic life, efforts like those undertaken by Senator Lee’s Social Capital Project identify promising ground to reconsider how we think about what it means to engage with our broader communities.
By recognizing the wisdom of Tocqueville’s praise of American civil society, we are presented with a great opportunity to fill the voids in our communities that no amount of federal spending could ever match.